Today I rediscovered why I love classical archaeology so much. Seeing famous pieces inside of museums is one thing, but actually standing in a wonderfully preserved 2,400 year old Etruscan tomb is another.
We drove to the small village of Sarteano before heading out to the countryside to visit some Etruscan tombs. Cut into the hillside were at least 6-7 tombs. The most famous was the one we were to film in: La tomba della quadriga infernale. In English, it’s the tomb of the infernal chariot (more specifically, a chariot drawn by 4 horses…or in the case of this tomb, 4 griffins).
Some of the tomb was destroyed in the Middle Ages when it was used as a residence. Further destruction happened during the 19th century. It was rediscovered by 2003 by Alessandra Minetti who gave us the tour. The tomb originally had two inhabitants who are depicted on one of the walls. While it looks homosexual in nature, it is actually most likely a father and son, or brothers/cousins who were entombed here. The depiction of a beard is incredibly rare in art during this period. The theory is that it was meant to show that the bearded person was older. One of the sarcophagi was completely removed during the Middle Ages.
The tombs main attraction is the wide array of demons depicted. The main entrance has a demon riding the quadriga of griffins. Unfortunately, the griffins were destroyed. The occupants of the tomb are then depicted with a servant holding a colum, or wine strainer. There is a frieze of dolphins leaping into the water along the bottom of the wall. This was a metaphor for the occupants journey from the living to the afterlife. Surrounding the remaining sarcophagus are two more demons: a three headed serpent and some sort of half-amphibious creature.
Minetti took us outside to a semi-circular tomb structure not attached to the previous tombs. This was from the 6th century BC. Three tombs seemed to face the “stage” of this amphitheater lookalike. Minetti told us that the occupants of the tombs had their bodies displayed on the “stage” before being entombed in an Etruscan death ritual. The first of the tombs was excavated in 1945. It seems that you can’t dig a hole in Italy without hitting an archaeological site.
It was amazing to walk around in the tomb. Being shut under the Earth surrounded by this amazing surviving artwork really brings you back thousands of years. Dr. Soren always teaches in his classes that as anthropologists we are “representatives of the land and of people who can no longer represent themselves.” Being in this tomb really makes me want to take on that responsibility. Tour buses don’t stop here but these people built this tomb to be remembered. At least for now, I remember them.
research / travel / musings
This personal blog contains a variety of topics, both academic and not. For more writing, find me on Medium.