BMCR 2010.03.50

Human Remains from Etruscan and Italic Tomb Groups in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Biblioteca di “Studi etruschi” 48

, , , Human Remains from Etruscan and Italic Tomb Groups in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Biblioteca di "Studi etruschi" 48. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2009. 176. ISBN 9788862271141. €230.00 (pb).

This landmark publication is a model of scientific and archaeological inquiry. It publishes, carefully and scientifically, the human remains from Etruscan and Italic cremation and inhumation burials preserved in University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. The careful attention to detail by two experts on human remains (Becker and Algee-Hewitt) and broader contextualization by an eminent Etruscologist (Turfa) form the basis for a study that informs us on a much broader level about Etruscan funerary practice.

This volume publishes all the surviving human remains from the University Museum’s collections. The assemblage thus includes the cremated remains in any Etruscan or Italic urn, and all of the skeletal remains that can now be accounted for. Some of the skeletal remains, however, cannot be located today and seem to have been lost since the 1930s. Such are the historiographic vagaries of human remains from the classical world, which rarely have received the same attention, or even the same care, as material culture. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the material was collected in the late nineteenth century when archaeological methods were less advanced. Still, even in those days the human remains were collected along with the objects, perhaps because the archaeology of the time was as methodologically connected to natural history as to art. Subsequently, the quest for objects as works of art produced a kind of archaeology, in Italy at least, where until very recently human remains were often neglected, in extreme cases even discarded. Not that earlier archaeologists were above reproach, for the collection of human remains could be incidental. Particularly telling is the record photograph of the “Toscanella Tomb” (Tuscania) where a skull has been picturesquely perched on a vase in the middle of the tomb group (pl. VII). A great amount of knowledge has been lost, which is why this publication, based on careful “re-excavation” of objects in a museum setting, is important as a model of inquiry.1 It is also remarkable how much information can be extracted from often meager remains.

The first chapter sets out the methodological challenges as well as the potential significance of studying human remains. The study of this kind of material is both science and art, especially given the nature of preservation, and things like the sex of an individual can be determined only with varying degrees of certainty, which is why controlled double-blind studies like the one described here are so important. In this case the remains were examined independently by Becker and Agee-Hewitt. Another important factor, apart from excavation methods that are not always well documented, is the way the material has been stored; there are often issues of contamination. These methodological issues are investigated in detail and followed by a longer section on “Why Examine Etruscan Bones and Wood Ash?” What follows is a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of Etruscan funerary ritual from the Villanovan to the Roman period. The evidence includes Roman sources, for instance on the nature of the funeral pyre, as well as empirical evidence for the actual mechanics of cremation, the effect of cremation on the skeleton, even the correlation of the size of the cremated remains to the sex, size, or age of the deceased. Especially interesting are questions of selection after the cremation. While Villanovan urns were probably large enough to hold the remains of the cremated individual, some urns, for instance hut urns, were probably too small, requiring that the burned remains be crushed. The authors suggest that this process of comminution may have been effected by rolling a large log over the remains. What may also be of interest to archaeologists is the evidence for the burning of grave offerings, or the inclusion of food offerings or animals in the burial.

All these issues relate to the analysis of specific tomb groups that is taken up in the next eight chapters. The groups are arranged by region. They are followed by conclusions and a series of tables that set out the data. In table 1 those data include date, container type, weight, weight of human bones, bones and other objects included in the burial, and conclusions about age, stature and sex. Table 2 summarizes the nature of cremated bones in the urns; table 3, estimated pyre temperature; table 4, evidence for sex, stature, and physiognomy; table 5, evidence for age and pathology; table 6, evidence for dentition; table 6.1, description of teeth and the skull MS 1406; table 6.2, description of teeth of multiple individuals, tomb MS 3266, Orvieto; table 6.3, description of teeth, MS 1688; table 7, artifacts associated with cremation burials; table 8, organic materials associated with cremations; table 9.1, non-cremated skeletal material; table 9.2 uncremated bones labeled MS 3266; and finally table 10, animal bones in urns with cremated human remains. The relegation of most of the data to these tables means that the text is readable and engaging, filled with details that bring Etruscan funerary ritual to life.

The specific evidence that has been gleaned from sometimes modest remains is impressive and testifies to the importance of careful scientific analysis of all human remains. There is evidence, for instance, that in certain instances animals may have been placed on the funerary pyre. In the case of an urn from Chiusi (MS 1403) of the seventh century BCE, the deceased seems to have been a tiny woman of about sixty five years of age in relatively good health (no signs of arthritis!) at the time of death, and a dog-sized mammal may have been placed with her on the pyre. While the authors are suitably restrained in their analysis, the evidence at first glance creates a strong image of the immediacy of funerary ritual, of a woman being laid to rest and undertaking the final journey to an afterlife accompanied by a beloved pooch. A later summary of evidence for animal sacrifice suggests caution and other, less evocative possibilities (p. 105), for instance that the animal may have been part of a funerary meal, or that animal bones from the area of the pyre may have been unintentionally included in the ossilegium. But as the authors point out, in well documented discussion, the inclusion of prized animals in the burial is not unusual.2 Further analysis of this kind of material will surely provide more definitive evidence, but the point is that a wealth of information emerges from the careful analysis of human remains by scientists, and that information, when combined with broader cultural analysis by a knowledgeable and imaginative archaeologist, will illuminate important aspects of Etruscan society and belief system. The fascinating details that emerge are numerous, so much so that an index would have been a really useful addition to this volume. Some of the specific topics are the inclusion of weaving implements or ‘sets’ in tombs, the possibility of early marriage among the Etruscan elite, and even a sherd that was deliberately trimmed into a rectangular shape for reuse or inclusion in the tomb. And there is so much more.

The brief but satisfying conclusions of the final chapter pull together the disparate evidence and touch upon issues of population and health, the cremation ritual, the inclusion of textiles in burials, and even animal sacrifice and the vexing issue of the dii animales. The final remarks, as lucidly written as the rest of the volume, take up the theme of the importance of this kind of study, and there is no question that the authors have shown that “Even a small sample or very fragmentary specimens, conservatively interpreted, can yield useful information about ancient life and funerary rituals.” We should possibly entertain the caveat that such a result is especially the case when the researchers are as rigorous, talented, and well trained as the three authors of this volume. Preface and Acknowledgements
1) Background and Methodology
2) Iron Age Tombs of Vulci
3) Iron Age Tombs of Narce
4) The Ager Faliscus : Mazzano Romano and Cogion (Coste di Manone), sixth-fourth centuries B.C.
5) Ardea: Archaic Iron Age Tomb
6) Chiusi: Archaic and Hellenistic Tombs
7) Orvieto: Bones from Archaic Necropolis
8) The Territory of Tarquinia: Hellenistic Tombs of Montebello and Tuscania
9) Other Human Skeletal Remains from Italy Collected for the University Museum
10) Discussion: Etruscan Demography and Funerary Ritual
Abbreviations and Bibliographies
Lists of Illustrations


1. An earlier model publication of interdisciplinary inquiry that included skeletal remains was Judith Swaddling and John Prag eds., Seiante Hanunia Tlesnasa: The Story of an Etruscan Noblewoman. London: British Museum, 2002.

2. For instance, published after this volume went to press, the fascinating evidence from the Marche of two prized hounds included in a warrior burial: G. De Marinis, Il cane di Matelica: suggestioni omeriche a Matelica: il sacrificio funebre dei cani nella tomba 182 di Crocifisso. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2009.