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What's left of the ancient Etruscan civilization

Klaus Krämer ad
December 18, 2017

A major exhibition at the Baden State Museum in Karlsruhe sheds light on the mysterious Etruscan civilization, one of the most ancient in present-day Italy. Some aspects of this culture remain mysterious to this day.

Sonderausstellung des Landes Baden-Württemberg "Die Etrusker - Weltkultur im antiken Italien" (16.12.2017-17.06.2018), in Karlsruhe
Image: Badisches Landesmuseum, Foto: Uli Deck

The ancient Etruscan civilization emerged roughly 2,900 years ago in present-day Italy. It would dominate the western Mediterranean until the first millennium BC.

Along with Ancient Greece, Etruria came to exert a lot of influence on Roman culture. The Etruscans called themselves Raśna. Etruria, their settlement area, was located in central and northern Italy, including present-day Tuscany, the northern part of Latium and parts of Umbria. In 500 BC, the empire reached from Mantua in the north, to what would later become Rome in the south. 

The Etruscans were the ones who unified the villages located on the seven hills around Rome and founded their kingdom there.

Read more: Archaeology fossil teeth discovery in Germany could re-write human history

A very special people

The Etruscan civilization reached its climax between the seventh and the fifth century BC.

Ancient Greece historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus already admired the Etruscans as "a very ancient people that fundamentally differed from all others."

To this day, historians are divided on the origins of this civilization. Despite some evidence to the contrary, some of them believe that the Etruscans were an ancient autochtonous tribe that developed its culture over a long period of time.

Most historians, however, are convinced that the mysterious people once emigrated from the Anatolian region of present-day Turkey. Their claims are largely supported by DNA examinations of the present-day population of Tuscany.

Equally mysterious is the Etruscan language that bears no similarity whatsoever with any other language except the Lemnian language that was once spoken in the Aegean on the other side of the Italian peninsula.

A golden Phoenician bowl in the special exhibition on the Etruscans of the state of Baden-Württemberg in Karlsruhe | Schale
This golden Phoenician bowl with its richly decorated relief tells of the intensive trade connections of the Etruscans with other ancient peoplesImage: Musei Vaticani

Only few documents still exist from this era, written in a language that, so far, has only partially been deciphered. That's why historians must mainly rely on archaeological findings if they want to explore Etruscan history. The Etruscans were not only good farmers and merchants, but also superb craftsmen. Numerous archaeological findings give proof of their outstanding achievements, especially in metallurgy and pottery. Now, visitors of the exhibition at the Baden State Museum in Karlsruhe can admire their works.

Love of beauty

Recent research has added new insight into the mysterious civilization of this people who called themselves Raśna. A flourishing urban lifestyle and a very rich daily life culture give proof of economic well-being. 

Extraordinary artworks show their love of beauty. Splendid religious cult objects and monumental tombs decorated with colorful wall paintings, as well as precious burial objects, show that the Etruscans were a deeply religious people with a unique identity, inspired by their encounters with other ancient civilizations, among them the Phoenicians, Greek, Celts and Romans. After all, the Etruscans were also a seafaring nation that traded with far-away regions.

Read more: 'Oldest' evidence of grape wine-making dates to 8,000 years ago, say archaeologists

An ancient wagon in the special exhibition on the Etruscans of the state of Baden-Württemberg in Karlsruhe  | Wagenrekonstruktion
Such wagons made of wood, bronze and leather later came to serve the Romans as models.Image: Badisches Landesmuseum Foto: Uli Deck

Overshadowed by the Romans

Why then is it that almost nobody has ever heard of the Etruscans? That may be due to the fact that, from the third century BC onwards, their civilization was on the decline to finally be absorbed by the emergent Roman Empire.

Unsurprisingly therefore, many of their achievements came to be considered as being of Roman origin. Etruscan cities already had fortified streets, well-planned public spaces and squares, water supply and canalization. Their architectural and technological achievements also enabled the Romans to build up on this pre-existing basis. The Etruscans were really the mentors of the Romans by whom, however, they came to be overshadowed later on.

Read more: What Europe's most ancient battlefield reveals

Interestingly, the Etruscan language whose origin is still not known, has influenced other languages through loanwords, among them the word "person" in many modern European languages. It originally referred to an Etruscan demon called "Phersu" before becoming part of Latin vocabulary with the word "persona," which however did not mean "person," but "mask" in Latin. From there, it later spread to modern European languages with a modified meaning.

Another example of Etruscan linguistic influence on modern European languages is the German word "Mäzen" meaning "art patron" that, however, did not find its way into the English language. It goes back to a man called Gaius Maecenas, who was born roughly in 70 BC to an Etruscan mother. He become the political adviser of Roman Emperor Augustus and an important promoter of art. That's why, to this day, Germans use the word "Mäzen" when they talk about a rich influential person who promotes art.

An Etruscan shrew (a tiny mouse) in the special exhibition on the Etruscans of the state of Baden-Württemberg in Karlsruhe  | Etruskerspitzmaus
This cute little Etruscan shrew usually spends its life in the zoo of Karlsruhe: It's part of the exhibition tooImage: Zoo Karlsruhe/Timo Deible

And last, but not least, the world's smallest mammal has been named after the Etruscans. The "Etruscan shrew" is a tiny little mouse in the Mediterranean, less than two inches long. In its efforts to grow a bit bigger, the Etruscan shrew devours food of double the amount of its own weight every day.

The Etruscan exhibition at the Baden State Museum in Karlsruhe (Badische Landesmuseum Karlsruhe) runs until June 17, 2018.