Research: Rare inscription names mysterious Etruscan goddess

Greg Warden with Etruscan steleArchaeologists translating a very rare inscription have discovered the name of a goddess in a sacred text that is possibly the longest such Etruscan inscription ever discovered on stone.

The discovery indicates that Uni – a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess at this particular place – may have been the titular deity worshipped at the sanctuary of Poggio Colla, a key settlement in Italy for the ancient Etruscan civilization.

“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” said SMU professor emeritus Gregory Warden. The University is the main sponsor of the archaeological dig.

“It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”

Scientists discovered the ancient stone slab embedded as part of a temple wall at the Poggio Colla dig, where many other Etruscan objects have been found, including a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art. That object reinforces the interpretation of a fertility cult at Poggio Colla, Warden said.

Poggia Colla steleNow Etruscan language experts are studying the 500-pound stele to translate the text. It’s very rare to identify the god or goddess worshipped at an Etruscan sanctuary.

“The location of its discovery – a place where prestigious offerings were made – and the possible presence in the inscription of the name of Uni, as well as the care of the drafting of the text, which brings to mind the work of a stone carver who faithfully followed a model transmitted by a careful and educated scribe, suggest that the document had a dedicatory character,” said Adriano Maggiani, formerly professor at the University of Venice and one of the scholars working to decipher the inscription.

“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project that made the discovery.

Warden said it will be easier to speak with more certainty once the archaeologists are able to completely reconstruct the text, which consists of as many as 120 characters or more.

While archaeologists understand how Etruscan grammar works, and know some of its words and alphabet, they expect to discover new words never seen before – particularly since this discovery is not a funerary text. Permanent Etruscan inscriptions are rare, as Etruscans typically used linen cloth books or wax tablets. The texts that have been preserved are quite short and are from graves.

Besides being possibly the longest Etruscan inscription on stone, it is also one of the three longest sacred texts to date. The sandstone slab, which dates to the 6th century BCE and is nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, was discovered in the final stages of two decades of digging at Mugello Valley, which is northeast of Florence in north central Italy.

Other objects unearthed in the past 20 years have shed light on Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. The material helps document ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE.

— Margaret Allen

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