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1.1 Etruscan Studies

During the first millennium BC when the Etruscans flourished in central Italy, some of the first real cities and states in Europe were formed and the Classical civilisation of Rome developed. Therefore the study of the Etruscans is central to the study of the cultural development of Europe. This importance of Etruscan studies means that we must be very careful about formulating questions about the Etruscans and developing answers.

The study of the Etruscans has always been a balance between historical and archaeological approaches according to the questions being asked and the interests of the enquirer. The balance between the two has also changed through time. In 1878 George Dennis wrote ´The external history of the Etruscans, as there are no native chronicles extant, is to be gathered only from scattered notices in Greek and Roman writers. Their internal history, till of late years was almost blank, but by the continual accumulation of fresh facts it is now daily acquiring form and substance... ´ (Dennis 1878, xxvi). He was optimistic that new archaeological discoveries would soon fill the hole left by missing written histories and that the contents of Etruscan tombs would ´...unveil to us in the nineteenth century the arcana of their inner life, almost as fully as though a second Pompeii had been disinterred in the heart of Etruria; going far to compensate us for the loss of the native annals of the country ...´; Parlan le tombe ove la Storia Ŕ muta´. (The tombs speak where History is silent.) Other less scholarly antiquarians were less optimistic: in 1892 Hugh Macmillan, in an antidote to descriptive guide books which contained ´curious knowledge´ wrote, ´The comprehensive history of Etruria ... perished. Their language ... is gone beyond recall. ...Thus when the air and the light of modern investigation penetrated into the mystery which surrounded this strange people, all that was most important had vanished; and only the few ornaments of the tomb remained to tell us of a lost world of art, literature, and human life which had perished...´ (Macmillan 1892, 236). This passage from Macmillan makes explicit the cultural view that without language and literature the best things about the Etruscans were lost. Although Dennis is more optimistic, he is still thinking within the same cultural framework and expects that archaeological discovery will fill the gaps left by the loss of history. He is not thinking that archaeology will provide anything other than history. By 1927 a change can be detected in Anglo-Saxon scholarship; in his introduction to The Etruscans David Randall-Maciver wrote ´What I have to tell, then, in this volume will be based almost wholly on archaeological evidence, not upon any attempt to weave a coherent whole out of the patchwork of fragments embedded in obscure Latin and Greek commentators, or the biased references which occur incidentally in the works of the classical Poets and historians.´ (Randall-Maciver 1927, 7). The emphasis has swung towards the archaeological evidence and the absence of history and literature is not seen as limiting the account of the Etruscans which can be given. However, almost all of Randall-Maciver´s archaeological evidence was found in the tombs which surround Etruscan cities.

This urban focus of Etruscan archaeology had been prevalent almost since the beginning of Etruscan studies in the 18th century. The title of the most influential English book about Etruria published in the 19th century, The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (Dennis 1848) sums it up: although the book contains a wealth of topographical information its primary focus is upon the cities and their cemeteries. The urban emphasis was reinforced in the first part of the 20th century when diffusionist thinking led to an extremely influential article by Pallottino titled Sulle facies culturali archaiche dell´Etruria (Pallottino 1939). This work provided a convincing account of the cultural development of Etruria which derived from a careful study of artefacts and their places of origin. It identified groups of objects which were typical of the different urban centres in Etruria, traced their distribution, and identified their influence. This notion of cities and their spheres of influence tacitly informs most modern interpretation of Etruscan archaeology and is consistently replicated in current studies of material culture, usually from tombs. An example of this is a comment upon sarcophaguses found in coastal areas of northern Lazio as ´...manifestazioni di riflesso della civiltÓ delle metropoli..´ (...items reflecting the civilisation of the cities) (Pallottino 1984, 277).

A. collection of essays by Professor M. Torelli, published in 1987 under the title La societÓ Etrusca contains an introduction which outlines a methodology for the study of the Etruscan peoples (Torelli 1987, 9-33). Torelli identifies the establishment of an interdisciplinary ´archaeological history´. The keynote of this approach is the contextualisation of the evidence so that each individual datum might play a role in the overall understanding of the Etruscans. The strands which contribute to this understanding are specifically the contextual interpretation of traditional epigraphic and linguistic sources; the iconological reading of art; the diachronic study of urban morphology; the study of trade and consumption, particularly with reference to the Greek world; and finally, the socio-economic study of production in relation to social forces, which is in turn related to political history. Furthermore, Torelli asserts that the Etruscans should not be studied in isolation, but that their cultural history should be understood with relation to the major Mediterranean civilisations, specifically the Greeks and Romans, but to a lesser extent also the Phoenicians and Carthaginians.

The resultant ´archaeological history´ is subtle and complex and attempts to balance the historical with the archaeological. However, it remains conditioned by two major factors. Firstly the positioning of the Etruscans on the peripheries of the Classical world, and the recurrence to analogies in the better documented Greek and Roman cultures, produces interpretations in which the perceived similitudes tend to dominate, and Etruscan culture and history become derivative. Similarly, the overall historical reconstruction takes on the classic form of rise, crisis, decline and fall.

The second influence, clearly visible in Torelli´s schema, is the predominance of written and iconographic sources used in conjunction with archaeological evidence which derives from the elite of Etruscan society. This is largely the result of the nature of the currently available evidence and the history of Etruscology, with its preoccupation with mortuary archaeology, Greek vases and, more recently, urban centres and temples. This awareness of and dependence upon previous studies, Torelli´s contextualisation, is absolutely vital to build a coherent archaeology of the period but it also tends to create a rather static archaeology in which the main trajectory of development is an increasing depth of information about individual problems. Thus the manual of Etruscan studies, Etruscologia, is still the text book account of Etruscan civilisation. It was first published in 1942 and is now in its seventh edition (Pallottino 1984) with five reprints along the way and translations into French, English, Spanish, Polish and Bulgarian. Certainly it is not the same book that it was but it has not fundamentally changed.


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