The Tomb of the Silver Hands - An Enigmatic Etruscan Burial
The highly advanced and powerful culture of the ancient Etruscans could not persevere in the face of the rising Romans. By 500 BC, the political situation in the Italian Peninsula was quickly changing - the Romans were a young and enthusiastic realm, and rose with great speed, displacing the Etruscans. In time, this civilization was absorbed by its merciless neighbor, and time took over. Thankfully, archaeology offers a small window into this distant past to learn more about the enigmatic Etruscans. Recently, the discovery of a noble family’s necropolis really intrigued researchers, as it contained unique silver hands. What was the purpose of these Etruscan items?
The Enigma of the Tomb of the Silver Hands
Vulci was the name of a rich Etruscan city that was situated in what is now northern Lazio, in Italy. The city and the eponymous tribe that dwelt in it was the richest of all the Etruscan confederation towns. It was a place exalted for its craftsmen who created masterpieces out of bronze. Vulci prosperity was famed across the classical world, and it naturally had a great number of rich noble families living in it. The discovery of the underground tombs of these nobles was a major find for archaeologists.
The Tombs of the Vulci were first discovered in the late 18th century. They lay in the fields some 75 miles northwest of Rome, and 25 miles west of Viterbo. Cardinal Guglielmo Pallotta was the first to conduct official excavations, discovering a vast burial field that housed the remains of both the nobles and the commoners. Ever since, this vast necropolis has continued to yield unique Etruscan finds.
The Etruscan city of Vulci. (Robin Iversen Rönnlund/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Tomb of the Silver Hands is one of the recent discoveries in the vast field, and its one-of-a-kind content puzzled archaeologists. In late 2012, a team of archaeologists were uncovering a 30-foot (9 mt) corridor that led into a large and sprawling noble tomb. Its chambers were full of rich grave goods: fragments of bronze chariots, many exquisite bronze drinking vessels, cups, jars, and high-quality pottery. But something much different drew the eye of the team: a pair of well-preserved artificial silver hands. They were at once faced with an enigma: what were they?
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The Guardian of the Deceased’s Soul
The pair of hands were made of thin sheets of silver, with great attention to detail and realism. On one side, the open palms were hollow, and they were very realistic on the upper side. There were traces of gold plating on the fingernails, as well as on the fingers themselves.
The gold detail on the tips of the fingers of the left hand, signs of a noble woman of affluence and wealth. ( Dan Diffendale/ CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )
The left hand was almost immaculately preserved with next to no damage. The right one, however, was fragmented, but was skillfully put together and preserved. Thanks to the craftsmanship and the quality of the silver, the hands managed to survive from antiquity, unscathed.
With the preservation done, the researchers were able to study the items and discover their actual purpose. What they concluded is not so uncommon after all: the hands were part of a sphyrelaton, a special funerary dummy that was placed in a tomb to guard the souls of the dead. A sphyrelaton has its origins in Ancient Greece : it is a life-sized figure carved from wood, and it carries great symbolism. Thin sheet bronze is then carefully hammered around the shape, giving it a lifelike impression and exquisite beauty. A sphyrelaton could be presented as a supernatural being, or more often as a warrior or the representation of the dead person buried in the tomb. In this case, the sphyrelaton was that of a woman, likely the noblewoman whose remains were placed in the tomb.
Besides the silver hands, archaeologists discovered other remnants of the clothes that the sphyrelaton dummy once wore: pieces of purple thread, fibulae and little gold balls, faience, amber beads, and remains of a necklace. The wood, of course, had since long ago rotted away, but these imperishable items remained.
Reconstruction of the Etruscan silver hands tomb in Vulci. Many fine goods such as copper and ceramic vessels and cups filled the chamber. ( Dan Diffendale /CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )
The Telltale Clues of Fascinating Wealth
Whoever was laid to rest in the Silver Hands tomb must have been exceptionally wealthy. The grave is full of precious items that indicate a high-status individual. This was likely a noblewoman from the city of Vulci, someone with a lot of wealth and influence. Researchers noted that similar sphyrelaton hands have been discovered in Vulci tombs, as well as in the town of Pescia Romana near Viterbo, another burial ground. But these hands were from bronze and much cruder. The ones found in the silver hands tomb are made with exceptional skill, and likely cost a fortune to be produced. This is just another indication of the wealth of the deceased.
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The Tombs of the Vulci remain a fascinating glimpse into the customs and the traditions of the Ancient Etruscans. The vast burial fields continue to yield very precious finds, and we can only look to the future with patience, as we wait for new exciting excavations.
Top image: On display at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome, Italy. Source: Dan Diffendale/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Carosi, S. 2015. The Tomb of the Silver Hands and its topographical context: new contributions to the archaeology of Vulci. Brussels Museum.
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