Etruscan Sarcophagus (number 9)

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Etruscan tomb (number 9), Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Copenhagen, Denmark). Made with Memento Beta (now ReMake) from AutoDesk.
A woman lies as though asleep. She holds a pomegranate, the symbol of new life. On the front, a stag is being devoured by a lion and a griffin with a snake´s tail, the fabulous monster that protect's the dead person. A winged demon of death stands on either side, one with a mallet, the other holding a snake and supporting himself on an oar. This might be Charon, the ferryman responsible for the journey across the river to the underworld. The animals fighting at the centre symbolise hopes of overcoming death. On the short side a veiled woman is on her way to the realm of the dead? Two male relatives accompany her on the final part of her journey.

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Sarcophagus of the Spouses

Name Sarcophagus of the Spouses Typology cinerary urn Date 530-520 BCE Location Sala 12 Production place Cerveteri Provenance Cerveteri Findspot Necropoli della Banditaccia, zona est Materials polychrome terracotta Technique moulded-handmade Dimensions in cm H 140 Length. 202 Inventory Number 6646 Bibliography

--> Acquisition date 9 October 1893

Recomposed from about four hundred fragments, the sarcophagus of the spouses is actually an urn intended to hold the material remains of the deceased.
Shaped in the round, the work represents a couple lying on a bed (kline), their busts raised frontally in the typical position of the banquet. The man surrounds the woman's shoulders with his right arm, so that their faces with their typical "archaic smile" are very close the arrangement of the hands and fingers suggests the original presence of objects now lost, such as a cup for drinking wine or a small vase from which to pour precious perfume.
The Etruscans took up the ideology of the banquet from the Greeks as a sign of economic and social distinction and recalled their adherence to this practice also in the funerary context, as evidenced by the frequent scenes of banquets painted in the Etruscan tombs and the large number of objects related to the consumption of wine and meat found in them.
It is certainly a novelty compared to the Greek custom that the presence of the woman next to the man in a completely equal position, indeed with the elegance of her clothing and the imperiousness of her gestures, the female figure seems to dominate the scene capturing all our attention.

The Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo

Our beautiful planet is full of ancestral sites where the presence of human beings since the prehistoric age has created a never-ending connection with other human beings that kept living and transforming those areas until today. Italy is dominated by this richness and everywhere it is easy to come across ruins from the past that through the centuries have accumulated layers of different civilizations. These civilizations have never really disappeared because they still live in the worked stones they left to us and any time we touch these rocks it is an experience of spiritual connection.

It happens that many of these treasures of the past are now wrapped by thick forests and vegetation, and that are waiting to be uncovered and discovered. This is what happened to the Etruscan Pyramid in Bomarzo (Viterbo), a huge rock with altars and steps remained hidden in the deep forest up to the last decade of the 1900s. A marvelous worked boulder that upon the first impression is reminiscent of Mayan Pyramids discovered in the jungles of Belize and Mexico. Though, when two local archaeologists named Giovanni Lamoratta and Giuseppe Maiorano stumbled across it in the spring of 1991, this discovery didn’t receive the deserved attention and this monumental pyramid remained unknown to the world until 2008.

In 2008, in fact, the agriculturist Salvatore Fosci, a local resident of Bomarzo with a passion for history, re-discovered this magnificent stepped-rock and voluntarily worked to clean out the dense vegetation and roots grown around it. The result of his hard work was impressive and this time the discovery aroused the interest of society and academia. Fosci was inspired by the tales of his grandfather and father who for many years worked in those woods as sort of custodians. They used to call this Pyramid Sasso del Predicatore (Stone of the Preacher) or simply Sasso con le scale (Stone with Steps) and never could imagine its real importance. Thanks to Salvatore Fosci this amazing boulder of rock has been returned to its ancestors whose spirit seems now to wander through the woods and on the surface of the stones. Being in this site is like living a mystic experience, where the vibrations all around put us in continuous connection with history and the past human beings.

Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo

It is an autumn morning when for the first time I head to Bomarzo to attend the excursion to the Etruscan Pyramid. It is pouring! I am quite uncertain if to proceed into the woods considering the terrible weather conditions but my tour guide Anna Rita Properzi clears my doubts: the reward for the hike is too high and no rain could stop our intention to arrive at the Pyramid!

Surrounded by beech trees that dominate the Cimini Mountains we start to follow the trail which leads to the Pyramid but also to a marvelous archeological site, medieval mills, waterfall, and finally to a castle with its imposing tower. The trail is also a site of amazing botanic treasures that enrich the vegetation with a triumph of different shaped-leaves, colorful berries, mosses, and climbing ivies. The oxygen emanating from the trees is so intensive and the smell of the forest is typically autumn. Unperturbed by the lashing rain, we walk downhill through the via cava, a narrow path excavated by Etruscans similar to a canyon.

A few steps more and I have in front of my eyes the magnificent view of the monumental Etruscan Pyramid. The effect is overwhelming. I remain stuck to admire it from the right distance to grasp enchanted all of its extraordinary beauty. A breathtaking experience. Although the name of this ancient boulder suggests the shape of a pyramid, I immediately notice that, actually, it is very different from a pyramid. It has its own particular shape that makes it even more unique. Besides its origin are still uncertain, inasmuch for many archeologists, the Pyramid dates back to the Bronze Age, while other scholars attribute it to Romans. Though, in all likelihood, they were the Etruscan builders that around the 7th century BC carved this mysterious megalith from an enormous rock of peperino, a volcanic grey rock quarried in the Cimini Mountains. They were an ancient people living in the area corresponding roughly to Tuscany, western Umbria, northern Lazio. Their civilization dates back to the 8th century BC and it endured until its assimilation into the Roman society, which started in the late 4th century BC, and was completed in 27 BC with the establishment of the Roman Empire. The Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture that has left us a tremendous heritage made of painted tombs, sarcophagi, sculptures, inscriptions, pottery, personal ornaments, metalwork, carts, and so on. And it is beautiful to think that most probably they left us also this marvelous megalith that I have now right in front of me.

To get an idea of the hugeness and stateliness of this pyramid, we have just to think that it measures about 16 meters (53 feet) long, 7 meters (24 feet) at its widest point, and 9 meters (30 feet) tall. And with its 28 steps, two minor altars, and a main one on the rock summit, the Etruscan Pyramid is one of the wonders of the world, immersed in an archaic and enigmatic site, for someone even esoteric or spiritually magical. Although there is no real proof that this Pyramid was used also for humans or animal sacrifices, it is sadly probable because these rituals were a common practice around the ancient world, as shown also in the sacrificial depictions in Etruscan tombs. The same structure of the Pyramid, with its channels and hollows, suggests the use of drainage for sacrificial fluids.

Saint Cecilia Necropolis

When you come to this site you have immediately the feeling that this immeasurable beauty of the Pyramid is in harmony with the spirituality of the forest that hosts it. In fact, just a few steps away, you are enchanted by another archeological wonder that is the Saint Cecilia Necropolis with its rock houses, the pyramidal altar, the human-shaped sarcophagi, and the remains of a 12th-century medieval church that gives the name to this site. You can still identify the apse, the presbytery, the altar stone, and a number of Christian symbols. The sound of the rain that hits the water that fills the ruins of sarcophagi makes this site even more mysterious and sacred.

In the proximity of this church of Saint Cecilia there is another caved house that to me seems to belong to a magic world. With door and windows, and shaped like an open-air altar, it captures my imagination and gives me the feeling that some gnomes live there. What a wonder!

Finestraccia (Ugly Window)

As I walk along the path I am impressed by another stone structure, so-called Finestraccia (Ugly Windows). The experts believe it once served as an Etruscan tomb and, in the medieval age, it became a dwelling. Even though the exact age of this tomb is unknown, it may date to around the 7th century BC like the pyramid. Perhaps it received the nickname Ugly Window because of the inaccurate proportions of the windows and door of the tomb. The Finestraccia originally had two floors: the bottom floor contained the tomb and the sarcophagus while the upper level was a dwelling or storage area. The upper part of this ancient tomb shows a beautiful natural sculpture whose shape recalls the handle of a cup. It is the effect of erosion by weathering on the volcanic rock. As I look at this impressive structure, I can’t help thinking that it is another example that testifies as in history human beings have created a never-ending connection with their ancestors keeping, using and adapting the same structures for different purposes.

Pasolini’s Tower

Continuing to walk in the woods, I come across other ruins from the past that emerge from the wild nature as enchanting wonders. Medieval bridges, streams, waterfalls, watermills, and wonderful hidden passages paved with basoli, slabs of volcanic rocks used in ancient times to build paths and roads. Nature seems to devour day by day the ruins of the medieval mills that operated until the 1950s and now stand uncertain in front of my eyes. Deprived of their roof, these watermills seem to surrender defenseless to the mortal embrace of the vegetation and its roots.

As I keep walking, the silent melancholy of this scenery is interrupted by the vivacity of the adjacent waterfalls of Fosso Castello. The din of the falling water and the beauty of this landscape make me understand why the Italian director, poet, and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1964 chose this site as a set for what is considered his cinematic masterpiece, the film Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew).

The Maestro, as the local people used to call him, fell in love with the nature of these woods and countryside near the little village of Chia, and ended to buy a beautiful tower that is all that is left of the 13th-century Castle of Collecasale.

He restored this so-called Torre of Chia and built himself a small house at the foot of the structure that became his retreat and source of inspiration to write his final novel Petrolio (Petroleum). Though, sadly, the manuscript remained uncompleted because he died under mysterious circumstances on the night between the 1st and 2nd of November, 1975, on a beach in Ostia (Roma).

A never-ending connection with our ancestors

With my tour guide Anna Rita Properzi and the small group of friends, I take a walk around the wall of the castle ruins and the Tower before heading back home. As I walk along the last stage that leads me back to the starting point I can’t help thinking how amazing this excursion was.

I walked all day long through the woods and along spectacular Etruscan tagliate (excavated road) following the path marked by Salvatore Fosci and his father to reach the Etruscan Pyramid. Walking through one only path, I encountered the Bronze age and I have gone through many successive ages until I arrive at a restored ancient Tower of a contemporary poet and writer.

Everywhere I had been I received proof that the presence of human beings since the prehistoric age has created a never-ending connection with other human beings that kept living and transforming the same areas and structures until today. The Pyramid was used by Etruscans and their posterity and so the site of Saint Cecilia shows the traces of many eras. Ancient Etruscan tombs were reused as dwellings in medieval ages, and medieval watermills were used for the same purpose until the last century. A beautiful Tower of the 13th-century became a refuge for a man of our times and the small village of Chia is still inhabited a thousand years after its foundation.

Italy is dominated by these examples and what we are now is just the fruit of what we were then. Even on my face, I can recognize the same features of the Etruscan women’s face, as my eyes and my cheekbones. I like this never-ending connection with other human beings and not just the one we experience in our present life, but also the connection we have with the past, through the spiritual bond that still binds us to our ancestors. And that’s the reason why I strongly believe in the infinitive power of Human Connections!

Post scriptum

I am at home and I realize that I am completely soaked. I cannot take away my clothes. I smile to myself: I didn’t notice it so far, because I was so fascinated by that wonderful world that at some point I forgot it was raining.

  • Publisher &rlm : &lrm University of California Press Edition Unstated (September 14, 1990)
  • Language &rlm : &lrm English
  • Paperback &rlm : &lrm 64 pages
  • ISBN-10 &rlm : &lrm 0520071182
  • ISBN-13 &rlm : &lrm 978-0520071186
  • Item Weight &rlm : &lrm 8 ounces
  • Dimensions &rlm : &lrm 6.75 x 0.25 x 9.5 inches

Top reviews from the United States

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The purpose of this book is to provide an overview of the Etruscan language. Considering that this book is a mere 62 pages long, don't look for detailed studies of Etruscan culture, history, art, etc. If you are looking for a brief yet respectably researched introduction to the language of the Etruscans, as I was, then this book will fit the bill.

It is simply amazing how much information is packed into these 62 pages: the linguistic situation in ancient Italy (with excellent maps) a summary of the Etruscan language, including evolution of the alphabet, a guide to pronunciation, and Etruscan grammar as it's currently and incompletely understood writing materials and methods and, the bulk of the book, a carefully and thoroughly illustrated section on Etruscan inscriptions, showing mirrors, vases, and sarcophagi, odd choices but apparently our best sources for such inscriptions, and also a catalogue of the inscriptions, with sample inscriptions showing the broad categories into which they fall.

Finally, there are two appendices, one listing Etruscan proper names, and the other containing a serviceable Etruscan glossary, and also a brief bibliography touching upon linguistic matters as well as other aspects of Etruscan culture and history.

"Etruscan" by Larissa Bonfante is part of the British Museum's "Reading the Past" series that introduces readers to ancient scripts. Etruscan uses an alphabetic script similar to the Greek alphabet, so the author introduces us to the Etruscan language, which took a written form around 700 BC but was extinct by the first century BC, as the Etruscan people adopted Latin and essentially became Roman. Although it was spoken and written in central Italy, Etruscan, like only a few other European languages, is not an Indo-European language. It was an isolated language which must be reconstructed from about 13,000 surviving short inscriptions.

Very few lengthy passages of Etruscan survive, which is unfortunate given that Etruscan was apparently a culture that valued literature highly and in which high-quality artwork was a part of everyday life. Etruscan culture and language comes down to us only through archeological finds and references in Greek and Roman literature. "Reading the Past" volumes are typically introductions to how a script works and how it was used, rather than how-to guides to reading the language. That is true of this volume, though you could learn to read a little from it as well. The author provides enough information on grammar, pronunciation, and a short glossary to enable simple translations.

A chapter on writing materials and methods provides a tantalizing glimpse into Etruscan culture through illustrations of the engraved images and inscriptions on bronze mirrors, engraved gems, vases, sarcophagi, and more. This shows off the quality of Etruscan artwork, as well as giving us some examples of how the written language was used. It is said that the Etruscans wrote their books on linen. Too bad none have survived. There is also a short chapter on the Oscan language, another language of central Italy, comparing its alphabet to the Etruscan. "Etruscan" is a nice, short (64 pages) introduction to the language and art of the Etruscans, but don't expect it to be in-depth. It's more of a teaser.


Etruscan beliefs concerning the hereafter appear to be an amalgam of influences. The Etruscans shared general early Mediterranean beliefs, such as the Egyptian belief that survival and prosperity in the hereafter depend on the treatment of the deceased's remains. ⎖] Etruscan tombs imitated domestic structures and were characterized by spacious chambers, wall paintings and grave furniture. In the tomb, especially on the sarcophagus, was a representation of the deceased in his or her prime, often with a spouse. Not everyone had a sarcophagus sometimes the deceased was laid out on a stone bench. As the Etruscans practiced mixed inhumation and cremation rites (the proportion depending on the period), cremated ashes and bones might be put into an urn in the shapes of a house or a representation of the deceased.

In addition to the world still influenced by terrestrial affairs was a transmigrational world beyond the grave, patterned after the Greek Hades. It was ruled by Vanth, and the deceased was guided there by Charun, the equivalent of Death, who was blue and wielded a hammer. The Etruscan Hades was populated by Greek mythological figures and a few such as Tuchulcha, of composite appearance.

The following sketch is based upon investigations made in the Etruscan Tombs at Corneto and Chiusi, and on comparison of the original wall-paintings with the facsimiles and drawings made from them and preserved in the Helbig Museum in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. It was originally published in Danish, in 1919, as a guide to students in that Department.

I am greatly indebted to Mr. G. F. Hill, of the British Museum, for his revision of the translation.

Meanwhile the first volume of the promised work of Fritz Weege (Etruskische Malerei, Halle, 1921) has appeared, copiously and splendidly illustrated. The text contains general views concerning Etruscan religion and society rather than descriptions of the paintings themselves, and I cannot refrain from saying that I find Weege’s statements and opinions, and the parallels which he adduces, too often more fanciful than convincing, in spite of the vast erudition displayed therein. I do not find anything in my own text which I feel inclined to alter after reading his book.

Copenhagen ,
January 1921.

Ancient Tombs

How the ancients viewed death and how they defined the Afterlife varied considerably through Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. In some civilizations, practices and beliefs changed as their own societies declined. Treatment of the dead was a vital part of New Stone Age religious development: Mark Kishlansky refers to the discovery of human skulls at Jericho as evidence of possible early ancestor worship. [1] As views about death evolved, ancient civilizations developed their own, often elaborate, ways of bridging life with the world beyond.

Comparisons and Contrasts in Entombment

For the Etruscans, thriving in western Italy before the Roman Republic, death was a celebration and the Afterlife a continuation of the often lavish lifestyles of the wealthy. Their cities of the dead – necropoleis, were hewn out of the rocky hills. Each tomb duplicated Etruscan homes and it is from these tombs as well as the sarcophagi found therein that archaeologists have been able to present a portrait of Etruscan everyday life. Etruscan funerals featured gladiatorial “duels” to the death as part of the celebrations, a practice later inherited by the Romans that evolved into the popular public spectacles.

Like the Etruscans, Ancient Egyptians buried their wealthy dead in elaborate tombs filled with artifacts and wall paintings depicting families during everyday life. As with Etruscans, Egyptians had a positive view of the Afterlife. Both the Egyptians and the Etruscans, however, would see these positives change as their societies began to wan. The Afterlife became a place of fear, filled with evil spirits. Egyptians began to bury their deceased with the Book of the Dead, containing spells to help the departed.

Romans also buried their dead outside of city limits and every significant road or provincial city has these necropoleis. Yet Romans, in contrast, had no similar view of an Afterlife. According to Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, “No generally accepted doctrine taught that there is anything after death other than a cadaver.” [2] Romans, however, prolifically carved elaborate sarcophagi illustrating scenes from everyday life. Referring to Roman mausoleums and grave plaques, Lionel Casson comments that these markers “form one of the most fruitful sources of information we have about the Roman world.” [3]

Preparing and Remembering the Dead

It is well known that Ancient Egyptians took seventy days to prepare a pharaoh for the burial ceremony, although such elaborate preparations were not provided for the average Egyptian. Every ancient civilization, however, had methods of preparation, often designed to stop the rapid decomposition of the body. The very term “sarcophagus” comes from a Greek term referring to “flesh eating.” Heather Pringle writes that in Babylon, the important dead were often immersed in honey. [4] In most of the Ancient Near East, preparation and burial was swift.

Taken from the home within hours after death (often to avoid ill fortunes tied to the supernatural), the dead were placed in cities beyond the living, frequently with buried gifts although the purpose was not often tied to an Afterlife. Romans celebrated a “Feast of the Dead” once a year between February 13-21 st . Offerings were left at graves and the dead were remembered. In Mycenaean Greece as well as Minoan Crete, early dug graves and later “chamber tombs” (tholoi) revealed elaborate burial gifts including swords.

The celebratory nature in Roman and Greek funerals may be evidenced by images of Bacchus on sarcophagi. The carefree god of wine and pleasure may have reinforced the notion that, for Romans, death was eternal sleep, and that “everything continues after everything has ceased.” A modern proverb illustrating this holds that “life is short and the grave is long.”

It is easy to see how ancient practices, later coupled with Christian ideals, shaped the modern tradition of death and the Afterlife. The combined traditions of thousands of years left an imprint that continues to define contemporary notions of life and death.

[1] Mark Kishlansky and others, Civilization in the West 5 th Ed. Vol. 1, (Longman, 2003) p 9.

[2] Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, General Editors, A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987) p 219ff.

[3] Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p 32.

[4] Heather Pringle, The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead (Hyperion, 2001) p 40.

Period One: Peace

There are two noticeable periods when considering Etruscan art and sculpture. At first, Etruscan life was peaceful and the people lived and died in harmony. Their lives were celebrated and they went to their graves in intricate sarcophagi. Their afterlife was a place of riches and further happiness. Unlike other societies of the same day, the Etruscans provided the same freedoms to women as to men. Etruscan women joined their husbands at banquets and public functions and could own property. The sarcophagus to the right is one of the most famed demonstrations of this peaceful period in Etruscan history, and also gives insight into how Etruscan&aposs lived.

Called the Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple (names vary slightly), this large terracotta structure showcases a married couple enjoying a few quiet moments together on a couch. Terracotta was arguably the most popular medium used by the Etruscans, forming the majority of their statues and sculptures. Found in Cerveteri in Italy, this sarcophagus displays the Etruscan love of gestures and emotion. Unlike the less emotional Greek art that was being produced at the time, Etruscan&aposs focused on facial expressions above correct proportions, which was incredibly important to Greeks. The man can be seen smiling and reaching a loving arm up to his wife&aposs hair while she examines what archaeologists believe was once an egg or other similar present from her husband.

The Greeks were a bit shocked by the Etruscans, and it&aposs not hard to see why. Greek culture allowed many fewer freedoms to women, and the idea of a women joining her husband at a banquet was distasteful as prostitutes and slaves were the only women who were allowed to attend Grecian banquets. Greeks were also very adamant about their canon, a set of mathematical proportions used in sculpture and architecture that created some of the most famed works today and influenced the Romans. They found the unnaturally shaped lower torso&aposs of the reclining couple to be distasteful and the couple&aposs oriental-influenced hair and eyes to be unattractive. However, the Greeks were the least of the Etruscan&aposs worries.

The frightened face of the man on this sarcophagus as he clings to his last worldly possessions marks the beginning of the Etruscans end.

This Urn demonstrates the turbulent emotions Etruscans experienced in the presence of an unclear future.

National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in Rome

Italy's national Etruscan museum in Rome's Villa Giulia houses artefacts from pre-Roman Italian antiquity, particularly from the Etruscan era.

Located near Villa Borghese, the museum's two floors host a wealth of Etruscan treasures, including funerary artefacts, bronze urns, terracotta, jewellery and weapons.

A highlight of the collection is the sixth-century BC Sarcophagus of the Spouses, considered one of the great masterpieces of Etruscan art.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.

The nearby Villa Poniatowski houses Etruscan treasures from Latium Vetus and Umbria, its frescoed rooms displaying artefacts dating from the tenth century BC.

The building is accessed from the Villa Giulia complex through Villa Strohl-Fern but is only open Sat 15.00-18.00 and Thurs 10.00-13.00.

Painted Etruscan sarcophagus

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