Online Review: Book

La tomba Bruschi di Tarquinia

Marshall J. Becker

114.4

By Valentina Vincenti (Materiali del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Tarquinia 17, Archaeologica 150). Pp. xi + 190, b&w pls. 8, color pls. 15. Giorgio Bretschneider, Rome 2009. €190. ISBN 978-88-7689-235-6 (paper).

The important and impressive ancient city of Tarquinia is an enormous archaeological site that includes a number of cemetery areas with graves spanning more than a millennium. These tombs are numbered sequentially in the order in which they have been discovered. The numbers continue to grow. Mario Torelli has directed the publication of this important series of volumes on Tarquinia, in which Vincenti's work is only the second to focus on a specific chamber tomb. The most elaborate tombs at Tarquinia, built as residences for members of an extended family in the afterlife, often are decorated with startlingly ornate frescoes, and many of the modern names assigned to these tombs derive from aspects of these artistic works. In addition to the striking arrays of surviving goods in these tombs, texts and other evidence from the burials reveal the use of some of the major chambers over several generations.

Vincenti locates the tomba Bruschi at one margin of the large cluster of tombs identified collectively as the Calvario Necropolis. This tomb, used by the Apunas family (14), is one of the 51 that she locates from among the hundreds of tombs known from this particular zone (pl. 2). Of these 51, she identifies 13 (including the tomba Bruschi) by their assigned modern names only. Another 14 tombs are listed by both their names and numbers in the Tarquinia tomba sequence. Twenty-four of the tombs on her plan are identified only by their numbers, the lowest being Tomb 808 and the highest being Tomb 6071, discovered in the 1980s.

Vincenti begins this richly documented review with detailed information on the discovery of the tomb in 1864 and a review of the many studies conducted since. Much early research focused on frescoes, which (with the earliest sarcophagus) indicate the period of original construction for the tomb. The second chapter examines the architecture and the system of decoration used in this single chamber, measuring 6.7 x 6.2 m. The frescoes, so extensively documented, remain at the center of research. An impressive portion of the frescoes survived along three walls and on one of the two pillars. These have been recorded in detail, and a reconstruction is now available. The extensive illustrations provided by Vincenti, in color as well as black-and-white, are remarkably clear despite their small size. The iconography and its interpretations are given an entire chapter, emphasizing the chronological location of the tomb.

Examination of many pieces of sarcophagi, covers, and chests reveals a great deal, including evidence for the presence of large cinerary containers. At least one was in place before the fresco work began. Vincenti concludes that at least 14 different burials were present, dating from ca. 340–175 B.C.E. These 165 years suggest that at least six and possibly eight generations of the family were entombed here.

The few pages of text commenting on sur-viving funerary goods reveal the extent of looting and/or destruction (98–100). Small cinerary urns or chests may also originally have been present, possibly placed in niches (14–16). The many inscriptions, or texts, covered in chapter 5 receive as much attention as the sarcophagi. Vincenti notes that of the 13 texts that were legible when the tomb was first excavated, only two survive. Both were removed from the walls in the 19th century. These texts enable four generations of the family to be recognized. Vincenti then links these data with the gens Apunas of Tarquinia, known from other sources perhaps as early as 575 B.C.E. Texts provide evidence of extensive connections among individuals found in other chamber tombs at Tarquinia, as well as at Tuscania, Perugia, and elsewhere. This provides the basis for decoding complex relationships within the south Etruscan realm.

Vincenti's final chapter reviews matters of style that are used in the reconstruction of a chronology. Her conclusions simply summarize the findings presented in the various chapters. A long appendix provides transcriptions of the documentary evidence relating to the 1864 findings and the 1963 salvage excavations. The first set reveals much about early archaeology and how it affected the cultural record in Etruria. The latter set depicts how Italian archaeologists attempted to deal with the work of looters. A brief note on the conservation of the frescoes forms a second appendix.

Tarquinia, as so much of Italy, suffers from an embarrassment of archaeological riches. The extent of cultural heritage is so great that it strains both the imagination and the annual budget available to recover, store, and publish the evidence. Vincenti's volume demonstrates well that from the earliest days of excavations at Tarquinia, emphasis has been placed on Etruscan art and epigraphy. The impressive frescoes adorning walls and pillars within the chamber tombs continue to impress visitors and scholars alike. Vincenti's collation of texts relating to the gens Apunas, found within and far beyond the territory that is considered ancient Tarquinia, reveals how much we can reconstruct about the lives and family dynamics of the very wealthy.

Vincenti also reviews the extent of damage done to this tomb through the normal processes of time. The collapse of the roof, probably as a result of plowing away the covering mound, was the most traumatic to the contents. The scope of looting is largely ignored, but her description of the surviving fragments of sarcophagi and other burial containers reveals its effects. Also ignored is that as recently as 1963, the actual remains of the humans for whom these tombs were built were generally treated much like the earth and stones that later found their way into these chambers—like dirt. While the impressive collection of texts collated for this book cannot be faulted for a lack of interest in human remains and artifacts on the part of past scholars, many modern reports from Etruria still describe what I call "boneless cemeteries." To me, the essence of these sites has been stripped away, as if the bones of those interred were intruding on their own past. At Tarquinia, systematic studies of human remains from these tombs have been initiated only recently, long after the tomba Bruschi had been processed. Systematic skeletal analyses began in 1987, during the term of Maria Cataldi, the inspector representing the Superintendent of Antiquities for southern Etruria.

The vast majority of the nearly 7,000 tombs from ancient Tarquinia are individual graves of the simplest form (e.g., M. Becker, "Cremation and Comminution at Etruscan Tarquinia," in M. Gleba and H. Becker, eds., Votives, Places and Rituals in Etruscan Religion [Leiden 2008] 229–48). Tarquinians commonly employed both inhumation and cremation, enabling large numbers of family members—including (we infer) servants and slaves—to be buried within the same tomb complex.

Vincenti illustrates an important letter from the first days after the discovery of the tomba Bruschi (pl. 3). In a sketch, we see the positions of two individuals who lie in two impressive sarcophagi. This tantalizing glimpse of ancient Tarquinia is now being amplified through the work of careful scholars. They often include efforts to study the human remains and to incorporate those findings into a reconstruction of ancient lifeways. While some recent studies may be a bit imaginative, harking back a century or more, others are leading us to a new era of understanding—away from cemetery reports that ignore the skeletons. Vincenti provides us with an informative view of where we have been and gathers for us the substantive information we need to go forward.

Marshall Joseph Becker
Department of Anthropology
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383
mbecker@wcupa.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1144.Becker

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