BMCR 2004.06.45

Late Etruscan Votive Heads from Tessennano. Production, Distribution, Sociohistorical Context. Studia Archaeologica, 118

, Late Etruscan votive heads from Tessennano : production, distribution, sociohistorical context. Studia archaeologica ; 118. Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 2002. 433 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm.. ISBN 888265186X. $168.00.

Late Republican votive deposits are among the most frequently encountered yet patchily documented sets of evidence for Late Etruscan cult and society and for the sources of Roman votive cult. Fortunately, the finds from the rural sanctuary of Tessennano in the territory of Vulci (actually situated closer to Canino, as S. points out), mainly terracottas of the 3rd-2nd centuries from a 1956 excavation by the Soprintendenza alle Antichità dell’Etruria Meridionale, are being thoroughly published and analyzed. The objects were divided between the new Museo Nazionale in Tuscania, the Villa Giulia, and the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm; some were previously displayed at the Museo Nazionale at Vulci. The Italian collection has been studied by S. Costantini, Il deposito votivo del santuario campestre di Tessennano [ Archaeologica 112] (Rome 1995).1 The terracotta votives illustrate the wide range of heads, statues, swaddled infants, and anatomical models that are common to the larger urban sanctuaries, although most pieces show traits unique to this site, and must have come from a local workshop, in operation at Tuscania, as S. amply demonstrates.2

In contrast to the formal corpora of votive deposits, such as Costantini’s study and Annamaria Commella’s Il santuario di Punta della Vipera. I, I materiali votivi (Rome, 2001 — see BMCR 2004.06.44), Söderlind’s study takes a very different approach. While cataloguing and describing only a portion of the finds (votive heads) from the Tessennano deposit, he goes on to engage in an analysis of the technology and historical economics behind the production, distribution and dedication of the votives themselves. The category of terracotta votives, so distinctive yet uniform (“the inherent anonymity of mouldmade terracottas,” 391), was widespread in central Italy from the end of the 4th through the 2nd century BC. By sheer numbers of finds and types depicted (including statues, heads, swaddled infants, internal organs, eyes, ears, hands and feet), terracota votives ought to furnish the raw data for explanations of the beliefs and knowledge of Late Republican worshippers, yet the problems of dating (most deposits are dumps, scatters or otherwise not accurately datable) and the artistic peculiarities (viscera seldom admit of much stylistic freedom) have seldom been sufficient to support any definitive chronological or historical conclusions. Thanks to S.’s meticulous attention to the nuances of clay and technique in the manufacture of these pieces, it is now possible to discern trends in production, distribution, and — most importantly — the demography of votive religion during the 3rd to 1st centuries BC.

S. offers detailed comparisons of the styles and typologies of the moldmade sculptures with dated monuments such as inscribed sarcophagi and tombs, bronzes like the Oratore, and famous votives such as the Manganello head; chapter 3 (207-239) includes a critical survey of past theories on the dating of heads and statues of the Late Etruscan period (3rd through 1st centuries BC). He also offers appendices (393-433) with ceramic, petrographic and mineralogical data, including color photos of thin-sections of the terracotta fabrics representative of this site and also of Vulci, Tarquinia and Tuscania. This clearly supports his thesis that nearly all the Tessennano votives were made in workshops in Tuscania; the intensive effort will pay off fully only when many more deposits are similarly sampled and published.

Statistics are still problematic for the so-called healing sanctuaries: the only thing we can be sure of is that we do not have 100% of any given deposit/set of offerings of Late Etruscan/Latin cult. (Note that S. himself has omitted the hand-modeled heads from this study, as they cannot be adequately dated or compared with molded types — 39 note 11; he suggests that they may have been made near the sanctuary.) Since he later draws some assumptions about the numbers of terracotta offerings paralleling the rise and fall in the size of the local population, the incomplete collection of artifacts (not his fault: this was an old salvage excavation, 37 note 6) and the possibility that certain types were concentrated in different deposits or dumps as yet undiscovered leave the demographic questions imperfectly resolved.

The scheme of comparing mold types does not separate half-heads from full; S. indicates at least one example where the half-head appears to have been cut from a face drawn from a whole-head mold. The painstaking measuring and profiling of all molded heads and comparisons of the hand-finishing of their backs and bases have enabled S. to prove that a small number of the heads dedicated at Tessennano were made in (or from molds made in) the workshops of Tarquinia, Vulci, Pitigliano and Saturnia. The main source was Tuscania, as illustrated by mechanical parallels between these votives and the lid-statues made for the terracotta sarcophagi of Tuscanian family tombs of the 3rd-2nd centuries.

S. divides the material catalogued into production periods, matching the stylistic dating of face types to the techniques of molding and finishing found on them: c. 330, 250-200, 200-150 and 150 to after 100 BC. He maintains that nearly all the terracotta votives may be dated after the Roman conquest of the territory of Vulci, ca. 280 BC. His analysis of surveys of the region suggests that the patrons of the Tessennano cult were the farmers resident in or around a fairly large pagus settlement on the site of modern Canino, in the eastern Ager Vulcentis. He sees the quantities of the simple votives peaking in tandem with the population census of this area, around the end of the 2nd century.

Pp. 241-273 offer a concise description of clays and the techniques of manufacture for Etruscan votive terracottas; usually the only information available on such details is slanted toward figurines or architectural terracottas. It appears that at least one coroplast was involved in the early years of the production of votives, the later 3rd and early 2nd century, when a number of fresh archetypes were used to make molds, and all the heads were the first generation in their mold series. At the middle of the 2nd century, though, a greatly increased demand was met with “rationalization” of the process — new molds being drawn from first generation votives for the rapid production of rather blurred (and smaller) heads that were not even retouched. This is a process that can be done by less skilled technicians, and it is evident that the sarcophagus factories of Tuscania at this time were also fashioning rather poor heads for their lids, but these at least were touched up in paint (107 fig. 59a). In contrast, at the more urbane sanctuaries like Tarquinia Ara della Regina or Punta della Vipera, the creation of new types continued and remolding was less in evidence. With material of this sort, it is all too easy to make hasty value judgments, but in this case, S.’s verdict of provincial conservatism for the Tuscania-Tessennano models is clearly justified. He appraises all the possible scenarios for production and dissemination of types, justifiably dismissing some (traveling workshops) and noting the low incidence of other evidence (a few molds circulated, a few more actual pieces were traded or traveled). Remolding by less skilled workers predominates during the later phase, and similar phenomena seem to have occurred at the sanctuaries of Saturnia, Marsiliana d’Albegna and Vulci Porta Nord.

One very interesting result of the study is S.’s finding that the hand-made — not molded — velum that surrounds many of the heads is a deliberate adaptation of original, Etruscan types that invariably had uncovered heads. It appears that this heightened production, from rather dull molds taken from pre-existing votive heads (thus “second generation” in terms of terracotta technology), was stimulated around the middle of the 2nd century, just as many sites in the vicinity saw an influx of Latin colonists or settlers. Other votaries, who left heads of capite aperto format, are identified as the remaining, free farmers of Etruscan ethnicity. (See 369-375, note 109 for the increasingly compelling evidence on the covered head as a deliberate reference to Roman ritual.) A side-note to this type is the relatively rare type of the “infant togati” (actually small boys) found here (busts: 187-191, 373, 381, type CII, dated c. 200 BC; statue, Costantini 1995: pl. 22,d) and in one other example at the Roman colony of Lucera.3

The peaceful, rather profitable, coexistence of Roman settlers and Etruscan farmers at Canino/Tessennano is mirrored in the votives of many contemporary sanctuaries, such as Tarquinia Ara della Regina (where a model knee was dedicated by a freedman, Vel Tiples/Diphilos), Veii Portonaccio and Campetti, Graviscae and elsewhere.4 I would point out that the terracottas, while some were placed by liberti, were probably never so cheap that they were slaves’ or poor people’s offerings — the cost of fuel and labor precluded that. S. contends that the extant votives offer no evidence of any continuing patronage by the Etruscan aristocracy, although the poor aesthetic quality of the heads is not sufficient to demonstrate the demise or relocation of the Etruscan gentry.

I would be cautious in a few cases of exact terminology, particularly, “worn molds” (in Italian, matrice stanca): while numerous cases are known of cracks appearing in old molds, the fabric of clay molds is usually much harder and stronger than that of their products, and less likely to become “worn.” I would suggest that in many cases, the molds themselves were dull or imperfect impressions hastily taken from extant votives rather than from specially modeled archetypes; the products of such molds appear still more blurred — the end result is the same indication of hurried or inexpert manufacture. One example of a mold that was perceived by the craftsman as dull, with blurred or poorly articulated features, may be identified in its product, the male head AVIIa1 (140, fig. 90); the craftsman incised round eyeballs into the mold (“intaglio”), resulting in button-like protruding pupils.

As a tool for comparison with other evidence, the book has numerous excellent photos, profile sketches, etc., although it appears that some heads were shot at an angle and lit from below — they are well highlighted, but it is hard to properly compare their profiles. The lack of an index is heartbreaking, because it is very difficult, after a first reading of this dense text, to retrieve many useful and critical references to material from other sites, particularly appraisals of the dating of deposits, and references to work in progress by other scholars. Use of “Vulcan, Chiusan, Volterranean” for the English adjectives Vulcian, Chiusine, Volterran may be confusing, but other misspellings are not so irksome. Mansuelli 1988, cited throughout chapter 7, is not in the bibliography: it is presumably G.A. Mansuelli, L’ultima Etruria: Aspetti della romanizzazione del paese etrusco: gli aspetti culturali e sacrali (Bologna 1988).

This volume is a welcome step on the way to a better understanding of Late Etruscan society and its Romanization and of Late Republican popular cults. While new finds may refine many of the conclusions and suggestions offered here, this attempt to integrate Etruscan and Roman history with archaeological evidence is an exercise of great interest to Classicists and historians as well as archaeologists. It will only be by similar, meticulous technical studies and scrupulous evaluation of the criteria for chronology at all sites that anything definitive can be said about the character and society of those who placed these offerings of such a personal nature.


1. I am most grateful to Martin Söderlind for my copy of this volume, and for his generosity in sharing with me additional information on the Tessennano votives, including material for my entry on this deposit in the ThesCRA, “I 2d. Offrandes romaines: Anatomical votives,” Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, in press. The entry by Annamaria Comella in the same volume, on votive heads and statues, will also be of interest to those studying the Tessennano and related types. I am grateful to Suzanne Unge Sörling and Karin Slej of the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, and to Cecilia Beer for the opportunity to examine the Swedish collection, which includes several unusual types. The small display in the museum evokes the spirit of ancient rituals, as finds are shown hung on tree branches, set on shelves or placed reverently on sacred ground, as they must have been in antiquity. These are illustrated by S. Unge Sörling, “A Collection of Votive Terracottas from Tessennano (Vulci),” Medelhavsmuseet Bulletin 29 (1994) 47-54.

2. The most striking are models of uteri, polyvisceral plaques (some with the trachea made to look like a snake), and models of lower bodies, male and female, from the waist down, the legs covered from or just below the crotch with drapery that reminds one of a surgical drape. The non-heads in Stockholm are not yet fully published; see S. p. 38 fig. 4, and Costantini (note 1) 33, 42-46. Other polyvisceral models are three-dimensional, and look like the entrails of sacrificial victims, neatly piled up, although each model must have been intended to stand for evidence of a human healed (Costantini pl. 46,a-b). the remainder of the finds in Stockholm will be published by Martin Söderlind and Ingrid Edlund-Berry, whose The Gods and the Place (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Rom 43, Stockholm 1987) remains essential for the study of votive religion in central Italy. See also her ” Mens Sana in Corpore Sano : Healing Cults as a Political Factor in Etruscan Religion,” in Gifts to the Gods (Symposium, Uppsala 1985 = Boreas 15, Uppsala 1987) 51-56.

3. M.C. D’Ercole, La stipe votiva del Belvedere a Lucera (Rome 1990) 108-109 type C3I, pls. 34,b and 35,a is actually a finely executed older boy wearing both tunic and Manteltoga, dated end of the 4th to last quarter of the 3rd century BC, thus somewhat different from the Tessennano examples.

4. The Ara della Regina dedication is incised: alce:vel:tiples:“Vel Tiples dedicated” ( CIE 10012, H. Rix et alii (ed.), Etruskische Texte. Editio minor, II: Texte (Tübingen 1991) Ta 3.5; G. Colonna, Studi Etruschi 34 (1966) 321-322, pl. 51. For late votives, presumably deposited while the shrines were patronized by Roman settlers/colonists, see, for instance, A. Comella, Il deposito votivo presso l’Ara della Regina (Rome 1982); and Il materiale votivo tardo di Gravisca (Rome 1978); A. Comella and G. Stefani, Materiali votivi del Santuario di Campetti a Veio: scavi 1947 e 1969 (Rome 1990); L. Vagnetti, Il deposito votivo di Campetti a Veio [ StMat 11] (Florence 1971); see also G. Colonna, ed., Santuari d’Etruria (Catalogue of Mostra, Arezzo, 1985; Milan 1985) passim for many sanctuaries.