The vast majority of Etruscan art has come from tombs and cemeteries, and until the 1960s and 1970s excavation of Etruscan settlements, where citizens conducted their daily activities, was virtually unheard of. In recent years, the picture of Etruscan society has been broadened by a new generation of archaeological projects that explore the full range of Etruscan life. The Meadows Museum
exhibition New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla, on view January 25-May 17, 2009, brings for the first time to a North American public the findings from an interdisciplinary archaeological research project, the SMU-led excavations in Tuscany. Under the umbrella of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, these excavations have centered on the site of Poggio Colla, an Etruscan settlement and religious sanctuary in the Mugello Valley, about 20 miles northeast of Florence, Italy. Nearly 100 objects from the site will be displayed, along with new scientific evidence relating to Etruscan daily life and religious rituals.
The projects co-directors, Dr. P. Gregory Warden, a classical archaeologist and University Distinguished Professor of Art History at SMUs Meadows School of the Arts, and Dr. Michael L. Thomas, archaeologist and Senior Research Associate at The University of Texas at Austin, oversee a team of archaeologists, scientists, architects, and conservators who are conducting a systematic and multi-disciplined study of Poggio Colla. In addition to SMU, sponsoring institutions include Franklin and Marshall College and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Although the Etruscan site now called Poggio Colla has been known since the 19th century, it was first excavated from 1968 to 1972 by Dr. Francesco Nicosia, the former Superintendent of Archaeology in Tuscany. With Dr. Nicosias permission and encouragement, Professor Warden, a Mugello Valley native, reopened the site in 1995. Since that time, a major focus of the project has been its teaching component, the Poggio Colla Field School, which operates for six weeks each summer. The field school has trained undergraduate and graduate students from more than 70 American and European universities in the theory and practice of archaeological research. Through excavation and scholarship, these students many from SMU have played an integral role in understanding the Etruscan occupation of the Mugello Valley.
Poggio Colla is a highly significant and rare site. One reason is that it spans most of Etruscan history. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was occupied from around 700 B.C.E. until 187 B.C.E., when it was destroyed by the Romans. Another reason is that it was not buried under later construction. The Etruscans picked beautiful, easily defended hilltops for their settlements. As a result, generation after generation built new cities on top of their sites. That means many have 2000 years of other civilizations on top of Etruscan artifacts. Poggio Colla, however, remained in its original condition. Thirdly, Poggio Colla represents an entire settlement, including tombs, a temple, a pottery factory and an artisan community. Excavations of workshops and living quarters are yielding new details about Etruscan life to scholars.
The site centers on the acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau of one and a half acres at the summit of Poggio Colla. Excavations have found strong evidence that the acropolis was home to a sanctuary and have identified a temple building and an altar at the center of a large courtyard. Numerous offerings have been found buried around the altar, gifts to a still unidentified deity left behind as part of a sacred ritual. These votive donations range from a massive deposit of nearly 500 varied bronze objects, to a spectacular gift of womens gold jewelry and semi-precious stones, examples of which are included in the exhibit. The jewelry one of the few examples of Etruscan gold found outside of a tomb includes three sets of gold crescent-shaped earrings as well as a single pair of large earrings in the shape of grape clusters, along with gold pendants, one with an attached piece of jasper and another holding what seems to be a wolfs tooth. Also included is a series of oval stones, possibly insets for pendants, along with jasper backers for the pendants, an amber bead, and a painted boars tusk.
A votive deposit of a different nature also will be exhibited. This deposit contains a collection of ritual objects that were laid to rest in a room at the northwest corner of the sanctuary courtyard, possibly by a priest. Excavators discovered a large circular pit, at the center of which was placed a sandstone cylinder, possibly the top of a votive column. Carefully situated near the cylinder were two sandstone statue bases, the larger of which includes the inscribed name of the aristocratic donor, Nakai(-)ke Velus. Buried alongside these objects were a strand of gold wire, a purposely broken bronze implement, and two bronze bowls that had been used to pour ritual libations, as well as the bones of a piglet, presumably sacrificed as part of a purification ritual. This unique religious context allows researchers to reconstruct, for the first time, the actual rituals and actions of the priest/magistrate who presided over the ceremonies.
We can show where the priest was standing and how the objects were placed in this sacred pit with attention to the cardinal points of the compass, reflecting Etruscan religious beliefs and their idea of the sacredness of space, said Dr. Warden.
In addition to artifacts from the sanctuary, the exhibit features objects that belong to daily life. Several of these come from residential quarters and a pottery workshop excavated in a field below the acropolis of Poggio Colla, an area named the Podere Funghi. Here excavators found a room with a circular hearth surrounded by cooking vessels. A terraced outdoor work space preserved several carbonized post holes, perhaps the remnants of wooden drying racks surrounding a large fire pit. At the southern end of this terrace, set into a pit up against a terrace wall, excavation uncovered a deposit of unusual stands of a type usually used for banqueting. At the opposite side of the building were the remnants of three kilns. These teardrop-shaped kilns were used to produce simple fine-ware bowls of at least three different sizes.
Evidence from surrounding fields suggests that a network of production areas dotted the slopes below the sanctuary on Poggio Colla, not surprising since natural springs and large veins of pure clay in the area provide the perfect setting for pottery making. Overall, the area is giving scholars rare and valuable evidence for Etruscan ceramic production. Included in the exhibit are bowls from the production center, the banqueting stands, and even a roof tile with the footprint of a child.
Other features of the exhibition will be bronze votive statues, weaving implements, a section of reconstructed roof from the sanctuary, examples of the beautiful Etruscan black ceramic buchero pottery, and didactic sections that explain the archaeological process. The excavations at Poggio Colla represent the nexus of university research and teaching, a project where students both learn and contribute to faculty research.
Presenting New Light on the Etruscans is a wonderful opportunity for the Meadows Museum, said Dr. Mark A. Roglán, museum director. Not only is this the first showing in North America of findings from this important archaeological site, but it also represents a project launched and co-directed by one of our distinguished professors at SMU. We are showing it concurrently with From the Temple and the Tomb, the most comprehensive exhibition of Etruscan art ever undertaken in the U.S., and the two exhibitions complement each other perfectly. One illustrates the broad, chronological history of Etruscan culture as known from tombs and temples; the other focuses on the science of discovery, and on the importance of investigating today Etruscan settlements that are revealing more about the day-to-day life of this still enigmatic civilization.