Department of Art and Art History Research Center

Important text discovered at archeological site in Italy may shed light on Etruscan deities

Mon. April 4, 2016

people push up stele from ground
Michael Thomas (Ph.D. in Art History, 2001), left, discovers the inscription on the slab from the Etruscan monument.

Archaeologists working on the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project in Italy have discovered what may be a rare sacred text in the Etruscan language that is likely to yield rich details about Etruscan worship of a god or goddess. The project is co-directed by Dr. Michael Thomas, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. The lengthy text is inscribed on a large 6th century B.C. sandstone slab that was uncovered from an Etruscan temple. A new religious artifact discovery is rare, and most Etruscan discoveries typically have been grave and funeral objects.

“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden, Thomas’s co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

two men study stele placed on flatbed
Rex Wallace (UMASS Amherst) and Alessandro Nocentini study the inscription on the stele uncovered at an Etruscan archeological site in Poggio Colla.

Scholars in the field predict the stele (STEE-lee), as such slabs are called, will yield a wealth of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans. The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and measuring nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, likely with never-seen-before words.

The Etruscan civilization once ruled Rome and influenced Romans on everything from religion to government to art and architecture. Considered one of the most religious people of the ancient world, Etruscan life was permeated by religion, and ruling magistrates also exercised religious authority.

The slab was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. At one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority. Thomas supervised the removal of the stele and discovered the inscription while washing the stele in the field. He presented the discovery at the Annual Meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco this past January.

stone halfway dug out from ground
The stele was was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years.

“The size and shape of the stone was our first clue that we had found something unique,” said Thomas. “The moment we recognized letters on the stone, we knew we had made a profound discovery.”

The Mugello Valley dig, specifically the Poggio Colla site, is northeast of Florence, Italy. The slab would have been connected to the early sacred life of the sanctuary there. Thomas’ research focuses on the architecture at the site.

“Though we have several phases of construction, the earliest structure at the site was a simple timber-framed oval hut. This would have been followed by a large temple set on a stone podium with large stone column bases of the Tuscan Doric type,” said Thomas. “It was within that stone podium that we discovered the stele.”

Conservation and study of the stele, with full photogrammetry and laser scanning to document all aspects of the conservation process and all details of the inscribed surfaces, is underway in the next few months at the conservation laboratories of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency in Florence by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone, likely from a local source, is heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened, possibly from undergoing burning in antiquity. Cleaning will allow scholars to read the inscription. The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In two decades of digging, Mugello Valley Archaeological Project has unearthed objects about Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. This wealth of material helps document the ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century B.C., including gold jewelry, coins, the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art and, in the past two seasons, four 6th-century bronze statuettes.

Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, said the stele discovery will advance knowledge of Etruscan history, literacy and religious practices.

detail image of inscription on stone
Inscription detail.

“Inscriptions of more than a few words on permanent materials are rare for the Etruscans, who tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets,” Turfa said. “This stone stele is evidence of a permanent religious cult with monumental dedications, at least as early as the Late Archaic Period, from about 525 to 480 B.C. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure.”

It would be a rare discovery to identify the Etruscan god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated.

“Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified,” Turfa said. “A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”

Etruscans were a highly cultured people, but very little of their writing has been preserved, mostly just short funerary inscriptions with names and titles, said archaeologist Ingrid Edlund-Berry, a professor emerita at The University of Texas at Austin and consulting scholar at Poggio Colla.

“So any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge,” said Edlund-Berry, an expert in Etruscan civilization. “It is very interesting that the stele was found within the walls of the buildings at the site, thus suggesting that it was re-used, and that it represents an early phase at the site.”

The Poggio Colla site is in northern Etruria. Most inscriptions have come from centers further south, Edlund-Berry said.

Thomas has worked at the site since the first season in 1995. The project’s field school has trained numerous UT undergrads and graduate students over the last two decades. Besides the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy at The University of Texas at Austin, other collaborating institutions at Mugello Valley Archaeological Project include Franklin and Marshall College, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, The Open University (UK), Franklin University Switzerland and Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The Oplontis Project publishes first of four free e-books

Thu. January 8, 2015

white department hexagon cube logo on green

ACLS Humanities E-Book released Oplontis Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Torre Annunziata, Italy, Volume 1: The Ancient Setting and Modern Rediscovery, the first of four volumes detailing research at Villa A Site at Oplontis. The work was edited by Professor John Clarke and Nayla K. Muntasser (PhD in Art History, 2003). The Oplontis Project is directed by Professor Clark and Michael L. Thomas (PhD in Art History, 2001).

Another great season at the Visual Arts Center

Wed. May 28, 2014

As we close the doors to the VAC for the summer, we celebrate our achievements and prepare for the coming fall. Among our robust exhibition programming, the season closed with our annual M.F.A. Studio Art thesis exhibition, Pool; M.F.A. Design thesis exhibition, Playgrounds; B.F.A. Design thesis exhibition, Make, Do, and Mend; and Michael Sieben’s exhibition, It Will All Happen Again.

If you missed our most recent exhibitions, a collection of works culled from them, selected by Director Jade Walker and curatorial intern Cameron Coffman, are on display at the W Hotel. These artworks, along with additional selections from the undergraduate senior art thesis exhibition, Wellspring, will be on display for the next year.

Artist speaks to group in art gallery
Michael Sieben giving instruction during zine workshop. Photo by Sandy Carson

In addition to a successful exhibitions calendar, the VAC also implemented comprehensive and engaging public programming throughout the year. In April, artist-in-resident Michael Sieben led a zine-making workshop. Held in the VAC’s Vaulted Gallery, guests were invited to work alongside Sieben to explore the history and process of zine making. With Sieben’s guidance, workshop participants created their own zines, marked with personal interest and self-exploration. Many of these created zines joined the ranks of Sieben’s personal zine library.

Three musicans perform on stage
Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner. Photo by Sandy Carson

Another notable evening was Jace Clayton’s The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, part of the Visual Arts Center’s signature series Sound + Vision. Guests crowded into the Texas Performing Arts’ McCullough Theatre to experience a dramatic 70-minute performance commemorating the work of late pianist, Julius Eastman. Clayton captivated the audience with a re-interpretation of two Eastman originals, which were composed and played simultaneously involving two grand pianos, live electronics, and various vocal elements.

Looking back on a wonderful season, we are sad to say good-bye to all graduating VAC staff members, including Vlad Mejia, who has been with the VAC since he started his studio art education in the Department of Art and Art History. As we prepare for the fall, we would like to invite you to join us in celebrating the works of many great artists at our fall season exhibition opening reception, which will be held on September 19, 2014.

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