The Mysterious Pyramid of Bomarzo: Discovering The Etruscan’s Enigmatic Past
The ancient and far-reaching history of Europe is often veiled in mists of mystery. Enigmatic peoples, diverse cultures, and strange legends are all left in the past, with not a lot left behind them to assemble a proper tale.
And one of these enigmatic cultures belongs to the ancient Etruscans. Once opulent and sprawling, the Etruscan civilization met its end in the shadow of emerging Roman Republic. But without a doubt, this important culture left many traces in the Italian peninsula – traces that are uncovered even today.
Today we’re exploring a unique archeological site – an enigmatic monument that speaks of the illustrious and intriguing past of the Etruscan civilization and the distant corners of history that are covered in mystery. Let’s explore the pyramid of the Etruscans!
To the Etruscan Gods: Discovering the Pyramid of Bomarzo
Archaeology often implies unearthing – digging up remnants of our long gone past from the earth. But what about those ancient monuments that are safe and sound above the surface – weathered by time and nature? They should be familiar and easy to spot, right? Well...not quite.
Even if they are above the ground, not all remnants of the ancient past are that easy to recognize and discover. Nature hides them efficiently. And that’s exactly the story of the Pyramid of Bomarzo.
The area around the town of Bomarzo, an hour-and-half north of Rome, is the heavily wooded place known as Tacchiolo – the very part of Tuscany which was formed by primordial volcanic activity. In turn – Tacchiolo is a haven of dense nature, filled with lakes, boulders and woodlands.
The town of Bomarzo, Italy where the Pyramid of Bomarzo is located. (fantomas70 / Adobe Stock)
In 1991, two Italian researchers reported the discovery of a large, pyramid-like structure deep in the forest, which resembled a stepped pyramid. The discovery didn’t resonate in Rome’s scientific circles – it was shown little interest and was quickly forgotten.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the Pyramid of Bomarzo once again made itself known – with the help of Salvatore Fosci, an agriculturalist who re-discovered this peculiar remnant, and conducted a detailed clearing of the dense growth around it. And this time, the discovery echoed – it quickly piqued the interest of society.
Sasso del Predicatore: A Sacrificial Stone or Something Else?
The monument that was ‘unearthed’ by Mr. Fosci was a novelty on the Italian peninsula – a rare discovery that would conceivably belong in South America. Even though it was quickly called the “Pyramid of Bomarzo”, the structure is not quite pyramid-shaped. In fact, it is a large boulder of volcanic grey tuff of roughly triangular, conical shape, measuring roughly 26 feet (8 meters) by 53 feet (16 meters), and standing some 33 feet (10 meters) high.
The boulder was known by the locals as Sasso del Predicatore – The Stone of the Preacher – and a single glance at the carved steps on it could tell you why. The stepped pyramid immediately reminds you of Maya remnants, although far, far away. The front of the pyramid is separated into two levels.
The first staircase has 20 steps and leads to a small altar. From there two smaller staircases, with 9 and 10 steps respectively, lead to the upper, main altar on the top. The right front side is very angular, and has prominent deep grooves and channels running from the top to the very bottom of the pyramid – suggesting a sacrificial role of these altars. Between the stairs, several square holes remain, seemingly used to hold poles and similar structural parts.
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Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo. Source: Alessio Russo / Adobe Stock.
The skill with which the steps and grooves were carved, from the volcanic tuff, suggests the work of an advanced civilization, and possible ritual role ties with the Etruscan pantheon, which played a significant role in their society. Upon discovery of the pyramid, the experts agreed that it was built sometime around the 7th century BC as an Etruscan temple altar. But are there more secrets to this seemingly simple structure?
In Rome’s Shadow: The History of the Etruscans
Emerging from the Iron Age Villanovan culture in circa 700 BC, the Etruscan civilization formed into one of the crucial identities in ancient history, and one of the more prominent Italic peoples. From the earliest beginnings, the Etruscans formed a unique identity, and were in constant trade with the Celts in the north and the Greeks in the east.
They were influenced by ancient Greece in mythology, art, and architecture – and possibly religion as well. Among the Celtic peoples, Etruscan luxury items were highly sought after, and the constant trade between the two peoples made the Etruscan elite very rich and influential, which in turn placed focus on literature, art, and culture.
Etruscan dancers, 470 BC. (Eloquence / Public Domain)
But on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans saw a rise of a new and increasingly formidable power – Rome. With the political picture in the Mediterranean shifting with the rise of Rome, the Etruscans’ influence began weakening.
From the 4th century BC, a series of Roman-Etruscan wars began, which saw a gradual annexation of Etruscan cities. The last such city, Volsinii, fell in 264 BC – and the Etruscans were assimilated into the Roman culture. In truth, they had a great impact on the development of Roman identity, but in the end, couldn’t resist the growing expansion of that powerful city-state.
The Etruscan language persevered for some 300 years, until it was finally gone, and with it the remnants of the once powerful Etruscan civilization.
The Mysterious Ais: The Etruscan Religion
The Etruscan religion that formed from the Iron Age practices of the Villanovan culture, was heavily influenced by the Greek mythology, and also shared similarities with the emerging Roman culture. The religion was polytheistic, and a heavy emphasis was placed on the power of the deities – the Etruscans believed that all visible phenomena were divine manifestations.
But their pantheon didn’t differ too much from that of their neighbors. The gods, called ‘ais’ in the Etruscan language, were split into three layers. The lowest layer was reserved for the common, indigenous deities – Usil the god of sun, Tivr the moon god, Laran the god of war, and his consort Turan the goddess of love and fertility.
Statues of Usil the god of the sun, 500-480 BC. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In the second ‘layer’ are the Greek deities that were clearly adopted under the early influence: Pacha, Aritimi, Menrva – the Etruscan equivalents to Bacchus, Artemis, and Minerva. The highest aspect of the Etruscan pantheon was the trinity that ruled over all: Tinia the god of the sky, his wife, Uni, and the goddess of earth – Cel.
From this elaborate pantheon a complex system of priest and officials arose. The most important religious figures of the Etruscan society were the netsvis, the so-called haruspex, were made the center piece of daily life and social events.
The most prominent form of religious practice was divination from the liver. These priests would sacrifice sheep and examine the bumps on the liver – these would be studied to divine on important happenings. And perhaps it is this well-attested custom of animal sacrifice that ties so perfectly with the nature of the Pyramid of Bomarzo.
What Was the Bomarzo Pyramid Used For?
The first discovery of the Bomarzo Pyramid introduced a lot of speculation and new theories that became a matter of much debate in the scientific circles. With this stepped altar being a slightly unique find in the sphere of Etruscan culture, there is still a lot to be understood about its possible uses. But one telltale clue gives us the important connection – the long grooves and channels that descend down the front slope of the pyramid.
The most common explanation for these channels connects to ritual sacrifice. The Etruscans, if it were them who carved it, were known for the sacrifice of animals in their religious practice. This ties in perfectly with the whole look of the Bomarzo Pyramid, and the blood flowing down the grooves could have played another role – perhaps unknown to us.
Another clue places emphasis on the religious nature. The altar is oriented towards the northwest – supposedly facing towards the Etruscan underworld and the dark gods. All these details combined can signify a very important site for the Etruscans and perhaps some sort of religious center.
Wealth of Finds: The Finestraccia
But the Pyramid of Bomarzo is not the only wonder in the area. In fact, it is dotted with unmarked Etruscan inscriptions and carvings. Nearby the pyramid, on the left side of the approaching path, lies another relic - a primitive dwelling dated to the same period as the pyramid – 7th century BC.
This structure is seemingly a tomb, a crude dwelling with a tomb inside it. The locals call it Finestraccia, or Ugly Window, seemingly due to disproportionate and roughhewn openings at the front. This tomb can provide important clues to the role of the nearby Pyramid of Bomarzo and adds further significance to the site.
Close to the Bomarzo Pyramid lays a dwelling/tomb known as Finestraccia. Giovanni Savelli / CC BY 2.0
There is a distinct possibility that this tomb was perhaps the resting place of some important Etruscan priest or official, directly related to the sacrificial altar close by. Such wealth of Etruscan inscriptions and archeological sites that surrounds this location in Bomarzo certainly signifies a strong and very important Etruscan presence.
A Glimpse Into the Bronze Age: Could it be Older?
A relatively recent discovery, the Pyramid of Bomarzo still offers a lot to be learned, and some things which we can only speculate. But, what if this site is a much earlier remnant? Some ancient ritual site that was merely adopted by the Etruscans and adapted to their religious practice?
To take this question into account, we need to reflect on the cultures that predate the Etruscans – reaching deep into the Bronze Age as we search for the possible origins of the Bomarzo Pyramid.
The Terramare was a Bronze Age complex culture, dated to between 1700 and 1150 BC. It thrived in the region of Emilia, where nearly sixty villages of the Terramare culture were excavated. Such wealth of findings definitely points towards a significance of the Terramare culture, and perhaps shows us an insight into the cultural and religious fiber of this part of the Italian peninsula.
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Reconstructed Terramare houses. (Vegetable / Public Domain)
When this culture collapsed around 1150 BC, a new one rose in its place – the Proto Villanovan culture, which is often cited as the earliest possible form of the Etruscan civilization. But, Luigi Pigorini, one of Italy’s renowned archeologists and palaeontologists of the 19th century, proposed that the remnants of the Terramare culture were the main component of the Villanovan culture that formed afterwards – and perhaps poses a link all the way to the Etruscans.
Could this unique and mysterious site – the Pyramid of Bomarzo – give us an important link to the archaic history of the Italian peninsula? Or even a possible glimpse into the area’s identity before the Indo-European settlement? There’s so much of our history, the enigmas of the Old Europe, which we are yet to uncover and explore.
The questions are there, but the answers are few and far between.
Final Thoughts About the Bomarzo Pyramid
The Pyramid of Bomarzo is accessible to the public and can be reached on foot – albeit not easily. As it has been largely overlooked by the Italian government, the path to this archaeological site is entirely unmarked.
This means that whoever wishes to visit and experience this ancient location, will have to do some research. GPS, online instructions, photos, and simple orientation will definitely help, or the assistance of a local guide.
With the site being situated almost on a large cliff, and surrounded by woodlands, precipices, and dense growth, it is imperative to exercise caution. But either way, even if remote, the site of the Bomarzo Pyramid is most certainly a breathtaking place.
Bomarzo, Italy – the location of the Bomarzo Pyramid, is situated close to a large cliff. (Attilios / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Rising indomitably above the foliage, this rugged stone boulder will inspire and leave a sense of awe. To be so close to, to be able to touch, a monument of ancient history is no doubt an immense experience and an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
Top image: The steps of the ancient Bomarzo Pyramid. (marcovarro / Adobe Stock)
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