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The Etruscan stele was embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been for more than 2,500 years.

Unique Etruscan Stele Discovered at Ancient Temple in Italy

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Researchers excavating a site in Poggio Colla, northeast of Florence, in Italy discovered a rare stele while working in their 2015 field season. The large stele contains text that is believed to be religious in nature and which archaeologists think will contain details on a deity that was worshipped by the Etruscans in the 6th century BC.

The discovery of the stele was announced during a scientific exhibit of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency entitled “Shadow of the Etruscans,” in Prato, Italy.

Phys.Org reports that the text on the great slab contains at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks. Although the Etruscans are believed to have been a highly cultured people, many of the previous examples of ancient Etruscan writing have come from funeral settings or in the form of just names and titles. Thus, it is expected that the stele from a different context will likely contain new vocabulary and information on the Etruscan way of life.

Detail of inscription.

Detail of inscription. ( Poggio Colla Field School (MVAP) )

The history of the Etruscans continues to be something of a mystery. It is known that they emerged in what was Etruria (modern day Tuscany) in the Western and central regions of Italy, North of Latium. It is known that they held great power by the start of the 6 th century BC and that they had much influence on later civilizations, especially in relation to art, architecture, and mythology. Nonetheless, there is still a lacking in the amount and quality of Etruscan writing.

"This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions," archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project , said in a press release  discussing the discovery. He continued:

“We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language. Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long, so there will be new words that we have never seen before, since it is not a funerary text. We know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words. But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site.”

The stele is made of sandstone and measures about 1.2m (4ft) tall and 0.6 m (2ft) wide. It weighs 227kg (500lbs) and was found embedded in the foundations of what was once a monumental temple. Warden said in the press release that at one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority.

The discovery of the inscription.

The discovery of the inscription. (Poggio Colla Field School (MVAP) )

Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, agreed that the find is special and said:

“[…] the Etruscans […] tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets. This stone stele is evidence of a permanent religious cult with monumental dedications, at least as early as the Late Archaic Period, from about 525 to 480 BCE. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure. Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified. A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome. ( Public Domain )

Conservation of the stele has begun and it is expected to take a few months for a full analysis of the artifact, which will include photogrammetry and laser scanning. Currently, the stele is difficult to read as it has been chipped and heavily abraded over time. There is also evidence suggesting that the sandstone was burnt at some time in the past. Cleaning will finally allow scholars to read the inscription, one which they have high hopes for.

Scientists examine the Etruscan stele.

Scientists examine the Etruscan stele. ( Mugello Valley Project )

Featured Image: The Etruscan stele was embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been for more than 2,500 years. Source: Mugello Valley Project

By Alicia McDermott

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