Part of the archeological training experience is outside of the class and the field and in understanding how to connect the outside world with archeological knowledge and how to convey that knowledge. This is often done through the utilization of museums, and visiting these archeological museums to observe, analyze and think critically about their respective archaeological contents has been a main focus of the program. One of those museums, The National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia, was one of the better museums I have seen not only in terms of displaying Etruscan and Roman history, but also in the general practicality, accessibility and clarity of their exhibits.
The Villa Giulia’s array of exhibits included maps, reconstructed structures and statues, but also, and more importantly for the sake of this discussion, an excellent collection of burial items and tombs. A great way to understand the Etruscan culture and values is in their funerary rituals and practices. The Etruscan people used different means of preserving remains such as urns and sarcophagi, including large, detailed ones of both metal and marble. One of the most well-preserved and interesting sarcophagi that I saw appears below, and from it, we can learn and understand a few different interesting components of Etruscan culture.
The display case that the sarcophagus is inside of is in a separate display room, sitting directly in the center of the room. This was an excellent placement of the artifact because as you walk into the room, it immediately commands your attention due to its size and its near impossibility to avoid. Even though the size of the object by itself is a reason that it would be hard to miss, placing it elsewhere, such as against the wall adjacent to both entrances might not have been as effective, as you might walk right past it due to the entrances being directly across from each other making other, separate exhibits more visible.
While it is important to note the effective display of the sarcophagus, the artifact itself is the subject worth some serious analysis, as it can tell and suggest to us some information about the Etruscan people. Resting on top of the large sarcophagus are two people, more specifically a man and a woman. This, at least to me, seemed as if it was a representation of Etruscan Egalitarianism. Unlike Roman culture, the social constructs of gender were much more equal between men and women in Etruscan culture. Women were allowed to dine with men, socialize with men, and based on this two-person sarcophagus, in which a man was buried with a woman, this type of egalitarianism might even be carried to the grave. While putting a statue of a man and a woman on the same sarcophagus might not necessarily be a direct example of this egalitarianism, the coincidence is worth noting.
Another important thing to notice on this sarcophagus is the clues it gives out about terracotta clay production. On the back of the head of the female figure (not shown in the photo), there is a hole roughly three inches in diameter. Unlike the previous discussion, this has nothing to do with gender roles or social constructs. Instead, this hole tells us something about construction of large, terracotta structures made by the Etruscans such as this sarcophagus. When sculpting and heating terracotta, the clay-based material used by the Etruscans to make the sarcophagus as well as other objects such as tiles, it requires heat to solidify the clay and set in place. When heating the clay, especially one such as this that is hollow on the inside, it is important that oxygen is allowed to escape. If oxygen were to be trapped inside and heated, it would cause fractures and breaking on the structure. Thus, this is why one of the figures has the ventilation hole on the backside. While it might seem simple and insignificant, observing this and understanding its purpose can help solidify an understanding of Etruscan terracotta productions. Understanding the importance of a small feature such as this allows museum visitors (at least those who look closely) to understand the complexities of Etruscan manufacturing and the understanding the Etruscans had for simple yet critical details for production details such as this.
The study of tombs and burials in archeology can tell us quite a lot about characteristics of ancient cultures, and further, the inclusion of these burial discoveries in museums is an excellent way to relay this information to the rest of modern society. Museums such as the National Etruscan Museum in the Villa Giulia does an excellent job of displaying these discoveries in a way that is both physically and visually easily accessible to the public, as well as practical in terms of easily comprehensible display. By creating a proper display of artifacts such as the previously discussed sarcophagus, the average museum-goer can have an easily accessible look into the ancient past.