Boundary and Ritual: Etruscan Borders


It should come as no surprise that when it comes to history, people are more likely to focus on larger civilizations.  This makes sense, following with the adage that history is written by the winners.  This also applies to the Etruscans—an Italic civilization that shared many overlaps with the development of Rome.  The Etruscans are more difficult to study because there are few surviving Etruscan texts outside of funerary inscriptions and boundary stones, especially compared to other larger Mediterranean civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, or Romans.  Because of this lack of Etruscan texts, scholars are forced to rely on material culture obtained through excavations and on historical texts by the Greeks and Romans—the “winners” of history—to learn about Etruscan society.

The boundaries of ancient Etruria cover what is nowadays part of the Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio regions of Italy.  The traditional territory is focused mostly in central Italy, with the Tiber at the eastern edge.  At their most influential, the Etruscans spanned from the Alps to near Salerno along the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The expanse of Etruria can be seen in Figure 1.  As seen in the image, Etruscan territory extended into what would later become Roman territory. The influence of the Etruscans on Roman culture can be seen in architecture, engineering of both terraces and water channels, religious practices, and the presence of Etruscan rulers in Roman society.  The last three traditional kings of Rome, before the change to a republican system in 509 BCE, were Etruscan (Morey, 1901).


Figure 1.

Kessler, Peter and Edward Dawson. Map of Etruscan and Greek Influence in Italy. 2012. History Files. Accessed July 1, 2017.

Although it is difficult to establish a clear idea on the extent of Etruscan reach, one of the easier ways to recognize borders is through language usage. The Etruscan alphabet (Figure 2) was adopted in 7th century BCE from the Greek alphabet (Bonfante, 1986) and later adapted by the Romans into the Latin alphabet.  Although there are hints at a rich literary culture in Etruscan society through self-referential texts, the majority of primary texts are lost to us or only present in fragmentary form or as translations without the original Etruscan.  However, because of the nature of Etruscan as a non-Indo-European language and the lack of surviving texts, very little is known about Etruscan syntax and grammar, and scholars only have a working vocabulary of a few hundred words.  Some important terms we know are tular (“boundary”), rasna (the name for the Etruscan people), and zichuche (“it is written”).  Zichuche is part of a long Etruscan tradition by which adding the phrase to a text essentially serves to elevate a text to a legal status. This wording additionally helps show the respect and importance of the written word in the Etruscan culture. This is not only used with legal documentation, but it is often used in connection with mythology and prophecies in Etruscan tradition (Turfa, 2012). To say something is written is to say that it is immortalized, or given by the gods.


Figure 2.

Etruscan Alphabet Development. n.d.  Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed July 2, 2017.

The best surviving Etruscan inscriptions have been found engraved on metals or etched into stones, both for funerary and legal purposes.  Etruscans often used large engraved stones to demarcate property lines, or boundaries between cities.  Figure 3 shows the Cippus Perusinius, one of the longest found boundary inscriptions.  It was created in either the 3rd or 2nd century BCE and found outside of Perugia and is from the current understanding most likely a legal documentation between two families regarding the use of a familial tomb on the other family’s property.  It is also an agreement to share the use of water from a property, which is interesting to note because the Etruscans placed high value on quality water and tended to use it to deliniate borders.  Turfa (2013) states that the Cippus Perusinius is a copy of the original agreement, which suggests that this was a copy made for the public to view.  The Cippus contains the ritualistic phrase “cecha zichuche” (as this sentence is written), officializing the law as it is literally carved into stone and turning it into something everlasting that anyone can be witness to while also legitimizing the law by seeing it in writing. (Bonfante, 2002).


Figure 3.

Cippus Perusinius. n.d. National Archaeology Museum of Perugia

Figure 4 shows one of the longer surviving Etruscan inscriptions, the Tabula Cortonensis, a dual sided inscription on a broken bronze tablet from about 200BCE. What survives of the inscription details a—or potentially multiple—contract about a property with vineyards on it.  the inscription would have originally been hung by the handle somewhere, possibly in a public archive or other public place (Bonfante, 2002). Much more about the contents of the tablet are unclear both because it is incomplete and because of the limited knowledge of Etruscan vocabulary.  The fact that many Etruscan legal documentations were created to be large or viewed in a public setting emphasizes the cultural significance of these physical symbols of borders.

It is interesting to note that boundaries played such an important role to the Etruscans, that boundaries were even an integral part of their mythology.  Selvans was the Etruscan god of boundaries and limits, and Veltymnus (the Etruscan creation God) both had large importance in Etruscan religious culture surrounding boundaries (Turfa, 2013).  They ritualized the importance of how sacred boundaries were by organizing sanctuary spaces with some sort of physically marked limit, although not enough materials have been preserved to have a clear understanding of this.  Sanctuary and urban limits tended to resemble each other, signifying perhaps that the ritualizing of boundaries came from the significance of separating the living from dead via use of necropolises.  It is also possible that the Roman tradition of pomerium as a boundary between the city and everything beyond it may have come from Etruscan tradition.  Through mythology, boundary lines were so elevated in importance that people were forewarned against moving boundaries by instilling a fear of punishment by disease, natural disaster, droughts, and death (Jannot, 2005).  Despite the importance of boundaries in Etruscan tradition, their beliefs and systems were not enough to prevent the Romans from coming in and moving these boundaries as they conquered.  In history, neither boundaries, nor memories thereof are permanent.  These things can only survive when they are agreed upon, and in the case of the Etruscans, the winners did not agree.  What remains of these elaborate traditions are artifacts, and the modern name of the region: Tuscany.


Figure 4.

Tabula Cortonensis. 2007. The Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona, Cortona.




Kessler, Peter and Edward Dawson. Map of Etruscan and Greek Influence in Italy. 2012. History Files. Accessed July 1, 2017.

Bonfonte, Larissa, ed. Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Jannot, Jean-René. Religion in Ancient Etruria. Translated by Jane Whitehead. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Tabula Cortonensis. 2007. The Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona, Cortona.

Cippus Perusinius. n.d. National Archaeology Museum of Perugia

Etruscan Alphabet Development. n.d.  Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed July 2, 2017.

Turfa, Jean MacIntosh. The Etruscan World. New York: Routledge, 2013. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Bonfante Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction, Revised Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Turfa, Jean MacIntosh. Divining the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Morey, William C. Outlines of Roman History (New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: American Books Company, 1901), accessed July 2, 2017,



Cut the schist: An overview of the impact of the geology at the Gioiella-Vaiano site

I went through a number of research topics before choosing this one. From education, to erotic themed art, to the soil type at our site in the city of Castiglione del Lago. One of the drafts for this paper was even on sex in Etruria – because both sex and geology interest me – I just have more experience with one of them (I majored in Earth Sciences for two and a half years). Enough about me, let’s begin: Professor Pedar Foss from DePauw University delivered a lecture to students in the ArchaeoTrasimeno Field School on the geologic history of Umbria. He included a set of rules; rule number #7 has to do with knowing the geologic history of an area before excavating. This is important for a number of reasons, including but not limited to being able to know if building materials could be produced locally, and understanding the local soil type to understand the potential uses of agriculture in the region.

Fig. 1. Geologic history map of Italy, courtesy of Servizio Geologico d’Italia – ISPRA. Site marked by white circle.

Site Gioiella-Vaiano, located at UTM 33T E2272744.942 N4773224.673 (standard point within research area), contains a roman villa and bathhouse. It is important to understand where building materials originate when looking at a site, as the knowledge can be useful when studying the building practices of the Roman inhabitants. Figure 1 shows the location of our site in the context of the age of the surrounding rock. The site sits atop bedrock from the end of the Pliocene era, which concluded around 3 Ma. The era was characterized as a warm period, when the world’s oceans where between 20-30 meters higher than they are today[i]. The majority of central Italy was submerged in a shallow sea, with a climate similar to that of the Bahamas. The environment was perfect for forming carbonates (limestone, dolomite), which are some of the popular building materials at the site. Limestone and dolomite are sedimentary rocks formed mostly by fragments of marine organisms. The shallow water location explains the appearance of sea shells at the site, likely belonging to snails or small crabs. However, many of the building materials are clearly volcanic in origin, and thus not from the immediate area surrounding the site. There are several volcanoes within a larger radius of the site. One of which is Mt. Amiata, around 34 kilometers from Gioiella-Vaiano. The origin of most of the igneous rock found around Mt. Amiata is from during the Middle Pleistocene period [ii]. An image of a mountain infront of the volcano from the site is featured in figure two. Therefore, most of the materials used at the villa at Gioiella-Vaiano can be either local or from the area surrounding Mt. Amiata, and the appearance of shells in the area is to be expected.

Fig. 2. Local lead archaeologist Stefano Spigante shovels in front of Mt. Cetona, seen in background, which is in front of Mt. Amiata. Photo courtesy of Jack Conway Photography LLC.

Figure 3 shows a map of the soils in the area. The soil found at the site is mostly clay and sand, and is likely fertile. An image of the soil at the site can be seen in figure 4. The image shows some small pebbles in

Fig. 3. Soils map of central Italy, with site CLG 17 marked by blue triangle. CLG 17 is located in soil area 45 which contains Leptic, Stagnic, Rhodic e Ferric Endostagnic Luvisol; Calcaric Cambisol soil. Map courtesy of CRA-ABP Centro di ricerca per l’agrobiologia e la pedologia, Firenze.[iii] Map scale: 1:1.000.000.

the clay; the soil has also been found to contain sand pockets. The clay is quite moist when digging, research suggests that this could be due to the heavy erosion which took place in the area during the Pleistocene Era that could have impaired soil drainage.[iv] The soil also contains pockets of iron deposits, appearing as red streaks. Costantini et al. (2006) states

Fig. 4. Students inside trench with clayey soil. Photo courtesy of Captain Jack Conway.

that iron is common in rock formed in the late Pliocene era, and based on the type of soil found at the site, the iron is likely from a hematite or a goethite. The natural moistness of the clay, along with the evidence of a grindstone and a mill, suggest that farming took place around the villa. However, the nearby Chiana River Valley is also incredibly fertile and controlled by the city of Chiusi. The villa is believed to have been under the control of wealthy aristocrats from the city of Chiusi and thus may have benefited from the agriculture and livestock farmed in the valley. The villa also may have supported the city of Chiusi in the event of overpopulation or an issue with farming in the river valley.


[i] Dwyer, Gary S., and Mark A. Chandler. “Mid-Pliocene sea level and continental ice volume based on coupled benthic Mg/Ca palaeotemperatures and oxygen isotopes.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 367, no. 1886 (2009): 157-168.
[ii] Pandeli, Enrico, Giovanni Bertini, Piero Castellucci, Marco Morelli, and Simonetta Monechi. “The sub-Ligurian and Ligurian units of the Mt. Amiata geothermal region (south-eastern Tuscany): new stratigraphic and tectonic data and insights into their relationships with the Tuscan Nappe.” Boll. Soc. Geol. Ital 3 (2005): 55-71.
[iii] 2012  Edoardo A.C. Costantini, Giovanni L’Abate, Roberto Barbetti, Maria Fantappi, Romina Lorenzetti, Simona Magini. Soil Map of Italy 1:1.000.000.
[iv] Costantini, E. A. C., S. Lessovaia, and Yu Vodyanitskii. “Using the analysis of iron and iron oxides in paleosols (TEM, geochemistry and iron forms) for the assessment of present and past pedogenesis.” Quaternary International 156 (2006): 200-211.

Access versus Conservation

Figure 1.1

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.

Tomb of the monkey 1.1
Figure 1.2
Figure 1.3

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:


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 1.2

Figure 1.3 – Personal Photograph Taken June 25, 2017





The Etruscan Chandelier

In 1840, an Etruscan chandelier was accidentally discovered near Cortona, Italy in the Fratta locality (See Figure 1). It has been a part of the Etruscan Academy’s archaeological collection since 1842 and is one of their “best-known and most highly prized items” (Sala del Lampadario Etrusco). 175 years later, I had the opportunity to visit the bronze piece in the Etruscan Academy’s Museum in Cortona. Though the date of the chandelier has been disputed by scholars, the Etruscan Academy supplies a date to around the fourth century BC. Because most of what we know about the Etruscans comes from their art and the archaeological record – and not their texts – this chandelier and its detailed decorations provide information about Etruscan beliefs, skills, and activities.

Fig. 1. – Etruscan Chandelier, Museum of the Etruscan Academy (Cortona Web)

While admiring the piece’s complex imagery, I noticed its separate sections: lips, an external ring, inner ring, innermost ring, and centerpiece. Starting from the outside, the lips of the chandelier are made up of sixteen figures of Achelous (See Figure 5). In Greek mythology, Achelous was the God of all water and became a river God in Hellenistic times (See Figure 2). To the Etruscans, Achelous was an important deity in mythology, evidently a reason for including his image on the chandelier over a dozen times. As in the Greek tradition, he was related to all water and carried significant ‘underworld’ associations.

Fig. 2. – Floor mosaic of Achelous, Turkey

Alternating figures of Sileni playing pipes and Sirens with their arms crossed make up the external ring of the chandelier (See Figure 1). In Greek mythology, a Silenus was a member of Dionysus’s inner circle of satyrs – ithyphallic males with goat-like features (See Figure 3). The plural “Sileni” sometimes refers to them as having horse-like rather than goat-like features but this distinction is not clear-cut. Sirens, as we all somehow remember from Homer’s Odyssey, were strange woman-bird creatures who lured sailors to their demise with music and song…creepy stuff (See Figure 4).

At the inner ring, we move away from the dangerous Sirens and onto graceful images of dolphins in waves. However, the peace remains for but a few moments before we notice four groups of wild animals attacking weaker prey. Finally, the center of the chandelier includes plant decorations and a Gorgon’s head, with mouth open and tongue out, surrounded by snakes. Though the chandelier hold glimmers of beauty, it can’t break free from the grotesque. Perhaps it’s just beautifully grotesque.

Chandelier 2
Fig. 5. – Etruscan Chandelier, Museum of the Etruscan Academy (Cortona Web)

According to the Etruscan Academy, the chandelier was a product of the northern Etruscan craft tradition and was made in a workshop with highly qualified staff and equipment owing to the complexity and difficulty of its production. Though the Etruscans’ most successful pottery style was Bucchero, they were also “master bronze smiths who exported their finished products all over the Mediterranean” (Hemingway 2004). Made from one highly complex matrix (mold), the chandelier required skill and expertise to create, surely an item no amateur could produce. Finely worked bronzes, such as the chandelier, “attest to the high quality achieved by Etruscan artists, particularly in the Archaic and Classical periods” (Hemingway 2004). The piece was made using cera persa technique, also known as lost-wax casting. This process allows for the duplication of original casts, often in silver, gold, brass or bronze. Because of this technique, some of the piece’s decorative figures were copied from other works, while others are in fact original and unique.

The combination of figures and imagery, including creatures, waves, and snakes, leads to interesting interpretations. Some scholars, like Van Der Meer, believe that the chandelier is cosmic in nature. Others argue for meanings such as death, ongoing life, fertility (Achelous and the ithyphallic nature of the Sileni), the Underworld (Gorgon), the ocean (waves and dolphins), and heaven (Sileni and Sirens).

It is believed that the chandelier was originally used to light an important place of worship and was perhaps even rededicated at one point to another location. Unfortunately, the chandelier’s origin has yet to be identified or located, however it is believed to be near Cortona. The piece is thought to have been in a religious context because many of its elements are “also present as motifs in funerary contexts” (Van Der Meer 294, 2014). Noting the various details of the chandelier, it would be difficult to decide definitely that it only served one purpose. Some elements of the piece suggest that its context may have been a tomb, but it may have also been used in a funerary temple or chapel (Van Der Meer 294, 2014). It’s best to hold onto these options because the exact history of the piece is cloudy and making assumptions impedes one’s ability to think widely.

Works Referenced

Hemingway, Colette, and Sean Hemingway. “Etruscan Art.” Timeline of Art History. The    Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004. Web. 19 June 2017.

“Il Lampadario Etrusco.” Museum of the Etruscan Academy. Cortona, Italy. 9 June 2017.

“Museums, Archives and Libraries.” Cortonaweb: Everything about Cortona. Comune di Cortona, 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.

“Sala del Lampadario Etrusco.” Museum of the Etruscan Academy. Cortona, Italy. 9 June 2017.

Van Der Meer, Bouke. “The Etruscan Bronze Lamp of Cortona, its Cosmic Program and its Attached Inscription.” Latomus 73 (2014): 289 – 302. Web. 19 June 2017.


Digging for the truth: Stefano Spiganti

     Another week of 90 degree weather on a Roman excavation site in Valano – Gioella, Castiglione del Lago, a small town bordering Lake Trasimeno in central Italy. As the sun beats down against the soil, a team of archaeologists including Pedar Foss, Rebecca Schindler, Giampiero Bevagna (Umbra Institute Professor), and Italian native Stefano Spiganti, have taken six weeks out of their summer to teach twelve students what it means to be archaeologists in the 21st century. Both Schindler and Foss traveled from DePauw University located in Greencastle, IN. The two professors earned Ph.Ds in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan and have been on many adventures and excavations, aiming to discover the truth behind the planet’s past inhabitants. Stefano took a different route, choosing to head directly into the field without earning his Ph.D. He has found success and satisfaction in his area of expertise. In a short interview, held five minutes away from the work site, Stefano shares his perspective on archaeology and explains how he got to the position he holds today.

It is necessary for archaeologists to keep an accurate field notebook. In this image Stefano is depicting the trench in front him, so he always knows what progress has been made in previous work days.

Spiganti cradles his Samsung Camera while overlooking the excavation area before snapping pictures of a trench on an early June morning. This is a ritual for the archaeologist. Photographing the worksite is a vital technique necessary for documenting the excavation correctly.
     Stefano grew up in Todi, a town located in central Italy overlooking the Tiber River. The town has a history dating back to the beginning of civilizations in Italy, which explains his fascination with digging into the past — he remembers archaeology being a passion of his since childhood. Spiganti has worked on over twenty worksites throughout his career in Italy, having excavated numerous notable sites including the Domus of Dolia in Vetulonia and Fulgur Conditum, also known under the name “Tomb of the Lamp”, located in Todi. One may wonder how an archaeologist without their Ph.D. is able to find work continuously throughout the year. He explains, “Professors from the University of Perugia have kept me well connected throughout the years, especially Prof. Gian Luca Grassigli. I also met with an American Professor who then arranged another meeting with another Professor, almost like a chain reaction of interactions, leading to where I am now.” Clearly for someone who graduated only six years ago, Spiganti has been able to make quite a name for himself throughout the field as well as maintaining a quality reputation with his peers.

Spiganti uses a chalkboard to write down the name of each trench towards the ending of the work day. After using the the chalkboard and placing it in the trench, he takes photographs as a way of keeping record.
      Archaeology runs in the blood of the Spiganti family. He has two cousins who currently work in the field, but he notes, “they did not push me to become an archaeologist, instead this is something I have always wanted to do, and I decided to go into the field myself.” Stefano has yet to excavate outside of his home country, but has been invited to do so. “Recently I have been invited to excavate in Mexico,” Stefano expressed between bites of a prosciutto and cheese sandwich, “the excavation was held in Cerro De Las Hesas, but I had to politely decline in order to continue working on my current projects in Italy.” In other words, his expertise is appreciated abroad. Later this summer, he will continue to work at Massa Martana with another college, Drew University, located on the outskirts of NJ. He also has three other digs lined up in the meantime throughout Eturia. When asked if he could see himself doing anything else besides archaeology as a career, he laughed and responded “no I cannot, uncovering the truth is a mission, not a job.” 

DSC_1798 2
Stefano takes a topographic survey of the work site CLG17 on a Monday afternoon. This another important process in archaeology. The equipment has the ability to read the elevations of the excavation site.

A mix of dirt and clay being thrown into buckets. After the material is collected, a sifter looks through the dirt for ancient artifacts.

Stefano working with students in the middle of the afternoon on the Castiglione Del Lago (CLG17) worksite.

An Equid Tibia and its Significance

While most people on the dig site are looking for beautiful mosaics, sculptures, structures and the like, I am hoping that we uncover bones, specifically animal bones. So, when I heard my name being yelled multiple times by multiple people one day while cleaning up, I was excited. As I went over to the other trench-a well-deserved break from pick-axing- I saw a group of people huddled around one area. “We have a bone!” they yelled, as I stumbled and sort of slid down the dirt to the place they were digging. The group cleared and I saw a beautiful bone situated in the despised hard clay. Upon closer inspection, the bone was broken on one end and still covered in dirt on the other making it difficult to identify. Based on the uncovered outline of the bone and its size, I thought that the bone belonged to the rear leg bone of either a cow or horse. The next day I was able to find out if my hypotheses were correct.

After arriving on site the next day, I went with my dental picks, brushes, and Miranda, a friend who is also interested in bones (albeit human) to unearth the bone. While carefully removing clumps of dirt from the entrapped end, I detailed two facets or grooves in the bone. Immediately I knew that the bone was a tibia belonging to a mammal in the Perissodactyla Order. This order includes families of Equidae (horses, donkey/asses, zebras, and hybrids), Tapiridae (tapirs), and Rhinocerotidae (rhinoceros), but due to the location of the villa and dating of the site we can exclude the families of Tapiridae and Rhinocerotidae. Thus, the bone must belong to the family including horses, donkeys, and their hybrids. I was able to determine this because the grooves were diagonally formed into the end of the bone which articulates with the diagonally oriented single pulley astragalus (Fig. 1 and 2) (Biewener 1988). This diagonal orientation distinguishes the bone from bovids (cows, goats, and sheep) who have a double-pulley astragalus which is parallel to MSP or without a diagonal orientation (Fig. 2). Thus, this bone demonstrates that an equid, or at least an equid leg, was present at the site.

Figure 1: Left: Bone before removal. Right: Diagonal orientation of articulation with astragalus. Photo by Jack Conway.

Figure 2: Left: Equid astragalus. Single pulley shape, diagonal to MSP.  Photo from University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils. Right: Bovid astragalus. Double pulley, parallel to MSP. Photo from BoneID.

Astragulus articulation

Figure 3: Articulation of tibia and astragulus in equid. Photo courtesy of Devin Ward from an unknown source.

Equids were a very important aspect of Roman society. “Despite its complicated political and social structure the Roman Empire depended entirely on oxen, mules, donkeys and horses for all its land transport and postal service”(Clutton-Brock 1992: 118). Throughout the Empire horses and other equids were used for trade, communication, military, and spectacle. In the Roman Empire, the type of equid can provide more information regarding the function of a site and the social status of its inhabitants. “Horses were used as cavalry mounts, chariot racing, riding (transport and hunting) and occasionally pulling carriages. Mules were mostly used for draught purposes (mostly road haulage but also for carriages), as pack animals (particularly in the army) and were occasionally ridden. Donkeys were used primarily for traction (turning mills and ploughing in areas of light soil) and as pack animals” (Johnstone 2004: 37). The wide variety of jobs and uses of these equids, makes identifying their remains from each an important piece of evidence for understanding the use of a site and its occupants.

mull drawn ballistae

Figure 4: Mule drawn ballistae from Trajan’s Column. Photo from Legio I Lynx Fulminata.

equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius

Figure 5: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Photo from

Due to the similarity of their bones, it is difficult to determine from a portion of a tibia (seen in Fig. 1) if the bone belongs to a horse, mule, or donkey. If the bone belongs to a horse, it was most likely used as a riding or carriage horse. In this context, the horse would have been used as a status symbol (Fig. 4), a means of personal transportation or for hunting. Due to the large size of the villa at our site, the inhabitants of the location at one point most likely had the means to care for horses.

The value of horses is also shown in the zooarchaeological assemblage found in Nitra-Chrenova in Slovakia. At this site, a fully articulated horse skeleton was found with pathological changes secondary to an infection from a perforating wound. Even though these changes were long-lasting and rendered the horse not rideable, the owner continued to treat and care for the horse until its death (Janeczek 2010).

Mules were also common in the Roman Empire and were “the primary baggage and draught animal of both the Roman army and the civilian Cursus publicus” (Johnstone 2004: 65). If the bone belongs to a mule, the mule would have been worked at the site as a work animal but also a status symbol as mules were not cheap (Johnstone 2004: 65). If the bone belongs to a donkey, it means that the site was used for some type of production ranging from agriculture to pottery as donkeys were used as the main work force in Roman society (Johnstone 2004: 66). On the site a rotary quern stone was recently discovered. This stone would have been powered by an equid, if not slaves, for the production of flour. The use of donkeys as a workforce is due to their ability to carry large loads, wide variety of diet, and resistance to many diseases. Due to their low maintenance and wide accessibility, donkeys were relatively cheap and sometimes even sold with the shipments they carried (Johnstone 2004: 70). With some luck and fortune, we might be able to find more bones of this individual. Through the analysis of zoological remains, one is able to not only determine the life, tribulations, and death of animal but also determine the lifestyle of its owners. With every bone there is new information about a site’s inhabitants (whether that be human or animal) and a new puzzle for me to solve.



Works Cited

Biewener, A. A., J. J. Thomason, and L. E. Lanyon. “Mechanics of locomotion and jumping in the horse (Equus): in vivo stress in the tibia and metatarsus.” Journal of Zoology 214, no. 3 (1988): 547-565.

Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse power: a history of the horse and the donkey in human societies. Natural History Museum Publications, 1992.

Janeczek, M., A. Chrószcz, Z. Miklikova, and M. Fabis. “The pathological changes in the hind limb of a horse from the Roman Period.” Veterinarni Medicina 55, no. 7 (2010): 331-335.

Johnstone Cluny, Jane. “A Biometric Study of Equids in the Roman World.” PhD diss., PhD thesis. University of York, York, 2004.

Reconstruction of Skeletal Remains

While walking through the Chianciano Terme museum, I saw many things, but what caught my eye from a distance was the display of the ‘Necropolis of Tolle’ holding a partial skeleton. At first, I was eager to see this skeleton and its significance within the museum, but became disenchanted as I got a closer look. Being interested in the forensic field and knowledgeable in osteology, I noticed right away that the bones were not in their appropriate place. The accuracy in placement and reconstruction of skeletal remains is more significant than one might think. There is always room for error; however, these errors within can impact not only the experience of the museum but hypotheses of future research as well.

As my fellow students watched me stare down this skeleton, I tallied the number of reconstruction mistakes: too many. Not only did these mistakes consist of bones put in the wrong place, but in particular, the ulna (in your forearm) was placed as the tibia (in your lower leg), which is wrong for so many reasons – but I’ll describe just a few (see figure 1). Since learning from previous osteology classes, the patterns and angles you see within the biomechanics of humans can help uncover history, as well as discover new kinds of evidence. Not only that, it can help recognize the trial and errors that humans may have had to go through at one point to succeed with the environment. Analyzing this skeleton’s evidence of walking patterns through the bone could help determine any number of things including what type of physical environments they lived regarding the landscape.

At the top of the ulna lies a curved part of bone called the ‘olecranon process’ (see figure 2). This connects to the distal end (bottom) of your humerus in your arm, which connects to your arm so it can bend up and down. However, in your leg, the distal end (bottom) of your femur connects to your knee and the proximal (top) of your tibia. Looking at figure 3, you can see a comparison of the tibia to the previous photo of the ulna. “The elliptical shape in humans helps to lock the knee in place and create straight-forward forward leg movement” (Kappelman 2012, 8). Structurally, the biomechanics of the ulna against the femur, rather than the tibia against the femur, simply lacks the ability to function properly. Also, visuals are important in the sense that trying to notice that structure of forward leg movement can be difficult, especially when bones are not reconstructed properly.

Reconstruction errors among skeletal remains are not only confusing visually, but can also skew potential research data. For stature (measuring an individual’s height), there are specific equations related to different parts of the body where you have to size up the bones to one another. More importantly, you need to measure the tibia to help with stature (not the ulna). Looking at figure 4, you can see that there are pre-determined equations that help anthropologists do this. Using an ulna rather than actual tibia would skew the data drastically in estimating height. The SFU Museum helps emphasize this idea of measuring different bones, “this would have required a different formula, and because the arms do not correlate as well to height as the legs, the stature estimation would not have been as accurate” (Simon Fraser University 2010). Your bones are all different sizes, so the pre-set calculated numbers would be off and you would get the wrong answers if you took the bones and conducted research from there.

Of all things that could go wrong with skeletal reconstruction, the visual function itself within a museum is one of the most important. Reconstructing properly makes things more real, “the collections and even the exhibitions of any museum are only as valuable as the documented knowledge about them” (Lord and Piacente 2014, 9). If skeletal remains are reconstructed and documented incorrectly, information that is displayed to the viewer is obviously incorrect as well. One thing worth pointing out, however, is the archaeological state in which these remains may be found. When scholars dig up a grave, it isn’t aways in the burial state. Some of these excavations may be something like family tombs, and for hundreds of years things can interfere from the transition to archaeological state from the burial state.

All in all, if the reconstruction is wrong, then it can’t be real. If the purpose is to convey that reality, then the realness in reconstruction can undermine the whole thing. It really is all about the correctness and what the museum is trying to tell you through time. Walking up to that skeleton in the museum was great – until I saw the errors in the reconstruction – then it became exciting. It was an excitement and annoyance all in one, and if anything, it became more interesting because I wondered why it was placed like that. Did the archaeologist not know? Was it found in that wrong position to begin with? Was the burial or excavation that made it look like the bone ‘belonged’ there? Or was it moved in antiquity?



Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 7.26.53 PM
Skeletal Remains

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 7.27.25 PM
Figure 1: Bone Error of Ulna as Tibia. Chianciano Terme museum

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 8.04.53 PM
Figure 2: top of ulna White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 10.43.04 PM
Figure 3: top of tibia White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 9.50.05 PM
Figure 4: Stature Estimation Chart Washington State University, Anthropology Department

Works Referenced

Kappelman, John. 2012. The Evolution of Bipedalism. Austin, Texas: NSDL.

Lord, Barry. 2014. Manual of Museum Exhibitions, Second Edition. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield

SFU Museum of Archaeology. 2010. Biological Profile/ Stature. Burnaby, B.C., Canada: Simon Fraser University.

White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.




Picking Up the Pieces: Determining the Social Status of the Gioiella Site Through our Initial Findings

During one of our first lectures upon arriving at Castiglione Del Lago, Professor Foss, one of the teachers leading this archaeological dig, told us that archaeology is like reassembling a puzzle, but you do not know the initial picture… and you only had ten percent of the pieces. The validity of that statement did not resonate with me until I saw that very professor’s eyes light up after I showed him a small shard of black pottery.

“Great job Jack,” Professor Foss said after discussing with a couple of his colleagues about this mysterious piece of pottery. Just because of this one piece of pottery, our professors developed multiple ideas not only about the origin and use of the bowl it came from, but about the site as a whole. His enthusiasm inspired me to start thinking about not just if each shard of pottery was important in its own right, but what this piece could tell us about the site as a whole. In a previous article published by the professors leading this excavation at the Gioiella site, they found 12,734 objects during a basic survey of the area. Among these pieces was a high concentration of coarseware as well as other cookware which led them to believe that this site was used for production of domestic wares (Bevagna, Foss, Shindler, Spiganti 2017). These findings in the initial survey  translated to the actual excavation, but with an increase on the discovery of the fineware, evidence of carbon and oxidized iron deposits, as well as other burnt pottery, which suggests that this site was a place where coarse and cookware was being produced for their own economic ventures. According to Tamara Lewit, the production of personal tableware, whether fine or semifine, as well as coarseware, happened throughout all of Roman territory for personal use (Lewit 2017). This feature of Roman villas may apply to the excavation of our potential villa. There is an excess of coarseware and tiles on site, although there have been no discoveries of stamps which would indicate if the production of the tiles or pots were domestically produced or imported from other sites. Among the finds that we have discovered, there have been two significant pieces of fineware that are broken, but our team has been able to recover most of the shards, giving us a nearly whole piece (see (Image 1).

After a week of work, the professors in charge took us to museums that presented pieces of pottery and other artifacts that are from the same area that our site is located. We first visited the Etruscan Academy Museum, which sported a vast selection of not only Etruscan wares, but the art of every civilization that occupied the area until current day, including the time period that our site was occupied (roughly 2nd century BC to the 3rd century AD). One of their main attractions was an excavated roman villa called Ossaia that was in operation the same time that our site had been (see Images 2 and 3 for reference to pieces similar to Gioiella sire pieces). Ossaia not only used the same agricultural methods as our site in terraced farming, but also sported similar fineware pot and cups that we have been uncovering and had substantial proof that they produced their own pottery for their own economic ventures (Gualtieri Rossini Moroni 2017). Next, we went to the National Etruscan Museum in Chusi, which also had pieces from the same time period as our site. After viewing the pieces at these museums, I could not help but think about the extremely similar pieces that are from the same time periods of our site (see Image 4). After further investigation on my own, I discovered that they were from villas that were contemporaries of our site. Unlike our site however, the other Roman villas where these pieces have been discovered were vastly more excavated and researched. It is through this that I believe that not only the villas were contemporaries of ours, but the people who lived there were as well.

With the amount and quality of the pieces we have been uncovering in only one week of excavation, and only after digging 12 centimeters past the initial strata of tilled soil, I am optimistic for further finds that can make us comfortable with calling this site an ancient Roman villa. Through that assumption, we can also conclude that this villa was both producing its own pieces of pottery, and importing other fineware pieces from other sites along the countryside, signifying that this site was occupied by affluent aristocrats, like many of the others in the Val di Chiana.


Figure 1: our discovery of the first large piece of fineware at our site in Gioiella, still in the ground, but when extracted, formed a very artistic bowl.


Images 2 and 3 are from the Ossaia villa in the Cortona museum. Both of these pieces were produced during the same period that our site would have been in operation.


Figure 4 shows a rim and bowl base from a villa in the Chiana valley around the same time as our site would have been in operation.


Works Cited:

  • Bevagna, G., P. Foss, R. Schindler, and S. Spiganti. “Castiglione Del Lago, Gioiella Site Survey, 2015: Preliminary Report.” Associazione Internazionale De Archeologia Classica(2015): 21.FastiOnlineDocuments&Research. Web. 9 June 2017.
  • Fracchia, H., 2006b, “Middle to Late Imperial Ceramic Production and Evolution in the Southern Val di Chiana”, in D Malfitana, et al. (eds.), Old Pottery in a New Century, Catania. 2017.
  • Gualtieri, M., Rossini G., Moroni B., “Campana plaques from Ossaia – La Tufa (Cortona, Arezzo): from archaeological hypotheses to archaeometric results” in Periodico di Mineralogia. 2017.
  • Lewit, Tamara. “The Lessons of Gaulish Sigillata and Other Finewares.” Local Economies?(n.d.): 227-57. Brill Online Books and Journals. Web. 9 June 2017.
  • Marzano, Annalisa. Roman Villas in Central Italy: A Social and Economic History. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2007. Print.

The Sharing of Lake Trasimeno by the Etruscan Cities of Chiusi, Cortona, and Perugia

Lake Trasimeno is a fascinating aspect of the local landscape not only because of its shallow depths and sole dependence on rainfall, but also because scholars believe that it was a shared aquatic resource for three powerful Etruscan cities: Chiusi, Cortona, and Perugia. The reason that the sharing of Lake Trasimeno is puzzling to Archaeologists and Historians alike is because we don’t know how they negotiated the terms of use. Although Archaeologists have discovered Etruscan inscriptions about the boundaries of the three cities, there haven’t been any records describing how they managed the Lake. The lack of records of possible negotiations regarding use of the Lake leaves room for theories to develop, one of which I will be discussing in this post.

It is possible that in the early stages of Chiusi’s, Cortona’s, and Perugia’s presence in the area, they competed for the natural aquatic resources of the Lake, such as fish and reeds. However, competition can lead to over-extraction, which can lead to the degradation the Lake’s already limited resources. All three of the cities would feel the repercussions of the resource depletion, and they may have been persuaded by this fear to come to an agreement regarding the use of Lake Trasimeno (there have been multiple sanctuaries found around the the Lake, indicating that it may have been sacred space which may have played a part in the negotiations). However, after researching the structure of shared aquatic resources of the present day, such as the  Yellow Sea, East China Sea and Lake Titicaca, in Peru, I’ve managed to piece together an anthropological parallel of why Chiusi, Cortona, and Perugia decided to share Lake Trasimeno.

During my research, I came across a similar situation to that of Lake Trasimeno in the twentieth century with the Yellow Sea and East China Sea. The China Seas have been used by China, Japan, and both North and South Korea for centuries, however the competition between the nations caused over-fishing, which depleted stocks and posed a threat to the already fragile aquatic ecosystem (Xue 2005, 365). This resulted in the Sino-Japanese Agreement being signed between China and Japan, and the Sino-Korean Agreement being signed between China and the Republic of Korea, in order to manage aquatic boundaries and maintain the ecosystem they all relied on. (Xue 2005, 366).

If this over-extraction situation were to have taken place with Lake Trasimeno, then it is likely that Chiusi, Cortona, and Perugia would have decided to come to an agreement regarding sharing the Lake instead of completely depleting it. This idea is a global phenomenon that Göran Dave and Mohiudan Munawar comment on by saying that “as the degradation of the environment became readily apparent, political will to stop degradation lead to the formation of new national and international agreements to reduce pollution” (Dave et al. 2014, 440). Therefore, theoretically, the three cities could have either come to a formal or informal agreement. They could have come to a formal, written agreement like the China Seas, or they may have come to an informal one like Lake Titicaca, in Peru. The 151 fishing communities around Lake Titicaca have certain “exclusive, though informal, rights,” meaning that the communities recognize the others’ territories without a written record of boundaries (Levieil et al. 1990, 367).

Although the real reasoning behind the sharing of Lake Trasimeno may be lost to us, or simply undiscovered, the idea of over-exploitation is simply one of potentially many theories. Chiusi, Cortona, and Perugia may have decided to develop either a formal or informal agreement over the Lake, or they may have constantly fought over it for generations. This anthropological parallel simply poses one possible situation that the three cities may have found themselves in, which would have called for negotiations over the Lake to take place.



Dave, Göran and Mohiuddin Munawar. 2014. “Aquatic Ecosystems Across Boundaries: Significance of International Agreements and Cooperation.” Aquatic ecosystem Health and Management 17 (4): 437-46. doi: 10.1080/14634988.2014.978245.

East China Sea. From

Lago Trasimeno. From

Levieil, Dominique P. and Benjamin Orlove. 1990. “Local Control of Aquatic Resources: Community and Ecology in Lake Titicaca, Peru.” American Anthropologist 92 (2): 362-82.

Map of Copacabana & Lake Titicaca. From Lonely Planet.

Xue, Guifang (Julia). 2005. “Bilateral Fisheries Agreements for the Cooperative Management of the Shared Resources of the China Seas: A Note.” Ocean Development and International Law 36: 363-74. doi: 10.1080/00908320500308767.




Agriculture and Archaeology: Looking Back and Forward


There is no doubt that the study of archaeology is intrinsically linked with the quality of the soil on the site being observed.  But what can the composition of the soil teach  us to better understand the relationship between strata and the artifacts found there?  This question becomes increasingly significant when we understand what tools were used in working the land.  The ability to work soil and make agriculture manageable is a hallmark of human ingenuity and as such is witnessed to be heavily intertwined with different cultures’ iconography and mythology.  In Etruria, there is a common myth centering around farmers’ agricultural development and the tools they utilized  hinting to the tools’ symbolic meaning.  Common on cinerary urns dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. is imagery depicting “The hero who fights with the plow” as seen in figure 1.  This myth reveals potential social upheaval in Etruscan society at the time and the depiction of agricultural tools solidifies their significance within local history not only as a staple of farming life but also as a symbolic tool in understanding the definition of city boundaries. (Archaeological museum of Chiusi 2017).  The plow, in particular, was a necessary tool used in planning a city and tilling its boundaries was often the first step as well as a sacred religious practice.   This solidifies the plow not only as a necessary tool in human agricultural development but as an important symbolic one.  The social upheaval during the 2nd century B.C.E is centered around the Etruscans’ conflict with incoming Romans.  The depiction of a tool, necessary for drawing city lines and agriculture, being used as a weapon directly addresses the Etruscans’ appeal to incoming Roman power.


Fig 1. The Hero Who Fights with a Plow

The act of tilling earth, while necessary for the aeration of soil, inherently disturbs the original stratification of what is being worked.  This can result in tillage erosion directly threatening the geomorphology and soil distribution of the area.  It is incredibly relevant in the field of archaeology that each and every strata of soil must be examined to understand the basis of humans’ interaction with the area.  While this impact has always been recognizable in the redistribution of soil layer, for the majority of human history tilling has been accomplished through the use of animal drawn plows which statistically do not reach the same levels of redistribution that modern day, mechanized implements do (Van Oost K. et al 2006).  The introduction of mechanized agriculture in the form of motorized vehicles and plows substantially lessened the workload that individuals were forced to undertake while increasing the amount of soil disruption possible (Van Oost K. et al 2006).  Fig 2 depicts a comparison of such devices and the size of the implements speaks to the difference in workload that an animal-powered device can exert compared to a mechanized one which potentially reaches meters farther.  In this regard the effects of modern, mechanized agricultural production are immediately apparent to the archaeologist who must deal with these disturbed strata of soil.


Plow Smaller

Figure 2. Comparison of ancient and mechanized plow

It is obvious that these practices disturb soil layers and their accessibility to the archaeologist, but they also result in the countless destruction of sites and artifacts that lie just below the earth (Keller Donald, Rupp David 1983).  The direct impact of agricultural tilling is apparent on our work on the Gioiella site where modern, mechanized farm equipment has disturbed multiple strata of soil and heavily broken up a number of artifacts including Arretine ware, terracotta tiles, and other cookware implements.  In figure 3, the disruption of soil strata is clearly evident and with continuous tilling multiple layers are mixed together with any fragile artifacts suffering potential damage.  While it is not possible to determine whether or not these methods result in all of the damage found at the Gioiella site, there is not doubt that continuous tilling has resulted in the disruption of soil strata and artifacts.

Soil TIll Smaller
Fig 3. Disturbed Soil strata at the Gioiella site

And this is where our studies at Gioiella as archaeologists and the local history of Italy intertwine on a deeper level.  The previously discussed disruption of soil strata is clearly visible in the farmland worked in figures 3 and 4 in the sunflower fields.  The prevalence of the hero myth, common in Etruscan culture, has briefly highlighted the significance of agricultural tools in the both the agricultural sphere and religious sphere of human culture.   As such there is a bitter irony that modern developments in mechanized agriculture have reached the point where they may so easily destroy this rich history.  This conflict is unavoidable as humans always refine methods to work their land more efficiently.  However, we must use our understanding of this disruption to grasp the relationship between human development in the past and the present.

Fig 4. Example of Soil Tilling at the Gioiella site

Works Cited

“Cinerary Urns” Archaeological Museum of Chiusi, 2017

Donald R. Keller, David W. Rupp “Archaeological Survey in the Mediterranean Area” B A R International Series 155, pp. 1-15 1983

Van Oost, G. Govers, S. De Alba T. A. Tillage erosion: a review of controlling factors and implications for soil quality”  Quine Progress in Physical GeographyVol 30, Issue 4, pp. 443 – 466 First published date: August-19-2016