2,500-year old stone slab reveals the name of an ancient ‘powerful’ Etruscan goddess

ancient-stone-powerful-etruscan-goddess-uni_1Credit: Mugello Valley Project

The Poggio Colla archaeological site situated near the town of Vicchio, in the scenic region of Tuscany, Italy, boasts habitation layers of the ancient yet mysterious Etruscans that had been preserved throughout the millenniums. The settlement was possibly inhabited as early as 7th century BC, while it was abandoned (or destroyed) by 3rd century BC when the Romans had already established their supremacy in the Italian peninsula. But this time around archaeologists have discovered a fascinating clue that might shed some new light into the cultural and religious scopes of the ancient Etruscans. To that end, the collaborative effort from the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project and the Southern Methodist University (SMU), has uncovered a 2,500-year old stone slab from a temple that spells out the name of a very important Etruscan goddess – Uni. This hints at the presence of an underground fertility cult that might have thrived in the urban area during its heydays.

Uni was viewed as a divine entity related to fertility, and often considered as the supreme goddess of the Etruscan pantheon (and also the patron goddess of Perugia, one of the main Etruscan urban centers). As for the mention of the entity in question here, the archaeologists found the 500-lbs stone slab (4 ft by 2 ft) embedded in the foundation of a monumental temple at the Poggio Colla site. Interestingly enough, the reveal of the name is only a part of a sacred text that is possibly the longest Etruscan inscription even found etched on a stone. This incredible find was complemented by other significant discoveries, including a ceramic fragment with the earliest (known) birth scene in European art. Adriano Maggiani, a former Professor at the University of Venice, and one of the researchers involved in deciphering the message, said –

The location of its discovery — a place where prestigious offerings were made — and the possible presence in the inscription of the name of Uni, as well as the care of the drafting of the text, which brings to mind the work of a stone carver who faithfully followed a model transmitted by a careful and educated scribe, suggest that the document had a dedicatory character.


A scene on an Etruscan mirror in which Uni suckles the adult Hercle (Hercules) before he ascends to immortality. Credit: Massimo Pallottino, Indiana University Press

In terms of the scope of the inscription, the archaeologists believe that once the entire text is properly reconstructed it could reveal more than 120 characters. Now while scholars are aware of how Etruscan grammar works (along with some of its words and alphabet), the stone slab might reveal new words and compositions that could possibly fill the gaps of the still incomplete knowledge of the Etruscan language. In regard to this content, other than the aforementioned hypothesis of a fertility cult in the area, the researchers are also putting forth the possibility of a stele that describes the ‘laws’ of the sanctuary dedicated to Uni. Gregory Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, and the co-director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, said –

It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space.

Now in terms of the sheer ‘value’ of this stone stele, Warden has touted how the find might be “one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades”. One of the reasons for its value stems from the rarity of Etruscan inscriptions on ‘solid’ objects. To that end, the mysterious yet powerful civilization of ancient Italy had a penchant for inscribing funerary objects that often comprised linen cloth books or wax tablets. But this time around, as opposed to funeral rites, the stone-based etching might be directly related to the temple rituals of the Etruscans, while also hinting at a better comprehension of the (incompletely deciphered) Etruscan language.

Suffice it to say, the researchers are still working on reading, comprehending and analyzing the said inscription, with the conservation project being already kick-started in one of the laboratories of the Archaeological Superintendency in Florence. In the meantime, a hologram of the stele is expected to be showcased at a dedicated Florence exhibit this week. And finally, as for the Etruscan ambit, archaeologists were fortunate enough back in March of this year when they unearthed an ancient treasure-filled tomb of an Etruscan princess, dating from 8th century BC, in Vulci (Lazio). But in spite of some of these recent excavation projects the Etruscan civilization is still mired in mystery, with numerous theories being concocted when it comes to their origins. In that regard, one of the latest mitochondrial DNA studies have revealed how they were apparently related to a Neolithic population hailing from Central Europe.


Artistic reconstruction of an Etruscan temple in Vulci.

The study and its findings will be published in an upcoming edition of Etruscan Studies.

Source: Eureka Alert (SMU)

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