BMCR 2018.08.14

Etruscology (2 vols.)

, Etruscology (2 vols.). Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. xxiv, 1844. ISBN 9781934078488 €359,95.


A recent increase in English-language publications should render Etruscans much more accessible to—and dare we hope, respected by —Anglophone scholars and students. This much-anticipated reference work, long in preparation, has been preceded by later projects, each aimed at a slightly different readership. The Etruscan World (J.M. Turfa ed., Routledge, 2013)1 is meant to cover major topics for students and laymen as well as archaeologists. A Companion to the Etruscans (eds. Sinclair Bell and Alexandra A. Carpino, Wiley Blackwell, 2016) really is a companion, offering additional background and analysis of key issues. The peoples of ancient Italy (eds. Gary D. Farney and Guy J. Bradley, DeGruyter, 2018) surveys the diverse cultures (full disclosure: I wrote the chapter on “The Etruscans”). For those willing to read Italian, fine coverage may be found in the late Giovannangelo Camporeale’s Gli Etruschi (3 rd ed., Torino: UTET, 2011) and Gilda Bartoloni’s Introduzione all’Etruscologia (Milan: Hoepli, 2011). All these and Naso’s Etruscology meld archaeological evidence with that of Classical literature, the only way to achieve a balanced image of the Etruscans, absent their own literature. The example was set by Sybille Haynes’s Etruscan Civilization (Getty, 2000), still the best (and safest) general book for students and laymen. All descend from Massimo Pallottino’s Etruscologia, originally published in 1942, and still reprinted (Hoepli, 2016).

Study of the Etruscans has grown quite sophisticated; Naso’s compendium features 90 chapters by 74 authors, mostly senior scholars. Eighteen authors have written two or more chapters; a few also wrote for Companion (six) or Etruscan World (nine), each offering a different aspect of their signature topic, or a different topic entirely. The text is aimed at Etruscan scholars and classicists, but will be useful to historians and art historians on post-graduate and professional levels. There is much material to engage lay readers and undergraduate students but they will find many chapters challenging due to the terminology of Italic archaeology, which is often not defined.

Volume 1 (31 chapters, 534 pages) surveys history of the discipline, methods and major fields of enquiry, ranging from the origins issue through DNA, language, trade, politics, society, sports, warfare, seafaring, metallurgy, coinage, weights and measures, music and textiles/clothing.

Volume 2 (58 chapters, 1307 pages) begins with historical topics (urbanization, Near Eastern influences, hellenization, romanization and the Etruscan legacy). The remainder reiterates a set of topics according to each historical period: Early Iron Age (10 th century–730 BCE); Orientalizing (730-580 BCE); Archaic and Classical (580-450 BCE); Late Classical and Hellenistic (450-250 BCE); “Etruria and Rome” (250-89 BCE). Within each period are discussions of art, handicrafts (note the differentiation), society, ritual and cults, economy and “external relationships.” Analytical discussion and new evidence seem more abundant for the early periods. Final sections describe “Topography of Etruria” and “Etruscans beyond Etruria” (Italy, Europe, Mediterranean basin). Readers often need to consult multiple chapters for a given topic, place or phenomenon, but will likely find new or different insights this way.

Indices record literary references and inscriptions (pp. 1769-1782), geographical and personal names (pp. 1783-1822), and authors’ emails (pp. 1761-1766).

Giuseppe Della Fina’s “History of Etruscology” (pp. 53-67) is an elegant, erudite survey “told within the broader framework of the history of archaeology and – even more broadly – of culture” (p. 53).

Many chapters emphasize interpretations that would have been impossible in past decades, viewing the Etruscans as a whole people, not the aliens caricatured in surviving literature. Their cosmopolitan character is revealed in complex social organization, in readiness to embrace and build upon foreign technology, and in remnants of complex belief systems demonstrating study of other cultures (Greek, Anatolian, Levantine, Mesopotamian).

Phil Perkins (chapter 8) provides a sound, cautionary analysis of the state of DNA studies for Etruscan identity: misinterpretations abound, usually influenced by the erroneous Lydian migration story of Herodotus. Marco Pacciarelli (chapter 41 describes widespread sociopolitical restructuring at the end of the Final Bronze Age, with incipient hierarchy attested by the establishment of intricate rituals and grouping of multiple families, perhaps into something similar to the curiae of Rome, for political organizing and military recruiting.

Maria Cecilia D’Ercole presents a diachronic outline of economy and trade studded with artifacts (pp. 143-163). Another issue to consider is Jean Gran-Aymerich’s proposal of a fondouk situation in foreign trade, a foreign trading-post producing as well as importing goods for trade. Etruscans appear to have adapted the system for which Phoenicians were famous.2 Economy is further analyzed in volume 2 in painstakingly organized chapters (43, 49, 55, 61, 67) by Albert Nijboer (Iron Age, Orientalizing) and Hilary Becker (Archaic through Roman); see also Stefano Bruni’s chapter 62. Christoph Reusser’s “External Relationships 580-450 BCE” (pp. 1031-1046) is confined to the Attic vase trade…but does present new quantitative studies.

Every chapter offers some new discovery or fresh approach. Armando Cherici, noting “dance is not fashion, but message” (pp. 233- 244) theoretically reconstructs dances from the 8th century through Hellenistic period (contrast his interpretation of the Olmo Bello bronze urn with that of Daniele Maras, writing on religion, p. 282).3 Emiliano Li Castro (chapter 30) surveys musical instruments in a different approach from Fredrik Tobin’s in Etruscan World (pp. 841-854). Sport and banquets, treated by Jean-Paul Thuillier (chapter 15), Erich Kistler and Fabio Colivicchi (chapters 13, 14), take different approaches from articles presented in the other recent volumes.

Laura M. Michetti (chapter 23) uses Roman-era texts such as Pomponius Mela in conjunction with topographic finds to reconstruct and categorize earlier harbors and ports, and Adriana Emiliozzi (chapter 24) discusses roads and bridges as well as the variety of wheeled vehicles for which she is the undisputed authority.

Andrea Zifferero (chapter 25) gives a picture of mining conditions and sources of Etruscan wealth, noting possible 9 th – century Nuragic influence. Alessandro Corretti (chapter 26) describes Etruscan exploitation of Elba for iron from the 7 th century; a boom between 3 rd and 1 st centuries created over 100,000 tons of slag. (Several Italian sites have required modern remediation for Etruscan-era smelting pollution.) Intimate views of women’s lives are reconstructed through textile and clothing production (Margarita Gleba, chapter 29); and warriors’ realities through tomb offerings of weapons (Markus Egg, chapter 11).

In-depth treatment of narrow issues or special categories of finds offers examples that illustrate wider fields. Fiorenzo Catalli (chapter 27) identifies the first coinage (5 th -century Populonia, Vulci). Adriano Maggiani (chapter 28) details inscribed evidence for Etruscan official weights systems. Lars Karlsson (chapter 39) surveys the slow development of Iron Age hut architecture; this is the only strictly architectural chapter, although architecture appears under other headings, e.g. Fernando Gilotta’s Classical-Hellenistic art (chapter 57). Cristiano Iaia sets the scene with Iron Age handicrafts (chapter 40), and several chapters (51, 52, 57, 58, 63, 64) survey art by period.

Sections on topography and Etruscans abroad offer surprisingly wide scope.4 The Etruscans’ debt to the Near East is demonstrated not merely in artifacts and emulation of artwork, but appears in economics and commerce, viticulture and religious practice such as divination, as aptly presented by Massimo Botto (chapter 34, pp. 581-616), emphasizing the importance of Sardinia in dissemination of cargoes and culture (see Mauro Menichetti’s chapter 45, pp. 831-850, for additional thoughts on the Levantine marzeach, and more).5 Chapters 73 through 90 present Etruscan persons, objects and influence beyond Etruria, from the Italian peninsula and islands to Iberia, northern Europe, the Aegean and North Africa, illustrating slightly different subsets of evidence from the other Etruscan compendia. This should be eye-opening for many readers.

Etruscology entries generally evince healthy respect for the evidence of ancient authors while maintaining reasonable caution; all relevant chapters present the latest archaeological evidence, a refreshing contrast to many histories that merely repeat literary accounts.6 This makes the work especially valuable for student readings: laymen are too often exposed only to superficial or outdated views, like the Herodotean tale or the assertion that the Etruscan language has not been deciphered. Here is a reliable antidote for such fictions.

The “Civilization” sections (chapters 39-68) are particularly rewarding on society, cults, handicrafts, fitting familiar inscriptions and artifacts into a complex social and political system. Several chapters discuss social hierarchies, e.g. Luca Cerchiai’s imaginative chapter 35, “Urban Civilization.” Gianluca Tagliamonte (chapter 9) grows increasingly speculative on magistracies, linking the mythical king Mezentius with the 6 th -century Caeretan atrocity following the battle over Alalia (p. 129); students may be overwhelmed by essays like these. Inscriptions from Rubiera and Caeretan Tragliatella indicate systems with zilath or maru magistrates by the early 6 th century (Tagliamonte, p. 128). In fact, formal political organization has been interpreted in 8 th -century Felsina/Bologna through newly identified public works including fortifications, hydraulic projects and even a pilings-structure, suggested as a forerunner to the Diribitorium of Rome.7

Robert Rollinger’s chapter (20) on Near Eastern parallels to Etruscan haruspicy concentrates on cuneiform texts, and can be supported by documentation like the Brontoscopic Calendar.8 For Etruscan cults and beliefs, see chapters by Marie-Laurence Haack (21, 54, 60, 66). For a survey of deities linked to temples, statues or dedicatory inscriptions, see Maras chapter 18, pp. 277-316. A condensed survey of traditions of death and burial by Alessandro Naso (chapter 19) gives insights on belief and the circulation of ideas.

The high level of intensive detail in Patrice Pomey’s thorough diachronic survey of Etruscan ships (pp. 371-389) invites questions: I hold that, almost two centuries before the painted Tarquinian Tomb of the Ship, one of the earliest images of a ship with foresail, a 7 th -century Caeretan pyxis (Louvre D150) actually portrayed a foresail (ultraviolet analysis does not contradict the antiquity of that image).9

Many authors emphasize the regional character of art and society, as does a new series treating Etruscan cities. The first volume, Caere (eds. N.T. de Grummond and L.C. Pieraccini (Austin: University of Texas) appeared in 2016; Veii (Jacopo Tabolli ed., with Orlando Cerasuolo) is due in Fall, 2018.

Language still defines Etruscan culture. Enrico Benelli’s chapter 7 is a concise historical background; his fine summary of language and scripts is chapter 17.10

The lengthy preparation of this handsome work, bursting with new information and gratifying detail, does mean that some updates have already appeared. Chapter 31, Marshall Becker’s “Etruscan gold dental appliances,” may be replaced by Becker and Turfa, The Etruscans and the History of Dentistry (Routledge, 2017). Indispensible among specialist works is Jean Gran-Aymerich’s definitive book on bucchero pottery (including art, trade, culture), Les vases de bucchero. Le monde étrusque entre Orient et Occident (L’’Erma’ di Bretschneider, 2017).

The text, apart from occasional infelicities of English translation, assumes familiarity with Italic archaeological jargon: how many undergraduates or laymen are conversant with terms like sodalis, olla, flabellum, loculus, corredo ? Carello, p. 147, is not a “cult chariot” but a small bronze wheeled vessel for banquet display. Sometimes potentially distracting modern or untranslated names are used: Silla (Sulla), Pithecusa (Pithekoussai) or Fregelles (Fregellae). Index entries under Murlo and Poggio Civitate give references that only partially overlap. Footnotes are minimal, usually indicating a single recent, albeit definitive, reference. The rich bibliography, a bit slim on Anglophone works, will tantalize many readers for whom access to Italian or French publications is difficult. Overlap is evident between the chronological and thematic chapters of volume 2 (for instance, Petra Amann’s chapters 12, 53 and 59 on society, each rewarding in itself). Several chapters disappointingly repeat their abstract as introductory text.

Although neatly typeset and designed, for a reference book it is disconcerting to see print showing through from the opposite side of each page. The 48 color plates (pp. 1739-1760) illustrate Etruscan coins and some painted Tarquinian tombs. Many chapters include black and white photos and line drawings.

Scholars will find points to dispute, as I have bristled at topics of interest to me, but we are sure to find a wealth of new material, new insights, and fresh bibliography to fuel research and teaching: it is a pity that the volumes are too expensive for most Etruscologists to purchase. In depth of scholarship and the restoration of Etruscan complexity through archaeological interpretation, Etruscology merits frequent consultation.


1. A warning: the hardback cover of Etruscan World is an irresistible chew toy to dogs; no similar problems affect the paperback edition (2017) or the other two works, though all feature colorful Tarquinian murals.

2. Etruscan World pp. 336-342 with earlier references.

3. Just published by Maras: “Dancing Myths: Musical Performances with Mythological Subjects from Greece to Etruria” in A. Garcia-Ventura, C. Tavolieri and L. Verderame (eds.), The Study of Musical Performance in Antiquity: Archaeology and Written Sources (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2018): 137-153.

4. For landscape and economy, there are also Simon Stoddart’s chapters in Companion (pp. 43-66) and Graeme Barker’s and Tom Rasmussen’s The Etruscans (Blackwell, 1998, chapters 1, 5, 6). A different subset of finds attesting Etruscans/Etruscan goods abroad is found in chapters 10-17 and 19 of Etruscan World (pp. 197-348, 373-425).

5. For assimilation and adaptation of Egyptian beliefs along with art see Maurizio Sannibale in Etruscan World (pp. 99-133; also in Byrsa 7,1-2 (2008): 85-123. See also Camporeale’s “The Etruscans and the Mediterranean” ( Companion pp. 67-86).

6. A project underway at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” promises a complete catalogue of ancient literary sources: G. Colonna, D. Maras, L.M. Michetti and E. Tassi Scandone: Fontes ad Res Etruscas Pertinentes/ FaREP.

7. See J. Ortali in ArchClass 64 (2013): 7-50.

8. J.M. Turfa, Divining the Etruscan World, Cambridge 2012: 241-277; this also replaces Martin Korenjak’s reference, p. 44 note 47.

9. Cf. Turfa and Steinmayer in IJNA 28.3, 1999: 292-296). A recent find depicts a cargo ship from land-locked Veii: M. Arizza, A. De Cristoforo, N. Piergrossi, D. Rossi (2013) “La tomba di un aristocratico naukleros dell’agro veientano. Il kantharos con scene di navigazione di via A. d’Avack,” ArchClass 64: 51-131.

10. For a longer language text, go to Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante, The Etruscan Language (2 nd ed., Manchester, 2002); surveys from other perspectives are Luciano Agostiniani’s in Etruscan World (pp. 457-477) or Rex E. Wallace’s in Companion (pp. 203-223).