On June 10th, 2017 I found myself walking into a tomb. Actually, that day we explored three separate Etruscan tombs in Chiusi, Italy, but only one truly caught my eye. This was the called the Tomb of the Monkey or Tomba della Scimmia in Italian. This was the first tomb I had ever been into in my life. The first things to grip my attention as we walked in was the lack of lighting and the cool, damp air. The tomb was divided into “a cross shape, with three rooms around the atrium” (Bracci et. al. 2012, 92). The most important of the family would have been interred opposite of the entry way. The layout can be seen in Figure 1.1 to the right. The conservation methods of the tomb greatly interested me and are the reasons for this post.
The second thing was the preservation of the paint. Easy to distinguish three of the walls still had multiple colors vibrant even in the dim light. The tomb was rediscovered in 1846 by Alexander François and dated to the 5th century BC (Diaz-Herraiz et. al., 2013). One of the multiple wall paintings from this tomb is figure 1.2 below. This particular painting gives the tomb its name. If you look closely, in the bottom right in a green bush is a small monkey. This animal could have been the prize to the winning wrestler in the same painting.
This 2500 year old site has undergone many conservation strategies since its rediscovery 160 years ago. This then raises questions as to how the material should be treated in the future. First and foremost, this is a tomb. This was meant to be the final resting place of a clan of Etruscans. For protection of the urns and grave goods, the objects from the site have been moved into museums for both protection and study. The knowledge gathered from these objects is important to archaeologists and the local community for understanding the long history of the region. However, once these objects are removed the question expands into what to do with the tomb itself. Some museums have cut the wall paintings out of the tombs and put them into climate controlled rooms in order to increase accessibility to the public. This option allows for more public information to be shared. However, it also removes the objects from their context and takes part of the history away from the paintings themselves. One example of this is in The Baths of Diocletian in Rome. These paintings were cut out of their original location and moved into the museum. Unfortunately, removed from context the tomb provides limited information. This is seen in figure 1.3 above.
Another option for this wall painting is to set rules. The Tomb of the Monkey restricts photography, sets time limits to view the art, and limits access to the tomb itself. By limiting time allotted it also limits the amount of carbon dioxide and potential contamination brought into the tomb. In one paper about the site the continuous visitation of the tomb allows for microbacteria to form. “The current status of the tomb is the result of the accumulation of multiple microenvironmental changes and impacts suffered from the time of its discovery” (Diaz-Herraiz et. al., 2013). As mentioned previously, a tomb was meant to be sealed except for the visitation of family and interment of other members. The continuous opening of the entry way, turning the lights in and out, and the presence of humans creates an unbalanced environment. The tomb is important to have open to visitors because of its connection to the modern citizens of Chiusi. For locals to visit an in situ site allows them to connect their history and ancestry to a rich past. But, archaeologists also have a duty to the site to keep it preserved for further generations of study.
This is not a dilemma that will be solved soon. To be an archaeologist is to wrestle with the ethics associated with the material and community at all times. The same is true for our site on Lago de Chiusi. Right now we are debating how to preserve the site for the next season. This is a short term conservation goal. In the long term conservation goals the directors will need to decide how to deal with visitors, museums, and respect to both the communities heritage and the presentation of information. It is not an easy decision and with every site, including the Tomb of the Monkey, it will take time and research to choose the best option for the site and its future.
Visit for yourself! Museum Website: http://www.prolocochiusi.it/en/museo-nazionale-etrusco-e-tombe/
Diaz-Herraiz, Marta et al. “The Actinobacterial Colonization of Etruscan Paintings.” Scientific Reports 3 (2013): 1440. PMC. Web. 27 June 2017.
Bracci, Susanna et al. “Multidiscipinary Aprroach for the Conservation of an Etruscan Hypgean Monument.”European Journal of Science and Theology , April 2013, Vol.9, No.2, 91-106
Figure 1.1 – Susanna Bracci, Multidiscipinary Aprroach for the Conservation of an Etruscan Hypgean Monument, 2012
Figure 1.3 – Personal Photograph Taken June 25, 2017