Etruscan Tombs: Evidence of Etruscan Life and Death from Etruscan Burials

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The Tomb of the Reliefs is an Etruscan tomb in the Banditaccia necropolis near Cerveteri, Italy. It was discovered in 1847 and has been dated to the end of the 4th century BC. It is a unique example of an Etruscan tomb which is decorated with stucco reliefs instead of the usual frescoes.

Etruscan burials included both inhumation and cremation. Their tombs are also a major source of information about Etruscan culture.

Whether they cremated their dead or buried it, Etruscan tombs were underground. Constructed from natural bedrock or tufa blocks, they are a rich source of information about Etruscan attitudes to death. Their decor and layout also provides vital information about Etruscan life.

Etruscan Burial Methods

Throughout the Etruscan period, both inhumation and cremation were popular burial methods. Cremation was the first common burial method with inhumation becoming more popular during the Orientalising period.

Burial practices were also localized. Cremation remained popular throughout the Etruscan period in northern Etruscan territories. Inhumation, which first began to appear in towns such as Tarquinia and Caere in the fifth century BC, remained a largely southern Etruscan phenomenon.

Cremated remains were placed inside metal or pottery urns. Elaborately carved urns were also used such as the alabaster urns found in the northern Etruscan town of Volterra, Tuscany. Cremated remains could also be interred in sarcophagi, as were inhumed remains.

Inhumation generally involved wrapping the body in linen cloth before placing it in a terracotta sarcophagus, on a stone or wooden funeral couch or a stone or wooden chest.

Whatever the method of burial, the remains of the deceased would be placed in a tomb.

Etruscan Tombs

Like the Romans, the Etruscans buried their dead away from the living, outside city walls in cemeteries. Etruscan tombs were built underground, carved out of natural bedrock or else built from blocks of tufa. Quite often, they were invisible from the surface although it became popular to mark some communal tombs with a tumulus. The best example of this kind of tomb can be found in the cemetery at Cerveteri at Caere. Here, the tombs were rock cut and marked with tumuli of up to 33 metres in diameter. Streets ran between the tumuli and can still be seen, bearing the marks of wheel ruts. These tumuli could well have acted as monuments for individual family groups.

The decoration and layout of Etruscan tombs reveals a great deal about attitudes to death. Tombs were often highly decorated with details of funeral rites, detailing funeral feasts, and processions, the gods of the underworld and the games used to commemorate the dead. Tomb paintings suggest that gladiatorial contests could have had their origin in these funeral games.

Tomb interiors also contain much information about Etruscan life. Often, they were designed to include Etruscan architectural features that reflected the houses of the living. In this respect, they provide valuable information of domestic architecture otherwise lost from the archaeological record.

Many early tombs had gabled roofs, and were set out in a series of rooms, connected by doorframes or with window frames cut into the partition walls to allow a view between rooms. Many tombs had rooms set out like dining rooms or bedrooms leading off from the main burial chamber. The Tomb of the Hut is one such early example. Dating to the seventh century BC, its main chamber reproducing the interior of an early Etruscan hut with its sloping roof and a smaller side chamber styled like an early bedroom.

Architectural features in tombs included and porches and columns. Walls could also be covered with stucco reliefs or carvings of household tools and implements-even kitchen equipment. The Tomb of Shields and Chairs, a sixth century tomb from the cemetery of Cerveteri included stone chairs around the edge of the room and round shields adorning the walls. It also includes tufa beds with semi circular bed heads for male beds and triangular ones for females.

Source:

  1. Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome (2003) Charles Gates. Routledge: London and New York.