In Brief

Unearthed Inscription May Unlock Mysteries of the Etruscan Language

The Etruscan stele discovered in the foundations of a monumental temple, where it had been for over 2,500 years (courtesy Mugello Valley Project)
The Etruscan stele discovered in the foundations of a monumental temple, where it had been for over 2,500 years (courtesy Mugello Valley Project)

The few examples of Etruscan language that survive tell more about the dead than the everyday lives of the living, being mostly eulogies in tombs of the elite. The longest known text — and the only linen work to make it to the modern age — is a calendar reused in the binding of an Egyptian mummy. So the recent discovery of a four-foot high, 500-pound sandstone stele at Poggio Colla northeast of Florence that has around 70 legible letters and punctuation marks is huge for the study of this ancient civilization.

Detail of the inscription on the stele (courtesy Mugello Valley Project)
Detail of the inscription on the stele (courtesy Mugello Valley Project) (click to enlarge)

Southern Methodist University (SMU), the main sponsor of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project which unearthed the stone in the foundation of a temple, announced the find this week. Jean MacIntosh Turfa, an Etruscan scholar with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, stated in the release that “[i]nscriptions of more than a few words, on permanent materials, are rare for the Etruscans, who tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets.”

Over the coming months, according to SMU, researchers with the University of Florence will be examining and conserving the sixth century BCE stone, using laser scanning and photogrammetry to gain a better view of the inscription. Being that it was found at a temple, salvaged for its foundation some 2,500 years ago, it’s likely the writing may relate to religion, potentially filling in gaps in historic knowledge of Etruscan practices.

Theresa Huntsman of Washington University writes for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that there “are no known parent languages to Etruscan, nor are there any modern descendants, as Latin gradually replaced it, along with other Italic languages, as the Romans gradually took control of the Italian peninsula.” In other words, deciphering Etruscan can still be difficult, as no literature or major written work still exists, and although it shares characteristics with the Greek alphabet, it was distinct. For example, text was written from right to left (although early Greek was written this way). Larissa Bonfante notes in Etruscan Life and Afterlife that “[w]hat we know most about, their monuments, has to be ‘read’ in order to gain information about their history, their religion, their daily life.”

Roman emperor Claudius is known to have compiled a compendium of 20 books on Etruscan history that are now lost, and fascinating objects like the 2nd century BCE “Liver of Piacenza,” a bronze of a sheep’s liver etched with Etruscan writing, have offered fleeting glimpses of this obscured past. The stele may broaden our knowledge of this lost language, which remains one of the ancient world’s great enigmas.

Scientists examining the Etruscan stele (courtesy Mugello Valley Project)
Scientists examining the Etruscan stele (courtesy Mugello Valley Project)

h/t Ars Technica

Read more about the Etruscan stele discovery by the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project at Southern Methodist University

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