‘Etruscan tombs’- some thoughts on a Victorian poem and an ancient people

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“O wise Etruscans, faded in the night
Yourselves, with scarce a rose-leaf on your trace;
You kept the ashes of the dead in sight.
And shaped the vase to seem the vanished face.”

Etruscan tombs, by Agnes Mary Robinson (1857-1944)

Searching in my old, browned copy of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse for something else entirely, I came across the poem ‘Etruscan tombs’ by Agnes Mary Robinson.  It stirred in me my semi-dormant love for Etruscan art, archaeology and the Etruscan language.

What has always fascinated me about the Etruscans is that a non-Indo European speaking culture could be found at the heart of the classical Roman world.  They were an anomaly and remain largely unexplained.  Somewhat like Basque, the status of their language remains unresolved.  Are they remnants of an older and more wide spread language family; do they represent, perhaps, what our Neolithic ancestors might have spoken?  These are fascinating, if unanswerable, questions.

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Recent genetic work by Tasso, Ghirotto, Caramelli and Babujani has questioned the theory that the population travelled from Lydia and the region of Troy, as had once been suggested.  Although there are some similarities between the DNA of modern Turks and Tuscans, there is very little genetic material shared between the modern inhabitants of Tuscany and their Etruscan predecessors. Overall, the DNA evidence does not indicate a wave of immigration from Asia Minor leading to the start of Etruscan civilisation in Italy.  These conclusions coincide with the view of most contemporary archaeologists (as well as Dionysus of Helicarnassus) who argue for an indigenous origin, and contradict the immigration theory of Herodotus. (See American Journal of  Physical Anthropology,  vol.152, 2013). Nonetheless, this research, whilst it does not substantially advance our understanding of their racial origins, does not contradict much else of what we know.

Later in her poem Robinson directly addresses what is for me the most intriguing aspect of the Etruscan people.

“A carven slab recalls his name and deeds,
Writ in a language no man living reads.

IV.
Here lies the tablet graven in the past,
Clear-charactered and firm and fresh of line.
See, not a word is gone; and yet how fast 45
The secret no man living may divine!

What did he choose for witness in the grave?
A record of his glory on the earth?
The wail of friends? The Pæans of the brave?
The sacred promise of the second birth?

The tombs of ancient Greeks in Sicily
Are sown with slender discs of graven gold
Filled with the praise of Death: “Thrice happy he
Wrapt in the milk-soft sleep of dreams untold!”

They sleep their patient sleep in altered lands,
The golden promise in their fleshless hands.”

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Their art exists for all to see, still, and is one of the great monuments of the Etruscan culture. Furthermore, their language is less impenetrable than it was when Robinson wrote, but our comprehension is still limited and probably always will be.  The bulk of our sources remain funerary, giving a very skewed and limited vocabulary from which to work.

For those fascinated by both the linguistics and the culture, you may find some interest in my small book, The Etruscan language- a brief introduction.  This examines the language in the context of our knowledge of their rich culture and was published by specialist language publisher Joseph Biddulph in 2008; you might find an old copy through Amazon (try Temperley Texts for example).  For fuller details of my writing on linguistics, see my website.

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