In archaeological tradition, the last day of digging season often unearths a noteworthy find. Last summer on a hill in northern Italy, Franklin & Marshall students and faculty found that to be true in the waning days of their dig. They helped uncover an ancient stone slab with an unusually long inscription that has electrified the world's Etruscan scholars.
"It may well be the earliest, longest inscription recovered in the Etruscan language to date," said Ann Steiner, F&M's Shirley Watkins Steinman Professor of Classics and Bonchek House Don. "It's so important the Conservation Laboratory at the Florence Archaeological Museum gave it precedence over other monuments that are key to understanding the ancient past."
The excavation site in the Tuscany region opened in 1995. Each summer since 2002, Steiner and Associate Professor and Chair of Classics Gretchen Meyers have led student researchers to Poggio Colla, an Etruscan religious sanctuary and settlement site about 20 miles northeast of Florence. Students train in Etruscan archaeology and in the theoretical and practical aspects of fieldwork. F&M partners with Southern Methodist University, Franklin University in Lugano, Switzerland, the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Open University (U.K.), and The Center for the Study of Ancient Italy at University of Texas, Austin, to operate the program.
The slab is a large stele (STEE-lee) weighing approximately 500 pounds, nearly 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Gregory Warden, the project’s principal investigator and president and professor of archaeology at Franklin University, says it has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks.
“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to Western traditions,” Warden said. “Etruscans are speaking to us through this object. This will add a huge amount of knowledge about the Etruscan language and culture. It could be discussed by scholars for a generation or more.”
The stele was found integrated into the foundation of the site's earliest building, a likely temple dating to around 500 B.C.E. The discovery occurred not just on the last day of the 2015 digging season, but in the final year of the excavation. "The site is now closed, and henceforth we're in a period of study only," Meyers said.
Etruscan linguists are especially excited about the stele because the long inscription along its beveled edges may be a religious text, according to a preliminary inspection by Professor Rex Wallace of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies pre-Roman languages and comparative linguistics.
The stone slab is currently at the Florence Archaeological Museum for cleaning and conservation so Etruscan language experts can read it. Wallace expects to begin examining the inscription this summer.
"In Etruscan culture, we have lots and lots of visual images but a relatively small number of lengthy inscriptions," Meyers said. "This stele has several registers of text. It's exceptionally long in terms of characters. Its length and probably religious content mark it as distinctive."
The stele's rounded top and slightly beveled edges indicate that it was worked by stone masons. "It shows someone invested great care in modifying it slightly to prepare it for the written inscriptions,” according to Steiner.
Warden is fascinated by the location where the stele was found—the foundation of a temple.
“Why is it where it is? Nothing has ever been found in this context before,” Warden said. “Stone markers with inscriptions are already very rare, but to find one in a temple is a surprise in so many ways. This is an object of great authority. We hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that was worshipped at this site.”
The discovery of the stele was disclosed in January at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in San Francisco. It was showcased in March during a scientific exhibit of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency, “Shadow of the Etruscans,” in Prato, Italy.
For the last 12 years, more than 70 F&M students have done fieldwork at Poggio Colla; two alumni joined six current students for the final season. The students who have worked at the site have uncovered spectacular findings, including an inscribed statue base, small bronze statues, votive deposits and gold jewelry. Meyers, Steiner and Associate Professor of Classics Alexis Castor have authored numerous scholarly articles and presentations on jewelry, textile manufacturing, and ceramics from Poggio Colla. Their work emphasizes how these categories of material culture shed light on gender roles in Etruscan religion and society.