When someone mentions ancient civilizations of antiquity, most of us think of the mighty Romans. But long before the Romans came to be a great power, there were the Etruscans. This enigmatic culture was native to the Italian peninsula and ruled over a region known as Etruria, which stretched between the Tiber and Arno rivers and was bordered by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.
While there is evidence of a distinct Etruscan culture dating back to the 9th century BCE, we know for sure that they flourished from the 7th century BCE until the 3rd century BCE, when they were conquered by the Romans. While their history may have been eclipsed by the Romans, archaeological finds tell the story of this fascinating culture. It turns out that the Etruscans were quite advanced, and their influence still survives today.
1. Etruscan Women Were Possibly Given Equal Status
While trying to relocate the lost Etruscan tombs of Vulci, archaeologists found over twenty unrecorded graves, tombs, and large funerary complexes. Here, they discovered the Tomb of the Silver Hands, which contained some unique finds that shed light on Etruscan society.
Researchers assigned this name to the remarkable tomb because they found two beautifully styled silver hands, still with gold plate remnants, inside the grave. These hands were part of a sphyrelaton, a wooden funerary figure meant to represent the departed and protect the soul after the body was cremated.
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In previous research, it was assumed that tombs containing sphyrelatons belonged to warriors or noblemen, but archaeologists found evidence to the contrary in the Tomb of the Silver Hands. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that this tomb belonged to a high-ranking woman in Etruscan society.
Researchers have also discovered evidence suggesting that both men and women were highly literate, regardless of social status. This is indicated by inscribed objects that have been recovered during archaeological excavations. Mirrors, perfume vases, and cosmetic containers with inscriptions have been recovered among grave goods, as well as inscribed ceramic tablets buried with them in tombs.
This image of equality starkly contrasts what we know of the women of ancient Rome. According to ancient Roman records, women were considered unequal to men and were not seen as full citizens. Instead, young Roman women were limited to education as it pertained to running households and were even subject to legal penalties if they remained unmarried by a certain age.
2. There Is Evidence of Nomadic Beekeeping
In the Lombardy region and near the modern-day town of Bagnolo San Vito, a large Etruscan site named Forcello has been discovered. From the data recovered, researchers have been able to determine that Forcello was an important Etruscan settlement between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, likely successful due to its fertile farmland and position between the Po and Mincio rivers.
An unfortunate fire damaged much of Forcello during the 5th century BCE but provided a protective layer to cultural artifacts. Among the burnt parts of the settlement was a beekeeper’s workshop dating back to the 6th century BCE. In this ancient workshop, archaeologists were able to recover samples of honey, honeycombs, and bees for pollen analysis. The aim was to determine what sort of plant life flourished in the area at the time and from where the bees collected their pollen.
Much to their surprise, the researchers discovered that the bees collected pollen from aquatic plants like waterlilies and wild grapevines that grow along shorelines. The prevalence of pollen from aquatic sources rather than those closer to the village led researchers to the conclusion that beekeepers kept hives on boats.
These Etruscan beekeepers likely sailed along the nearby Po or Mincio rivers with their hives and returned to Forcello with their harvested honeycomb. This confirms accounts recorded by the 1st century CE writer Pliny the Elder, whose encyclopedia Naturalis Historia makes reference to the Etruscan method of moving beehives along rivers.
3. Etruscans Were Instrumental in Getting French Viniculture Started
While the Etruscans can’t take credit for the invention of wine, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they had a big hand in introducing wine and production methods to other cultures in Europe. This didn’t happen overnight, however. First, Etruscans had to learn the art of viniculture, establish successful vineyards, and master winemaking themselves. This started sometime during the 8th century BCE when they were establishing trade relationships with cultures all around the Mediterranean. Among these cultures were the Phoenicians, who introduced the Etruscans to the Eurasian grape. In time, the Phoenicians helped Etruscans establish their own vineyards with the Eurasian grape and taught them to produce wine.
Some two centuries later, the Etruscans had mastered viniculture and were introducing it to different cultures. Etruscan wine was unique in that winemakers added herbs and pine resin to their vintages. It is believed that these additives were meant to give the wine medicinal qualities and aid in its preservation. These unique additives were detected by researchers who analyzed amphoras discovered in the ancient French port of Lattara. These Etruscan amphoras, dated to approximately 500-475 BCE, provide the earliest archaeological evidence of wine in France. Further study of artifacts recovered in Lattara revealed that over time, the people of southern France began to make their own vintages.
A limestone pressing platform was found in Lattara, and chemical analysis performed on compounds in the limestone provided evidence of grape processing. This pressing platform was dated to around 425-400 BCE, some 50-100 years after the French started to receive wine from the Etruscans.
Another notable discovery is the Etruscan shipwreck known as Grand Ribaud F, which was found east of Marseilles. This ship was dated to approximately 515-475 BCE, and its hold was filled with grapevines and some 700 amphoras. The grapevines could have been used to cushion the cargo, but it is possible that there were specimens intended for transplantation in France.
4. The Etruscans Weren’t Wiped out by the Romans
The history of the Etruscans might be elusive since not many of their written records remain, but researchers have found that they didn’t simply vanish when they were conquered by the Roman Republic. On the contrary, there is evidence that the Etruscans continued their unique lifeways for at least a century after the Romans took control of Etruria.
While archaeologists were investigating the area around the known Etruscan site of Podere Cannicci, they discovered a tomb dated to the 2nd century BCE. What was remarkable about this tomb was that it was untouched. Tombs like these are frequently looted for the gold and other grave goods typical of Etruscan burial sites, leaving behind little archaeological material to analyze.
Inside this undisturbed tomb were two urns containing the cremated remains of two people. Among the urns were two urns containing the cremated remains of two individuals. The urns were interred with a full collection of grave goods typical of a traditional Etruscan funerary banquet. Included in these grave goods were ceramic vessels, gold and bronze jewelry, and iron strigils that were used to clean the skin.
One of the urns also contained a crown of gold and bronze olive leaves. Researchers believe that this unique find once belonged to the leader of a wealthy local family. The motif of the olive leaves was typical of the Etruscans, as their economy was strongly supported by farming.
Because this tomb was dated to a full century after the Roman takeover and how the departed were interred in a manner traditional to the Etruscans, researchers took this as evidence that the Etruscans didn’t simply vanish but blended into the Roman culture over time.
5. The Etruscans Probably Introduced Chariot Racing to the Romans
Because of movies and television, most of us associate chariot racing with the ancient Roman civilization. While the Romans certainly loved this spectator sport, it’s possible that it was actually introduced to the Italian peninsula by the Etruscans. Chariots originated in the ancient Near East, and the Etruscans had successful trade relationships with the east well before the Romans did.
Most of the ancient chariots recovered in Italy were found in Etruria, including the well-preserved Monteleone chariot. This beautifully constructed chariot was concealed in a tomb that was accidentally discovered by a landowner in 1902. The chariot, along with the recovered grave goods, were subsequently sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remains today for public viewing.
Researchers have dated the chariot to the middle of the 6th century BCE, and it is believed that it was constructed for a powerful individual who lived in Monteleone at the time. The chariot’s decoration was heavily influenced by Greek art, as was typical of works produced in Etruria. Carved amber and ivory inlays are a testament to the Etruscans’ trade networks with east Mediterranean cultures. Also, the skillful metalworking is typical of Etruscan bronze workers.
It’s difficult to say for certain whether the Romans or Etruscans were racing chariots first, but we do know that the Etruscans had the cultural knowledge and materials before the Romans. It’s likely that chariot racing is just one of the many aspects of Roman culture that the Etruscans influenced.