Etruscan tombs are among the most spectacular archaeological remains in Italy and they encourage anyone who sees them to ask questions about the people who were buried in them around 2,500 years ago.
Fig. 1. Photograph of a tomb at Castel d´Asso with an inscription above the false door
Were they rich or poor? Which gods and goddesses did they worship? Where did they live? What kind of lives did they lead? What did they eat? Asking the questions is straightforward enough, but what kind of answer can we expect to come back? If we want to know about the Greeks or the Romans a good place to start is with the texts which they wrote that have survived to the present day. There we can find some answers to our questions. To be sure those answers will be written in Greek or Latin, but there are many translations available and if a closer understanding is needed then the language can be learned from those who read it already.
With the Etruscans it´s not quite so simple: their language has died out. At first glance the texts which have come down to us are unreadable because they use an unfamiliar alphabet and an unusual language. Two hundred years of scholarship have managed to decipher this language and although guides to this are now available (Cristofani 1973; Bonfante 1990), our understanding of the language is still very poor. Despite the fact that over 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions are now known and they can all be read, the current understanding of Etruscan grammar is limited and the known certain vocabulary is small, even the numbers from one to ten are not securely identified. The few long inscriptions which survive still present many problems of interpretation. One of the problems is that most of the 13,000 inscriptions are very short and simple: for example on the back of a mirror ´mi thancvilus fulnial´ translates as ´I [am the mirror] of Thancvil Fulni´ identifying the owner of the mirror (Bonfante 1990, 30). Such short inscriptions are not much help when a longer piece of writing needs to be understood. To compound the problems, the longer writings that have survived are all of a religious or legal nature and contain many formulaic phrases and repeated invocations of gods. Textual evidence of this form, when it can be understood, can only address some of the questions we might ask, for example about gods or family relationships. No Etruscan financial accounts survive to help us with economic history. No Etruscan literature survives to help us answer questions about spoken or written culture. No histories or archives have survived to help reconstruct wars and politics.
Even though few Etruscans texts have survived, other people did write about the Etruscans. Both Greek and Latin texts concerning them have survived and they provide precious information about the world of the Etruscans. Sadly there is no systematic account describing the Etruscans or their history, and the surviving accounts need to be treated with caution. For example, the Roman historian Livy often writes about the wars between Romans and Etruscans, but he was writing many years after the event; he was also writing about his enemies and his purpose is to describe the heroic victories of the Roman people not to provide a balanced account of the Etruscans. Furthermore much of what survives in Latin and Greek sources is contradictory. There is no Thucidides nor Caesar to guide us through the Etruscan centuries. For example, a contradiction in sources has created a problem in the study of the Etruscans. Where did these people come from? The question arose because Herodotus (I, 94) says the Etruscans came to Italy from Lydia in modern Turkey, but Dionysius of Halicarnassus (I, 28) says they were aboriginal.
One can argue about the reliability of one or the other of these sources but ultimately if we only turn to the literary sources the answers we get to questions we ask will always be conditioned by those texts. We can however gain a further perspective on the answers by addressing the question to the results of archaeological investigations. Archaeological research provides an independent source of evidence for the Etruscans. Their physical remains, tombs and temples and the like can be excavated to provide further information which might answer our questions. So a comparison of the archaeological evidence from Lydia and Etruria shows few similarities, suggesting that the Etruscans with their material culture are unlikely to have migrated from there. But this alternative source of evidence does not always clarify the situation. For example in the case of the origins of the Etruscan people, archaeological work in the 18th and 19th century discovered similarities in burial practice and some pottery vessels between Etruria and areas north of the Alps. This led to the suggestion that the Etruscans came to Italy from northern Europe (Banti 1973, 208-11). The argument about the origin of the Etruscans has never been completely settled but Pallottino redimensioned the problem by pointing out that the real issue is not where the Etruscans came from nor the origins of their language, rather it was the study and the understanding of their civilisation (Pallottino 1947). Since that time, evidence for the development of Bronze Age and Iron Age central Italy has grown immensely and a clear artefactual, cultural and spatial continuity has been demonstrated between Etruscan settlements in Etruria and their Iron Age predecessors. It is now generally accepted that the Etruscans were an indigenous people (Bartoloni 1989 ) and scholarly consensus, derived from archaeological research, now favours the account of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.