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Le origini degli Etruschi: Storia, archeologia, antropologia

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

Le origini degli Etruschi: Storia, archeologia, antropologia

Edited by Vincenzo Bellelli (Studia Archaeologica 186). Pp. 485, figs. 139. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2012. €294. ISBN 978-88-8265-742-0 (cloth).

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The volume under review emerged from a conference held in Agrigento in 2011. The theme was dedicated to the old, and highly controversial, question of Etruscan origins. Traditionally this topic has been studied singularly, typically with historians, archaeologists, linguists, and others offering their own interpretations independently of one another. Here Bellelli has successfully brought scholars from these and other disciplines together to discuss new evidence and interpretations. This in itself is worthy of note and represents a much-welcomed new standard in investigating contentious subjects in Italian archaeology. The aim of the volume is to investigate Etruscan origins in light of the scholarship of Massimo Pallottino and others. Pallottino had argued the Etruscans were autochthonous, but he allowed for a limited migration of Near Eastern groups and ideas to Italy. It is the extent of this latter contact and possible small-scale migration that this book investigates.

It is not possible to discuss each of the 18 chapters separately in great detail in a short review; therefore, a selection receives attention here, along with some general comments. Bellelli himself opens the debate by providing a balanced review of scholarship in light of Pallottino’s work and notes that while much of his work has been proved to be correct, some no longer stands in light of new evidence. Bellelli suggests that although Italian protohistoric research in archaeology has been fruitful, it can only offer limited insights into this question. Instead, he argues that the question of Etruscan origins is directly linked to the classification of the Etruscan language and a careful reading of the literary sources to glean truths that may lie within them.

The contribution of archaeological science to debates on Etruscan origins is the most significant “new” development of recent years. Two papers in this volume provide an overview of this approach. Tartarelli’s contribution outlines the 170 years of tracing population origins with the aid of physical anthropology. While changing methodological standards have invalidated a lot of the earlier work, Tartarelli maintains that the data derived from modern paleogenetics can be of use in interdisciplinary research into Etruscan origins. Similarly, the chapter by Sineo discusses the often-controversial topic of tracing the genetic origins of a population. Sineo’s paper provides an overview of the limits and results of this approach to date. He maintains the validity of the interpretation that identifies the Villanovan people of central Italy as the predecessors of the Etruscans and disregards the theory of a large population movement from the Middle East to Etruria during the Iron Age. He argues that such population movements would have had very little effect on the native population in Etruria, as happened elsewhere in Europe, and moreover that such movements were likely to have occurred much earlier, perhaps during the Paleolithic. In his analysis of the development of Villanovan culture, Zanini points to its materialization in the Late Bronze Age. However, he does admit that the limited character of the earlier evidence does not allow for a clear definition of this emergence. Indeed, he points to the challenges faced by establishing an accepted chronology for cultural developments. With this issue in mind, he places Etruria both within its broader Italian context, vis-à-vis contact with the north and the broader Mediterranean world. Likewise, Bietti Sestieri describes the changes from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and the emergence of the first Etruscans. Like Zanini, she downplays the role of the Mycenaeans in the Italian Bronze Age in stimulating “progress.” However, later developments seen in the increased economic relationships between south Etruria and the Near East must not be solely considered as a one-way process, but rather a mutual relationship between the indigenous communities and foreign traders. In this model, the approach adopted by traders from outside Italy radically changes, going from a highly targeted insertion into the local economy to one in which they were highly responsive to the needs of local elite consumers.

Naso revisits the adoption and adaptation of Near Eastern ideas in Etruria as well as the importation of luxury objects. He notes that the Etruscans were sophisticated consumers and had a great capacity for networking. Unlike many earlier treatments of this phenomenon, he is critical of the generic labels that scholars have attached to materials that might be Phoenician or Cypriot. He argues that more rigorous research is needed to find the exact origin of these products in order to understand the nuances of trade. He also points out that the “Orientalizing” phenomenon was not restricted to Etruria, but was evident throughout Latium, Campania, and elsewhere. This myopic view of Etruria has consequently impacted the broader interaction of all the peoples of the Italian peninsula with the East more generally. Agostiniani’s chapter on the graffiti from Lemnos concludes that the debate as to their historical significance remains open. According to him, the inscriptions, which are a version of Etruscan, represent evidence for trade with Etruscans from Italy.

In the final chapter, Paleothodoros offers a different take on the concept of origins. He investigates the popularity of the myth of Dionysos and the “Tyrrhenian pirates” in the iconographic tradition in Etruria and discusses why such a negative myth associating the Etruscans with Tyrrhenians was adopted in the fifth century B.C.E. Aside from the eschatological benefits that story offered in funerary contexts, Paleothodoros sees the association with Tyrrhenian pirates as a mechanism in which elite Etruscans could identify themselves in the civilized world of the Greeks and their mythology.

This volume provides a comprehensive and overdue update on a topic of enduring fascination in classical archaeology. The editor and authors have offered accessible accounts of the interdisciplinary research related to Etruscan origins, particularly scientific approaches. It should become a standard starting point for the next generation of graduate students as they attempt to come to terms with the daunting volume of scholarship on this fundamental issue. While all of the individual chapters are largely balanced, a concluding overview, or response in the Italian tradition, would have been welcome. As always in a volume with a large number of contributions, a number of the papers do not relate directly to the defined theme (e.g., those of Mihovilić [on Bronze Age Istria]; Paleothodoros), yet their ancillary arguments provide many ideas to consider. Perhaps the chief limitation of this volume is one not directly under the editor’s control: its prohibitive price. It discredits the high level of scholarship that this will inevitably limit its distribution and readership.

Eóin O’Donoghue
Discipline of Classics
National University of Ireland, Galway
Galway City

Book Review of Le origini degli Etruschi: Storia, archeologia, antropologia, edited by Vincenzo Bellelli

Reviewed by Eóin O’Donoghue

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.ODonoghue

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