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Ancient Etruscan childbirth image unearthed at SMU’s Poggio Colla is likely a first for western art

Image is first of its kind ever found in an Etruscan excavation

An archaeological excavation at Poggio Colla, the site of a 2,700-year-old Etruscan settlement in Italy’s Mugello Valley, has turned up a surprising and unique find: two images of a woman giving birth to a child.

Researchers from the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which oversees the Poggio Colla excavation site some 20 miles northeast of Florence, discovered the images on a small fragment from a ceramic vessel that is more than 2,600 years old.

The images show the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother represented with her knees raised and her face shown in profile, one arm raised, and a long ponytail running down her back.

The excavation is a project of Southern Methodist University, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in collaboration with The Open University in Milton Keynes, England.

The identification of the scene was made by Phil Perkins, an authority on Etruscan bucchero and professor of archaeology at The Open University.

“We were astounded to see this intimate scene; it must be the earliest representation of childbirth in Western art,” said Perkins. “Etruscan women are usually represented feasting or participating in rituals, or they are goddesses. Now we have to solve the mystery of who she is and who her child is.”

The Etruscans were the first settlers of Italy, long before the Roman Empire. They built the first cities, were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture to the Romans, and were known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce. They occupied Italy for the first millennium B.C., but were conquered by the Romans and eventually became absorbed into their empire.

Image on elite pottery has implications for Poggio Colla sanctuary worship
“The birth scene is extraordinary, but what is also fascinating is what this image might mean on elite pottery at a sanctuary,” said Greg Warden, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU and a director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

“Might it have some connection to the cult,” Warden said, “to the kind of worship that went on at the hilltop sanctuary of Poggio Colla?”

The fragment was excavated by William Nutt, who is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington and who is legally blind. Nutt was participating in the Poggio Colla Field School, which has operated for six weeks every summer since 1995.

Under the supervision of faculty from U.S. institutions and graduate students in classical archaeology and anthropology, the field school has trained approximately 20 students each year, from more than 70 American and European universities, in the theory and practice of archaeological research. Through excavation and scholarship, these students have played an integral role in understanding the Etruscan occupation of the Mugello Valley.

“I was very grateful to be accepted to the summer program at Poggio Colla — it was my first archaeological dig,” said Nutt, who is attending UTA under a National Science Foundation fellowship.

“I found the artifact at the beginning of my second week there. It was quite dirty, and we weren’t sure what it was until it was cleaned at the onsite lab and identified by Perkins,” Nutt said. “It was thrilling to find out that it was so significant. To make a discovery like that, which provides important new information about a culture we know so little about, is exactly what makes archaeology and anthropology so appealing.”

First image of its type from Etruscan sites
The ceramic fragment is less than 1-3/4 x 1-1/4 inches (4 x 3 cm), from a vessel made of bucchero. Bucchero is a fine, black ceramic material, embellished with stamped and incised decorations, used to make eating and drinking vessels for Etruscan elites.

Typically, stamped designs range from abstract geometric motifs to exotic and mythical animals. There are no known Greek or Roman representations of the moment of birth shown as clearly as the Poggio Colla example until more than 500 years later. The fragment dates to about 600 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).

Because the site at Poggio Colla has produced numerous votive deposits, scholars are certain that for some part of its history it was a sacred spot to a divinity or divinities.

The abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry discovered earlier have already suggested to some scholars that the patron divinity may have been female; the discovery of the childbirth scene, because of its uniqueness, adds another piece of evidence to the theory.

“This is a most exciting discovery,” said Larissa Bonfante, professor emerita of classics at New York University and a world-renowned expert on the ancient Etruscans. “It shows an image of a type so far unknown in Etruscan context and gives us plenty to think about as we try to understand its religious significance.”

A paper about the find will be presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Philadelphia in January. The paper, titled “Defining Northern Etruria: Evidence from Poggio Colla (Vicchio di Mugello),” will be presented by Ann Steiner, provost, dean of the faculty and Shirley Watkins Steinman Professor of Classics at Franklin and Marshall College.

Poggio Colla: Highly significant as it spans Etruscan history
Poggio Colla is a highly significant and rare site. One reason is that it spans most of Etruscan history. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was occupied from around 700 B.C.E. until 187 B.C.E., when it was destroyed by the Romans. Another reason is that it was not buried under later construction. The Etruscans picked beautiful, easily defended hilltops for their settlements. As a result, generation after generation built new cities on top of their sites. That means many have 2000 years of other civilizations on top of Etruscan settlements and cemeteries. Poggio Colla, however, remained in its original condition. Third, Poggio Colla represents an entire settlement, including tombs, a temple, a pottery factory and an artisan community. Excavations of workshops and living quarters are yielding new details about Etruscan life to scholars.

The site centers on the acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau of one and a half acres at the summit of Poggio Colla. Excavations have found strong evidence that the acropolis was home to a sanctuary and have identified a temple building and an altar at the center of a large courtyard. Numerous offerings have been found buried around the altar, gifts left behind as part of a sacred ritual to a still unidentified deity. These votive donations range from a massive deposit of nearly 500 varied bronze objects, to a spectacular gift of women’s gold jewelry and semi-precious stones. Another votive deposit contains a collection of ritual objects that were laid to rest in a room at the northwest corner of the sanctuary courtyard, possibly by a priest.

Unique religious context allowed first reconstruction of actual rituals
Excavators discovered a large circular pit, at the center of which was placed a sandstone cylinder, possibly the top of a votive column. Carefully situated near the cylinder were two sandstone statue bases, the larger of which includes the inscribed name of the aristocratic donor. Buried alongside these objects were a strand of gold wire, a purposely broken bronze implement, and two bronze bowls that had been used to pour ritual libations, as well as the bones of a piglet, presumably sacrificed as part of a purification ritual. This unique religious context has allowed researchers to reconstruct, for the first time, the actual rituals and actions of the priest/magistrate who presided over the ceremonies.

Although the Etruscan site now called Poggio Colla has been known since the 19th century, it was first excavated from 1968 to 1972 by Francesco Nicosia, the former Superintendent of Archaeology in Tuscany. With Nicosia’s permission and encouragement, SMU professor Greg Warden, a Mugello Valley native, reopened the site in 1995, established the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project and launched the summer Poggio Colla Field School. Today the project continues to proceed with the permission and supervision of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per la Toscana and Luca Fedeli, Inspector.

Directors of the project include Warden; Steiner; Michael L. Thomas, senior research associate at the University of Texas at Austin; and Gretchen Meyers, assistant professor of classics at Franklin & Marshall College. They oversee a team of archaeologists, scientists, architects and conservators who are conducting a systematic and multi-disciplined study of Poggio Colla, including stratigraphic excavation, scientific analysis, geophysical mapping and land surveys. — Victoria Winkelman

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Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Researcher news Student researchers

Etruscan dig’s common objects are unprecedented finds

SMU’s Meadows Museum honors the 15th anniversary of University Distinguished Professor of Art History P. Gregory Warden‘s groundbreaking archaeological excavation in Poggio Colla, Italy with an exhibition dedicated to the Etruscans.

From the Temple and the Tomb: Etruscan Treasures From Tuscany” is the most comprehensive exhibition of Etruscan art ever undertaken in the United States, with more than 400 objects spanning the 9th through 2nd centuries B.C.

P. Gregory Warden at Poggio Collo

New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla” will offer a look into the rare and dramatic finds from this important Etruscan site.

The exhibit includes almost 100 objects from its sanctuary and from a habitation and center of ceramic production discovered in a field below its acropolis.

The excavation site spans more than 50 acres. It is the most extensive Etruscan settlement ever discovered and revealed a wealth of details about ordinary life of Etruscans, the ancestors of Rome.

Poggio Colla Field School trains students on an Etruscan site about 22 miles northeast of Florence in the scenic Mugello Valley.

The settlement on Poggio Colla spanned most of Etruscan history, from the seventh century until its destruction by the Romans at the beginning of the second century.

Students open new trenches the first week of 2008 field season.

The first 11 seasons of excavation have revealed at least three major construction phases, including an extraordinarily rich Orientalizing-Archaic phase that includes the remains of a monumental structure on the acropolis, and two later phases when the site was turned into a fortified stronghold.

Discoveries include 2,000-year-old pendant necklaces, gold hair ornaments, rings and semi-precious stones, and silver coins. The discoveries bring to life a largely forgotten people who, among other things, built the first cities in Italy and introduced Greek culture to the Romans.

Warden, co-director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, says the gold discovery was significant because the riches were not buried in tombs.

“The discovery of these gold objects in this ordinary setting is unprecedented in Etruscan archaeology,” he says.

Student/staff member Rachel Julis
uncovering gold.

Etruscan civilization thrived for hundreds of years during the first millennium B.C., before assimilation by the Romans. Little is known of them because researchers have found only scattered ruins.

The gold found at the top of a hill overlooking the Poggio Colla settlement probably was used for religious ceremonies. Like many ancient cultures, the Etruscans were obsessed with symbols and rituals, and evidence says they used such rites and totems to maintain their rigid caste structure, which existed of a tiny elite, a huge slave population and a small serf class. The items found at Poggio Colla, meticulously placed and capped with temple stones, most likely were chosen to persuade — or appease — the gods.

Both exhibitions will run from January 25 to May 17. An opening reception for SMU faculty and staff is scheduled February 5 from 4:30 p.m.-6 p.m.

The shows join the Dallas Museum of Art’s blockbuster King Tut exhibit “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” as part of a citywide celebration of ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean.

Gold pendants

Featured in “From the Temple and the Tomb” are an entire temple pediment — the terracotta decoration for the front of an Etruscan temple.

It will also include objects from Etruscan tombs, including sarcophagi, ash urns, guardian figures, and gold, silver, bronze, ivory and ceramic objects that were deposited in the tombs of the wealthy.

Also featured are several pieces of gold jewelry, created using techniques so advanced that they are difficult to reproduce today.

“From the Temple and the Tomb” is organized by the Meadows Museum in association with the Florence Archaeological Museum, Italy, the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Soprintendenza of Archaeology for Tuscany, and Centro Promozioni e Servizidi Arezzo. It was funded by a gift from The Meadows Foundation.

Related links:
WSJ: Etruscan treasures from Tuscany
USAToday: Ancient Etruscan treasures go on display in Dallas
Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of the exhibit
P. Gregory Warden
Meadows: “From the Temple and the Tomb”
Meadows: “New Light on the Etruscans”
Poggio Colla Field School
Student research projects
2008 field school student diaries
2008 field school directors’ diaries
Mugello Valley Region

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Student researchers

Digging the Etruscans: Students unearth treasures in Italy

Senior art history major Jayme Clemente was working in trench No. 35 in July at an archaeological dig 20 miles northeast of Florence, Italy, when something caught her eye.

“I saw something green in the dirt,” she recalls. Green is the color of oxidized bronze.

Oxidized-green bronze Etruscan coin.

“When you’ve been staring at this light brown mixture of dirt and you see something that is not in the same color palette — it was just an exhilarating feeling to know that there was something in the ground.”

Her trench supervisor raced over and confirmed the first coin discovery of SMU’s 2008 Poggio Colla Field School season in the Mugello Valley. Clemente then worked as slowly as she could to extract the item from the dirt because bronze coins are very fragile after being buried for 2,000 years.

“Your first reaction is to get it out as fast as you can, but you have to take your time and be very patient” to deliver it to the dig conservator in one piece, Clemente says. She is fascinated by the coin’s ability to reveal so many details about the culture in which it was used. Through her research she learned this particular coin was struck far to the south, somewhere between Rome and Naples, between 275 and 250 BCE.

Jayme Clemente digs at Poggio Colla.

As the site’s field manual says: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

Clemente learned her lessons well, says P. Gregory Warden, University Distinguished Professor of Art History. He also serves as the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project’s (MVAP) principal investigator and co-director of its Poggio Colla Field School, an internationally recognized research training center in which SMU has participated since 1995.

Clemente was one of a dozen SMU students who were joined at the field school last summer by students from Dartmouth, Princeton and other universities.

The Poggio Colla site spans most of Etruscan history, from 700 BCE to the town’s destruction by the Romans around 178 BCE, which makes the site very rare. It also is distinctive because of what is not there. The Etruscans picked beautiful, easily defended hilltops for their settlements. As a result, generation after generation built new cities on top of their sites. That means many have 2,000 years of other civilizations on top of Etruscan artifacts, Warden says. Not so Poggio Colla, which is all Etruscan.

The oxidized-green bronze Etruscan coin discovered by Clemente features the head of Athena on one side, a rooster on the reverse.

No one knows why the Etruscans disappeared. Most of what archaeologists have learned about the culture in the past 40 years comes from funerary remains that represent the death rituals of the wealthy. Poggio Colla is different, Warden says. It represents an entire settlement, including tombs, a temple, a pottery factory and an artisan community. Excavations of workshops and living quarters are yielding details about Etruscan life to scholars from SMU and its partners, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Recent finds included a large stone column base that probably belonged to the temple and a ritual pit within the sanctuary where the Etruscans placed a series of sacred objects such as gold thread, two statue bases and two bronze bowls. One of the bowls rests atop the bones of a suckling pig that was sacrificed as part of a purification ritual.

The temple is revealing new information about the Etruscans, who had a theocratic social structure and were considered “the most religious peoples of the ancient Mediterranean,” Warden says. “We can show where the priest was standing and how the objects were placed in this sacred pit with attention to the cardinal points of the compass, reflecting Etruscan religious beliefs and their idea of the sacredness of space.”

The findings are so striking that the British Museum invited Warden to deliver a lecture there in December 2007 on “Ritual and Destruction at the Etruscan Site of Poggio Colla.”

The Italian government long had planned to create a regional archaeological museum in the area. The many discoveries at Poggio Colla moved that plan along, and Warden was a special guest at the museum’s opening in December.

All the artifacts found at Poggio Colla are the property of the Italian government and remain in that country. Because of connections created through the MVAP, more than 350 Etruscan artifacts from Italian museums and 100 artifacts from the field school site will be on loan to the Meadows Museum starting in January for the largest and most comprehensive Etruscan exhibits ever staged in the United States. Warden also will teach a course on “Etruscan Art and Archaeology” for the SMU Master of Liberal Studies program in the spring.

The coin that Clemente found is expected to be part of the exhibit.

“I never knew that it would be put into a museum,” she says, “but I feel pride in knowing that I was a part of the process.” — Deborah Wormser

Related links:
Research blog: Archaeological dig marked by landmark Etruscan exhibit
WSJ: Etruscan treasures from Tuscany
USAToday: Ancient Etruscan treasures go on display in Dallas
Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of the exhibit
P. Gregory Warden
Meadows: “From the Temple and the Tomb”
Meadows: “New Light on the Etruscans”
Poggio Colla Field School
Student research projects
2008 field school student diaries
2008 field school directors’ diaries
Mugello Valley Region