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The Urbanisation of Etruria: Funerary Practices and Social Change, 700–600 BC

The Urbanisation of Etruria: Funerary Practices and Social Change, 700–600 BC

By Corinna Riva. Pp. xii + 247, figs. 43, plans 10, maps 6. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $85. ISBN 978-0-521-51447-7 (cloth).

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The tombs of Etruria have provided an embarrassment of riches that often distract archaeologists from keeping up with methods and theories developing in other parts of the world. Using the abundant data from elite tomb architecture and burial goods—the core of mortuary programs—Riva seeks to examine sociopolitical change in Etruria and the processes by which villages became “urban” centers. Impressive shifts in settlement pattern and material culture took place during the Etruscan “Orientalizing” period, from approximately 750 to 600 B.C.E. Riva evaluates “the burial and related evidence of the so-called Orientalising period (or seconda età del ferro), from the middle of the eighth to the end of the seventh centuries” and also states her intent to “challenge the princely or regal nature of Orientalising and indeed earlier Iron Age burials” and seek “an alternative interpretation of the nature of political authority in Orientalising Etruria and its relation to urbanization” (9).

Riva does not limit her evidence to the single century of her title. “I generally rely upon the traditional chronology throughout, although I make, as here, some occasional references to the new proposed dates” (3). No chronological chart is presented to help readers understand these references. In reviewing the shift from protourban to urban, Riva briefly notes changes in settlement patterns (23–9) then introduces data from the cemeteries (29–38) from which she extracts so much information. Chapters 3 through 6 provide evidence from elite tombs in several Etruscan cemeteries. The intent of these chapters is best summarized in the opening paragraph of Chapter 7 (177). Riva had earlier lamented the “widespread lack of osteological evidence” (75), but in this chapter, she returns to the traditional use of artifacts to infer gender. Completely ignored are publications on the evaluation of biological sex in Etruria, especially at Tarquinia, where the published data help us understand social class and women’s roles. Identification of sex through skeletal studies is essential not only in cases of ambiguous grave offerings but also in the many non-elite burials where there are no surviving artifacts.

Chapter 4, “The Transformation of Funerary Ideology,” emphasizes gender proportions (female to male) in “chariot burials” (74). Riva notes that “gender attribution” (97) reveals a ratio of about 1:2 in several cases, but closer to 1:1 at Vetulonia (97). How gender is determined remains unstated, and her chapter conclusion is a two-paragraph paean to “the warrior funerary ideology” (106) in which no women are mentioned. Riva wishes then to extrapolate from elite burial evidence to understand “The Transformation of Political Authority,” as suggested by the title of Chapter 5. She tries to “focus on the actual funerary rites taking place in and around the Orientalising tomb” (108), but these rites are not clearly described. The relevance of cultic activities in cemetery areas to an earlier period of urbanization (130–31) is not clear either. Unexplained is how Riva’s review of tomb plans relates to changes in political authority or even to supposedly related rituals.

Perkins (Etruscan Settlement, Society and Material Culture [Oxford 1999] 86) noted that any division of tombs by gender “is potentially flawed since the arms and weaving equipment [in them] are not necessarily indicators of [the] biological sex of the inhumed.” Riva recognizes the circular logic of identifying gender from tomb goods and acknowledges that “[a]ttempts at reconstructing ritual activities at Orientalising burials through grave-goods are fraught with difficulties: often little or nothing is known of the original composition of a tomb’s grave-goods, and even less of the position of the objects inside the tomb due to ancient and modern looting activities” (141). Riva then shifts her attention to a review of surviving grave goods, primarily metal and bucchero vessels (ch. 6), to consider the “banqueting and drinking activities which institutionalized elite political authority” (141). She ignores important new ideas on the functions of these ceramics, which may have been first produced ca. 640 B.C.E. (T.B. Rasmussen, Bucchero Pottery from Southern Etruria [Cambridge 1979]).

Riva summarizes evidence for the layout of Etruscan chamber tombs replicating, in miniature, the architecture of domestic structures (109). While this may be true at Caere, contradictory evidence elsewhere is ignored. Riva acknowledges an absence of settlement data, or evidence from residential areas, and how that affects her data sets, but the limited data provided by excavations in habitation areas are selectively incorporated. Several papers in the important From Huts to Houses ( J.R. Brandt and L. Karlsson, eds. [Sävedalen 2001]) are cited, but not included in the book under review are many relevant contributions. From the Brandt and Karlsson volume, Riva ignores contributions by Waarsenburg, Sestieri, De Santis, and others doing cutting-edge research.

The subject of the final chapter (“Etruria and Its Urban Mediterranean Network”) has been covered earlier in a volume edited by Riva and Vella (Debating Orientalization [London 2006]). Here, comparisons among Etruscan and related Greek and other eastern cities linked through commerce are implied by many of the grave goods discussed (e.g., 144–46). Riva, however, believes that “the luxury nature” of certain goods “made at Poggio Civitate,” such as carved bone and ivory items, “clearly points to elite gift-exchange rather than a trade-oriented industrial production” (184).

What was the form of political authority in Etruria, and how does it relate to the idea of “warrior-chiefs to princes”? Riva concludes that “the existence of kingship as the political organization of early Etruscan cities seems to be indisputable” (7), but she refutes the idea that the lituus was a royal symbol of power (45). What is the evidence for kingdoms? She offers no names of kings, royal dynasties, zones of political power, or any of the features associated with kingdoms. Such evidence is common in the Maya realm. The term “prince” is commonly used with Etruscan polities, but “kings” seem to appear only when discussing ancient Rome. Urbanizing Etruria seems to me to reflect chiefdoms in operation, and not even the rudimentary kingship of low-level states. Several of Bartoloni’s important works are cited, but their importance seems to be ignored. Heterarchy as a political organizing mechanism is nowhere noted (see M. Becker, “Etruscan Tombs at Tarquinia: Heterarchy as Indicated by Human Skeletal Remains,” in N. Negroni Catacchio, ed., Preistoria e protostoria in Etruria: Atti del quinto Incontro di studi, Sorano-Farnese, 12–14 maggio 2000. Paesaggi d’acque, ricerche e scavi. Vol. 2 [Milan 2002] 687–708).

Riva’s carefully referenced work provides a 45-page bibliography, including a dozen or more references from 2007 and a few from 2008. These reflect recent advances in Etruscan archaeology, but this selection is biased and incomplete. Research during the past two decades has been particularly impressive (see M. Gleba, “Archaeology in Etruria 2003–2008,” AR [2009] 1–20), clearly moving in directions suggested by Riva. Her ideas might be better supported by seeking archaeological parallels in the Americas, where political evolution is an important theme, rather than using social analogues from tribal Africa. Riva’s concern with decoding processes of “social and political change” using “a material culture approach to Etruria” (192) offers little that is new. The papers edited by Damgaard Andersen, Horsnaes, and Houby-Nielsen (Urbanization in the Mediterranean in the 9th to 6th Centuries BC. Acta Hyperborea 7 [Copenhagen 1997]) address these and other related themes much more effectively. Riva’s traditional data sets fail to convince me of any correlation between tomb architecture and offerings and of the operation of a specific sociopolitical system. Her nonlinear and repetitive narrative suggests an absence of editorial oversight. In their impressive New Studies in Archaeology series, Cambridge University Press has generated some classics in the field, but I would not place this work among them.

Marshall Joseph Becker
Department of Anthropology
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383

Book Review of The Urbanisation of Etruria: Funerary Practices and Social Change, 700–600 BC, by Corinna Riva

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Becker

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