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The Archaeology of Sanctuaries and Ritual in Etruria

The Archaeology of Sanctuaries and Ritual in Etruria

Edited by N.T. de Grummond and I. Edlund-Berry (JRA Suppl. 81). Pp. 167, figs. 148. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2011. $87. ISBN 978-1-887829-81-6 (cloth).

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Common critiques of much scholarship concerning Etruscan ritual behavior points to a tendency among some modern observers to see evidence in almost every expression of the ancient Etruscan condition. What such critiques fail to appreciate is the ubiquity of sacred meaning within social, political, and even industrial behaviors throughout ancient central Italy. As several scholars in this volume note, to see distinctions between these behaviors is to create modern boundaries where the ancient mind saw connection and integration. The volume, edited by two of the world’s authorities on Etruscan ritual and religion, is a useful and focused contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the archaeology of Etruscan religious activity. The collection does not attempt an exhaustive survey of relevant sites, but rather presents a series of considered analyses from recent excavations alongside topical essays that approach the question of ritual behavior more broadly in an efficient introduction, eight chapters, and associated bibliography.

Edlund-Berry’s introduction considers not only the history of scholarship concerning Etruscan sanctuaries but also navigates the difficulties that arise from the overly rigid application of modern definitions and terminologies to ancient contexts. Without the benefit of literary sources to frame our understanding of such places, we are instead left with an array of archaeological expressions of ritual action and architectural forms. All such evidence points to the importance of religion but largely cannot provide any specific contextual formulas wherein such activity occurred. Edlund-Berry’s view is that the function of sacred space is determined by location. Natural features contribute to the ancient definition of sacred space, an observation borne out by evidence detailed in several contributions to the volume.

The first four chapters of the volume present archaeological evidence from the recent excavation of Etruscan sanctuaries. This presentation allows for a comparison of data from several sites and a consideration of how the Etruscans created and utilized sacred spaces across geographic, chronological, and contextual ranges.

Stopponi’s contribution, “Campo della Fiera at Orvieto: New Discoveries,” details the excavation of areas immediately west of the Orvieto plateau. Trace evidence hints at a period of use extending into the Etruscan Iron Age, but most surviving data point to activity from the fourth to third century B.C.E. through the Roman Imperial period. Throughout the sanctuary area, a range of small, dedicatory votive objects were recovered, including a remarkable stone base with three surviving bronze statuettes (of an original seven). These objects support Edlund-Berry’s introductory hypothesis that the primary means of expressing a relationship to the divine in such sanctuaries was through such offerings.

Bagnasco Gianni’s contribution, “Tarquinia: Excavations by the University of Milan at the Ara della Regina Sanctuary,” summarizes several years of excavation at this southern Etruscan sanctuary. Here, the architectural evidence is clearer than that preserved at Orvieto. The sanctuary was dominated by an unambiguously monumental temple that developed in two architectural phases. Evidence for ritual behaviors at a humbler, individual scale is not presented, but Bagnasco Gianni does mention the impressive terracotta decorative element of the temple’s fourth-century B.C.E. phase, the famous sculpture of winged horses that served as part of a pedimental group. Bagnasco Gianni posits that the winged horses may have originally formed an apotheosis of Hercules scene, a theme employed throughout the region to express an Italic notion of divinely sanctioned kingship.

Warden’s essay, “The Temple is a Living Thing: Fragmentation, Enchainment and Reversal of Ritual at the Acropolis Sanctuary of Poggio Colla,” begins with an overview of excavations on the upper portion of Poggio Colla, presenting deposits of material reflective of the chronological phases of votive behaviors located there. In considering evidence of the ritual breakage of materials recovered from Poggio Colla, Warden emphasizes not only the evidence of such action but also the agency of it. Warden maintains that the physical evidence for ritual behaviors reflects the performance of human agency in both the nonfunerary environment of Poggio Colla and in comparable examples of funerary contexts. Warden’s choice of the term “enchainment” in the essay’s title refers to the idea of ritual as a mechanism that binds actor and agency, the archaeological residue of which describes the theocratic social context of such Etruscan sites.

De Grummond’s contribution, “Ritual Practices at the Sanctuary of the Etruscan Artisans at Cetamura del Chianti,” focuses on votive evidence from the site. Eleven deposits, reflecting a wide spectrum of possible motivations, are identified, several of which appear to be related to various facets of manufacturing housed at the site. De Grummond’s presentation of the materiality of each deposit underscores a point central to Warden’s preceding essay. Within the theocratic world view of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, a number of behaviors were framed by their relationship to divinities, a relationship made manifest through prescribed, ritualized practices. This is true whether the behaviors are linked to monumentalized architectural environments, such as that of Poggio Colla, or generated by more quotidian concerns of manufacturing, like those of Cetamura.

Rask’s essay, “New Approaches to the Archaeology of Etruscan Cult Images,” seeks to disentangle our understanding of this category of ritual object from assumptions arising from non-Etruscan analogues of cult images. This is made more challenging by the absence of any meaningful Etruscan literary record concerning the subject. When Rask turns to the available archaeological evidence, the task remains difficult. The example of sculpture traditionally regarded as a surviving Etruscan cult image, the “Cannicella Goddess,” from the Cannicella sanctuary at Orvieto, proves difficult to place within a ritual context because the statue and its associated altar were recovered in a secondary debris deposit. However, the importance of such an image to its community, while difficult to reconstruct contextually, is still reflected in the fact that a foreign medium (Greek marble) and foreign iconography (the adaptation of Astarte imagery) are incorporated into an indubitably Etruscan ritual object.

Rask’s essay turns to representations of cult images on mirrors and cinerary urns, the overwhelming majority of which are drawn from Greek narrative models, leading Rask to question their relationship to actual Etruscan examples of cult images. However, one observation of this survey is the recognition that such Etruscan representations of actors engaged with cult images appears to involve the touching of statues, suggesting an otherwise unobservable aspect of specifically Etruscan ritual.

Nagy’s contribution, “Etruscan Votive Terracottas and the Archaeological Contexts: Preliminary Comments on Veii and Cerveteri,” considers four deposits of votives from sites in southern Etruria. All were excavated in previous decades and largely without modern archaeological documentation. And yet, each deposit, considered as a whole, suggests important details concerning the assumptions an ancient worshiper made when approaching a sanctuary. In Nagy’s view, thematic consistencies within the groups of terracotta votives reflect the worshiper’s understanding of the divine characters and principles venerated in specific sanctuaries.

The final essay, by Pieraccini, “The Wonders of Wine in Etruria,” considers evidence of the use of wine in several ritualized social contexts. Like Rask’s essay, Pieraccini’s analysis is hindered by the absence of surviving literature, but archaeological and iconographic evidence points to the importance of wine in a number of contexts. Wine’s specific uses and meanings, however, remain more elusive. Through careful consideration of many often-overlooked details of a number of iconographic sources, Pieraccini argues for the central role wine appears to have played in a number of ritualized institutions, including but not limited to prophecy, matrimony, and burial.

The volume concludes with a summary by de Grummond, synthesizing the contributions into a statement on the varied ways ritual behavior is archaeologically and iconographically expressed. The final sentence of the summary is as appropriate as it is accurate, noting that the survey of sites presented reflects the still unpredictable nature of the available evidence and calls for continued consideration of this central theme of Etruscan life. Edlund-Berry and Collins-Elliot include an appendix that transforms this volume from one of real importance within the sphere of Etruscan studies into an essential contribution for future research. This appendix consists of a bibliography of past publications on the subject of Etruscan ritual, divided into sections dedicated to particular sites. As a result, the necessarily limited views presented in each site case study detailed above are complemented by this useful compendium that provides scholars interested in Etruscan sanctuaries and ritual with an easily accessible and exhaustive resource for future scholarship.

The volume, published in the JRA supplemental series, is handsomely bound and illustrated with black-and-white images. While the volume will be primarily of interest to scholars of the Etruscan world, it represents a meaningful advancement of our understanding of central Italic ritual behavior and the environments wherein it was expressed. The book will prove to be a guidepost for future consideration of the subject.

Anthony Tuck
Center for Etruscan Studies and Department of Classics
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amherst, Massachusetts 01003

Book Review of The Archaeology of Sanctuaries and Ritual in Etruria, edited by N.T. de Grummond and I. Edlund-Berry

Reviewed by Anthony Tuck

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Tuck

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