As you walk in wonder through the streets of the Roman Forum or Pompeii, contemplate this – all the treasures which have been unearthed in Italy are only a fraction of what actually exists underground throughout the country. Think about that for a second and see if you don’t find yourself uttering a silent “wow.” The ancient monuments, cobbled streets, theatres and temples which people the world over recognize as structures of historic and artistic importance are only the tip of the iceberg.
Recently, a team of amateur archaeologists uncovered another tiny piece of that iceberg – a previously untouched 2,000-year-old Etruscan tomb hidden in the forests of Tuscany.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole story is that one of the volunteers on the dig, the fellow who originally found the tomb, actually discovered it 10 years ago – and kept mum in order to preserve it. The entrance to the tomb was hidden in forest brambles, he figured, and it was probably safest if it wasn’t discovered. Tomb raiders have been a big problem in Italy; so much so that there’s even an Italian word for them – tombaroli. So he just left the tomb unmarked – and unopened – and waited.
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Earlier this year, when locals began clearing brush near the tomb’s still-hidden entrance, he went to the state’s archeaological heritage department and obtained a permit to finally excavate the tomb. He led a team of volunteers, a group called Odysseus, and funded the bulk of the dig himself. They’re still working on the tomb, but so far have determined that the burial site dates from roughly the 3rd to 1st century B.C.E., and they’ve already found cremation urns for more than two dozen people.
The Etruscans reigned in central Italy, the area which now encompasses Tuscany and some of the northern Lazio region, for nearly a thousand years before the Roman empire. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of their existence dates from the 9th century B.C.E., although the peak of Etruscan civilication was the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. Although they were a highly developed people, relatively little is known about them – their language still remains undeciphered – because when the Romans became the dominant people they saw no need to document the languages and customs of the people they were subjugating. Consequently, no Etruscan literature survives today and only fragments of the written language have been found in relation to customs of religion and death.
While the newly unearthed Etruscan tomb is not as monumental as the discovery of an Egyptian king’s treasure-filled tomb might be, it will still do its part to assist scholars in filling in the gaps of what is known about Etruria and its people. And we have volunteers to thank for the preservation of this tomb, and many others like it. Officials acknowledge that it is impossible for them to handle all archaeological discoveries, so they grant excavation permits to qualified individuals (in most cases, those with schooling in archaeology as well as some experience on digs). In Italy, anything found underground automatically belongs to the state, so these amateur groups help immensely in the effort to keep Italy’s ancient treasures from being taken by tombaroli and ending up in private collections.
So, while you wander the historic monuments in Italy which are open to the public, look at the hills around you and just imagine the treasures which lie beneath them. The sheer mystery of what remains buried in this fascinating country should be enough to inspire even the most stoic tourist. As for the bona fide dreamers among you, you should be giddy with excitement right about now. Grab your passport and go.
For more about the newly-excavated Etruscan tomb, see the NY Times article here (subscription required), the same article in the International Herald Tribune here (without the photo) and another brief article here.
Photo by: Chantal Thompson