BMCR 2005.01.03

Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa. The Story of an Etruscan Noblewoman. The British Museum Occasional Paper Number 100

, , , Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa : the story of an Etruscan noblewoman. British Museum occasional paper, no. 100. London: British Museum, 2002. vi, 69 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 30 cm.. ISBN 0861591003 $36.00 (pb).

In 1886, an Etruscan polychrome terracotta sarcophagus was excavated in a small chamber tomb at Poggio Cantarello, 4 km west of Chiusi. Inside it when it arrived at the British Museum was the near-complete skeleton of the lady for whom it was inscribed: Seianti Hanunia, wife of Tlesna. This slim but intensive volume provides a wealth of information on a single Etruscan woman who lived sometime between 250 and 150 BC. (Paper “8. Radiocarbon Analysis of the Skeleton,” by Janet Ambers, p. 39, gives a date between 210 and 40 BC.) A coin found in the sarcophagus of a kinswoman, Larthia Seianti (below) has sometimes been dated c. 150 BC, but Swaddling and Ginge (pp. 6, 14) caution against assuming this as the date of death of either woman.1

Rasmussen’s forward (p. v) indicates that sarcophagus and skeleton constitute departure points for examination of many topics of current interest: Etruscan art and technology, health and society, the regional history of Chiusi, and the life of women in Hellenistic Etruria. The Seianti Project was organized by Judith Swaddling of the British Museum and John Prag of the Manchester Museum, who, with medical illustrator Richard Neave, has published reconstructions of personages from the famous tombs attributed to Midas, Philip II, and the Mycenaean Shaft Grave dynasty. See Prag and Neave’s Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence (London and College Station, TX 1997): chap. 9 (pp. 172-200) for their earlier reconstructive analysis of Seianti. Just as archaeologists can never afford to ignore textual and epigraphic evidence, so now historians and classicists will want to confront the actual physical evidence of the individuals who experienced the history we study.

Today’s scientific diagnostic and medical imaging techniques often furnish us with more data than we are prepared to interpret confidently, and the same paradox is evident when applied to ancient human remains. Laymen are always fascinated with forensic evidence and recreated faces, but students and scholars alike should bear in mind that such productions are necessarily hypothetical: we cannot know exactly how much soft tissue originally overlay the bones of an ancient individual’s face, for instance. The interpretation of the physical condition of Seianti’s bones, like the reconstruction of her face, is still a theoretical procedure, and we should be cautious in our application of imagination.

As Swaddling points out (“1. The Seianti Project,” p. 1), there will always be much that we don’t know about this woman: although men’s praenomina were always recorded, the family omitted her given name, while designating her married name (Tlesnasa) when the chest was made. Swaddling suggests that the practice of reclining on the left arm to dine with the right may explain why Seianti, like most banqueters, wears several finger rings on her left hand and none on the right. The only close parallel is the terracotta sarcophagus of an in-law, Larthia Seianti, (first) wife of Lars Larcna; it was excavated in 1877 on the northern outskirts of Chiusi. (Incidentally, Larthia wears green stockings with her gilded sandals — p. 5.)2

All papers are neatly cross-referenced for easy consultation. Papers 2, 3 and 12 are suitable readings for students, and the additional basic bibliography on Etruscan culture and art (p. 6) will enable a curious reader to pursue any topic of interest. In “2. The World Seianti Knew” (pp. 3-6), Swaddling gives a very concise but elegant sketch of Hellenistic Etruria/Late Republican Italy, with reference to the realities of life for a woman of the ruling class of Etruria/Chiusi. However placid their portraits appear, these people lived in the shadow of slave revolts and other social and political conflicts. By the 3rd century, the breadbasket-territory of Chiusi saw a shift from the city itself to a pattern of small estates and farm villages scattered through the countryside; as with the Seiante, many families maintained private tombs on the family estates. This area also was settled by many successful freed-persons, whose splashy terracotta urns tend to conform to a very limited set of designs. In southern Etruria and Latium, even the predominant 3rd-2nd-century votive offerings, anatomical models, seem to advertise a high level of affluence, education and self-esteem on the part of the donors, coupled with a reluctance to stand out from the crowd. It appears that the upper class, too, felt some constraint upon the sorts of lavish, idiosyncratic funerary displays of previous centuries, for both the set of silver objects found with Seianti, and her sculpted parure of “gold” jewelry seem not to have been her personal possessions, but were standard sets chosen for funerary symbolism.

Ginge, “3. The Sarcophagus, the Tomb and the Seiante Family in their Archaeological Context,” (pp. 11-15), discusses the tombs of both Seianti and her kinswoman Larthia. In a useful review of Etruscan naming conventions, she notes the correct pronunciation of the name: “Sheianti”. The family would have used her given name, such as Larthia, Hasti, or Thania. The Seiante perhaps originated at Sentinum in Umbria and are believed to have settled around Chiusi by the Archaic period. (A late, distant relation may have been L. Aelius Sejanus of Volsinii.)

Several studies incorporating diagrams or tables of measurements discuss the skeleton of Seianti. Becker (“4. Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa: a Re-Evaluation of her Skeleton in The British Museum,” pp. 17-22) updates his analysis, originally published in La Civilità di Chiusi e del suo Territorio. Atti del XVII Convegno di Studi Etruschi ed Italici, Chianciano Terme 1989 (Florence 1993) 397-410. Seianti was a robust, active (although somewhat handicapped) little woman, standing about 147 cm (58 inches) in height when she died (down from 153 cm/ 5 feet 2 inches in youth — see p. 33). Becker has revised his earlier age estimate of 80-90 years to 50-60 years; it seems that a number of pathological conditions may account for changes in the bones that could also be read as indicators of more advanced age (erosion/resorption of pubic symphyses, lipping on upper ribs, closure of cranial sutures). Even if Seianti was not so long-lived, epigraphic evidence illustrates the longevity of the Etruscan upper classes. (The tombs of Tarquinia held a number of octogenarians; the record probably belongs to Lars Felsna, who campaigned with Hannibal and died at 106.)3

The osteological and dental papers (Nos. 5-7) are more technical; for laymen who want an overview of the field and its capacities a wealth of references is now available, and they illustrate the potential for a variety of interpretations of the same material.4 Seianti’s age is further discussed in Paper 6. “Seianti’s Age at Death: Determination by Microscopic Methods,” by Whittaker (pp. 27-28), who applied the relatively new technique of determining root dentine translucency (RDT). As he warns, “very little is known about the accuracy of this method in archaeological material.”5 If she were a modern woman, Seianti would be assigned an age of 52 years according to this method, although doubts remain because of post-mortem conditions, particularly exchange of minerals with the environment.

The analysis by Lilley (“5. Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa. Some Observations of the Dental Features,” pp. 23-26) hints at the discomforts that wealth could not obviate, and the unpleasantness (halitosis, mumbling, poor appearance) caused by abscessed and missing teeth. Seianti must have suffered for years from painful and very unaesthetic dental problems, and by death she had lost most of her back teeth. Only one third molar (wisdom tooth) was present in the jaw, and it never erupted; the apparent evolutionary disappearance of wisdom teeth is an ongoing issue.6 The paradox of the affluent whose rich diet causes them poor dental health is well known for Egyptian mummies of all periods; fine white flour promotes plaque, gum disease and caries, and grindstone particles wear the enamel.7

Stoddart (“7. Remains from the Sarcophagus: Pathological Evidence and its Implications,” pp. 29-38) presents two rather startling revelations. First, in his view, the condition of the bones (discoloration, demineralization) suggests some very messy post-mortem treatment of the skeleton, hitherto unknown from ancient literature or archaeological finds. On analogy to 17th-18th century Italian burial practices (in urban situations with shortage of space), it is suggested that the body was incised for drainage and allowed to decompose/dry, in a standing or seated pose, before it was placed in the sarcophagus. In this scenario, the loss of the smallest bones like the phalanges may have occurred when the body was transferred to the coffin, perhaps years later. It may be inferred from many excavated tombs that some sort of interim procedure was customarily performed for bodies destined to undergo high-status burial, since the time needed to assemble the mourners could exceed the tolerable limit for retention of an untreated corpse. These sarcophagi were made in sections and assembled in the tomb, for complete chests could not fit through the doorway (Ginge, p. 12), so some inoffensive means of transferring the body must have been developed. Corpses were not to see the light of day prior to burial, but no technical information survives for clarification in the ancient texts.8

Equally perplexing is Stoddart’s diagnosis of Seianti’s old injuries and the activities that may have caused them; her right leg and pelvis show signs of a traumatic injury in her late teens that crushed the joint without fracturing any bones; for the rest of her life she walked stiffly, afflicted with progressive arthritis. The fall probably also caused a severe TMJ dysfunction, and the jaw problem, coupled with other dental troubles, led to the loss of many back teeth, and probably made her lower jaw jut forward when she spoke. Stoddart conjectures that the crushing injury was caused by a fall from a horse or an accident in which a horse or a vehicle fell on her. The horseback-riding is suggested because of Seianti’s strongly developed leg muscles, and the presumed freewheeling behavior of Etruscan women, but it is hard to find confirmation of women’s riding in either the artistic or archaeological evidence,9 and the robust legs are those of the old Seianti, not necessarily identical with the condition of her youth.

Given human nature and the turbulent political and military history of the 3rd-2nd centuries in central Italy, perhaps we should not exclude other violent events as explanations for Seianti’s early injuries. For instance, the latest analyses of the so-called “Iceman” found in Alpine Similaun furnish background for diagnosing crime or war in at least some human remains.10 If the end of the 4th millennium seems too remote, Seianti’s era is bracketed, at the end of the Republic, by situations like that of Plautius Silvanus, grandson of Livia’s Etruscan friend Urgulania. Silvanus defenestrated his wife Apronia ( incertis causis), prompting Tiberius himself to play detective and examine her bedroom, where he found evidence of a struggle, not the alleged suicide (Tacitus, Annals 4.22). In contrast, the phenomenon of young Etruscan women acquiring false teeth may prove to be ritual, for the few preserved skulls show deliberate extraction, not domestic violence.11

Seianti had a well nourished childhood, relatively free from serious illness; she is said to have given birth at least once. Both legs and upper arms were markedly robust, indicating strenuous activity in later life, but might this not derive from weaving at an upright loom, walking, gardening or food preparation? In her later years she suffered from painful, loose teeth and restricted bite, eating only soft, prepared foods. The cause of death remains unknown, but was apparently not violent, most likely cardiovascular or infectious disease or cancer of soft tissues.

Paper “11. The Face of Seianti: the Reconstruction and the Portrait,” by Neave and Prag (pp. 53-58) discusses forensic techniques. Much hinges on the depth of tissues overlying the bones of the face, still problematic for ancient populations.12 They earlier suggested that sarcophagus and portrait were commissioned in advance, but now entertain the possibility that an artist actually modeled Seianti’s face from her corpse, and then duly rejuvenated her effigy. Although most Etruscan funerary images seem to be ethical or type-portraits, or at best highly idealized, I must note that a few exceptional portrait-effigies seem to have been modeled after death masks or drawn from moribund subjects. The heads of these young men are emaciated, revealing the contours of the skull beneath paper-thin skin; they resemble cancer patients.13 By reference to Classical epitaphs and literature, we might expect that the young who died before their time merited special commemoration.

Papers 9 and 10 discuss the technical aspects of the sarcophagus. A. and M. Barlow, Brodrick and Quinton (pp. 41-48) offer an intimate description of the manufacturing process, with finely measured diagrams and drawings — these will gain in usefulness as more Etruscan sculpture is measured to the same degree of accuracy. The process of manufacture required 3-4 weeks plus time for painting: funerary art was seldom a spur-of-the-moment purchase. Note that some features modeled or molded in the clay of Seianti’s effigy were not respected by the painters (e.g. hairstyle); this practice is also common on smaller urns, as families would normally view such art only by torchlight in the tomb.

Joyner’s analysis (pp. 49-51) of clay and pigments indicates that lid and chest were made locally, painstakingly slipped in imitation of marble, and painted after firing. I have always wondered why the artisans took such trouble to depict the mirror Seianti holds in (expensive) blue-green paint; Larthia Seianti, too, has a box-mirror that looks as if it were already corroded to a deep patina instead of the golden-bronze color mirrors had in life.

Ever since her portrait was discovered, Seianti’s coffin has stimulated attempts to rate its veracity to life. Prag’s paper (“12: Seianti and Etruscan Portraiture,” pp. 59-66) surveys the Etruscans’ interest, from the Iron Age on, in depicting persons, especially in funerary contexts. He reminds us that Etruscan art should not be judged by the conventions of Greek or Roman aesthetics, even when it draws from Greek Hellenistic prototypes. Nor can we assume that the obesus etruscus reflects the condition of the occupants of sarcophagi — most Etruscan images emphasize heads and hands, and complete the body as an easily-read pattern without regard for proportions.

Sybille Haynes14 has noted that “the discrepancy in appearance between the reconstructed face of Seianti Hanunia and her idealized image on the sarcophagus is a salutary warning not to be too ready to see real portraits in the features of funerary sculpture of the Hellenistic period.” The obvious issue, whether ancient portraiture was truly intended as an accurate imitation of physical reality, will not be solved by a single example. Prag rightly prompts analysis of contemporary terracotta votive heads, some of which, although drawn from generic molds, were modified to conform to different types of age and gender. Surely anatomical votives should reflect an even greater demand for true portraiture, if such was really a serious concern. After all, healing of one’s body is about as intimate a request as most people would make of the gods — yet of the thousands of extant heads, busts and statues, only a handful can be said to be naturalistic representations of a single individual rather than a type.15 Further evidence comes from Martin Söderlind’s study of generic votive heads at Tessennano; the same molds were used to make numerous terracotta sarcophagi in the regions of Vulci-Tuscania-Tarquinia, although these are not of the rare quality of the Seianti sculptures.16

As one person living in a crucial period of history, Seianti Hanunia wife of Tlesna offers a counterbalance to the literary personages presented by the historians of Rome. The evidence thus far available does bear out the picture of affluent landowner families living full and well-nourished lives in Roman-dominated Etruria. More men than women received lavish burials and artwork in Etruria, but the distinctive coffins of Seianti and Larthia show how some women were honored. This must reflect the conditions of their lives, too, even when fraught with injury and illness, in times of danger and political unrest.17 Even if she wasn’t a chariot-driving libertine like the Etruscan females of Classical literature, Seianti remains a person of interest for any investigation of Late Etruscan/Late Republican Italy.


1. Further comparative material for the sculptures is furnished by M.-F. Briguet and D. Briquel, Musée du Louvre. Départment des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines. Les urnes cinéraires étrusques de l’époque hellénistique (Paris 2002).

2. The catalogue description of M. D. Gentili, I sarcophagi etruschi in terracotta di età recente (Rome 1994) 66 no. A66 does not note this detail. Compare the recent find of a bronze statue fragment at a 2nd-century AD Roman temple complex in London, where a god or ruler wears a sock with sandal: C. Holden, “Ancient Geeks,” Science 301 (12 September 2003) 1469. Larcna’s second and third wives were buried in adjacent rooms in much plainer containers.

3. TLE 890; G. Bonfante and L. Bonfante, Etruscan Language. An Introduction (2nd ed., Manchester 2002) 176 source no. 63. Unfortunately, no bodies remain to be compared to the epitaphs.

4. A recent overview is S. Mays, The Archaeology of Human Bones (London 1998, reprinted 2000). More detailed works include M. Cox and S. Mays, eds., Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science (London 2000); D.J. Ortner, Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains (Boston 2003); C.L. Larsen, Bioarchaeology: interpreting behavior from the human skeleton (New York 1997); but many more excellent references could be added to the list.

5. Application to ancient material is still in development: A. Sengupta, R.P. Shellis and D.K. Whittaker, “Measuring Root Dentine Translucency in Human Teeth of Varying Antiquity,” Journal of Archaeological Science 25 (1998) 1221-1229.

6. Marshall Becker and I, with Bridget Algee-Hewitt, are completing a study of the remains of 20 individuals from Etruria and the Faliscan region, most cremated in the University Museum; of the 20 persons represented, only 5 (four of the 7th century BC) had evidence of third molars.

7. This has been studied in the Manchester Mummy project, see A. Rosalie David and R. Archbold, Conversations with mummies: new light on the lives of ancient Egyptians (New York 2000); for mummies in general, see S. Ikram, and A. Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity (New York 1998).

8. Parasols, tents and curtains feature prominently in several Etruscan (and Roman) funerary portrayals and probably symbolize the need for caution during the liminal phase between death and burial. Although Etruscan evidence is only representational, Greek and Roman literary and legal texts imply some familiarity with this situation. The Digest (Paulus Opinions 21.2-5) designates as sacrilege the exposure of a body “entrusted to permanent burial or left for a short period of time in some place,” translation of J. Shelton, As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (New York 1988) 97 no. 113. Additional references in J.M. Turfa, “Parasols in Etruscan Art,” Source. Notes in the History of Art 18.2 (1999) 15-24, note 32.

9. The toga-clad equestrian statue of Cloelia erected in Rome at the end of the 6th century may have been a symbolic design (Pliny N.H. 34.28).

10. Biochemical studies show that, not only was this Chalcolithic warrior killed by an arrow shot into his back, but he had other wounds and blood traces on his clothing and the knife in his hand showing that he had fought with several men, and probably killed at least two, whose blood remained on an arrow he had twice retrieved and carried with him at death. The body is now in the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum at Bolzano. The findings on the DNA of his enemies are signaled in a BBC article ( 12 August 2003: 23:01 GMT) citing University of Queensland researchers Ian Findlay and Tom Loy. On his cause of death, see P. Gostner and E. Vigl, “Report of Radiological Forensic Findings on the Iceman,” Journal of Archaeological Science 29.3 (2002) 323-326. On European finds of all periods, see R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife, Bog bodies: new discoveries and new perspectives (London 1995).

11. Of about 20 authentic examples, none show either disease or injury. See M.J. Becker, “Etruscan Gold Dental Appliances: Three Newly ‘Discovered’ Examples,” AJA 103 (1999) 103-111, with previous bibliography. Becker considers the context of Etruscan couples banqueting together publicly, in “Reconstructing the Lives of South Etruscan Women,” in A.E. Rautman, ed., Reading the Body: representations and remains in the archaeological record (Philadelphia 2000) 55-67; this volume, resulting from the Fourth Gender and Archaeology Conference (Michigan State University, 1996), covers reconstruction of gender, appearance and customs of several other ancient cultures.

12. There is ample evidence for women walking and working for religious activities, such as the funeral banquet preparations depicted in the 4th-century Tomba Golini I at Orvieto, where, on the left-hand wall, a noblewoman works alongside young cooks: S. Steingräber, ed., Etruscan Painting. Catalogue Raisonné of Etruscan Wall Paintings (English eds. D. Ridgway and F. R. Serra Ridgway, New York 1986) 278-279 no. 32. Even earlier, the wooden throne and incredibly fine garments found in the tombs of Verucchio (8th-7th century BC) prove that even princesses worked hard. See P. von Eles, ed., Guerriero e Sacerdote. Autorità e comunità nell’età del ferro a Verucchio. La Tomba del Trono (Florence 2002).

13. On the Chiusine terracotta sarcophagus from Tassinaia, the sunken cheeks and emaciated face of Vetus Tius run counter to the properties of the terracotta medium, in which Seianti’s plump contours are easier to create. See G. Colonna, “I sarcofagi chiusini di età ellenistica,” in La Civiltà di Chiusi e del suo Territorio, Atti del XVII Convegno di Studi Etruschi ed Italici, Chianciano Terme 1989 (Florence, 1993) 337-374, pl. 25,c. See also M.-F. Briguet, “Deux sarcophages de Chiusi au Musée du Louvre,” ibid., 327-335. The Tiuza were also related to the Seiante.

14. Etruscan Civilization (Malibu 2002) 338.

15. E.g. the “Manganello head,” the lined countenance of a middle-aged man, one side of whose mouth appears paralyzed as if by a stroke, but we have no way of judging the portrait’s accuracy now. Found in the deposit of an extramural Caeretan sanctuary on the Manganello stream, it is dated ca. 100 BC. See G. Colonna, ed., Santuari d’Etruria (Milan 1985) 38-41. A full treatment of votive heads and statues in Hellenistic Italy, by Annamaria Comella, will appear in the ThesCRA (Thesaurus Cultuum et Rituorum Antiquorum) in press 2004.

16. M. Söderlind, Late Etruscan Votive Heads from Tessennano. Production, Distribution, Sociohistorical Context (Rome 2002) 358-361 (BMCR 2004.06.45).

17. Background on women in earlier periods is furnished by P. Amann, Die Etruskerin. Geschlechtverhältnis und Stellung der Frau im frühen Etrurien (9.-5. Jh. V. Chr.) (Vienna 2000), although some references need to be checked.