New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla

January 25 - May 17, 2009

What do we really know about the Etruscans? The vast majority of Etruscan art has come from mortuary contexts, and until the 1960s and 1970s excavation of Etruscan settlements was virtually unheard of. The picture of their society has been broadened by a new generation of Etruscan archaeological projects that seek to explore the full range of Etruscan life. The Meadows Museum exhibition, New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla, 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 sanctuary in the Mugello Valley, about 20 miles northeast of Florence, Italy.

The project’s co-directors, Dr. P. Gregory Warden, a classical archaeologist and University Distinguished Professor of Art History at SMU, 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 we now call 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. Nicosia’s permission and encouragement, Professor Warden, a Mugello Valley native, reopened the site in 1995. A major focus of the project has been its pedagogical component, the Poggio Colla Field School. The field school has trained undergraduate and graduate students from over 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.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Poggio Colla was occupied from as early as 650 B.C.E. until at least 187 B.C.E. 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 a sanctuary and have identified a building and an altar associated with the structure. The building’s form evolved from a modest hut-like structure in the seventh century B.C.E. to a monumental complex with stone foundations and tile roofs by the time of its destruction in the second century B.C.E. Since 1995, excavations have unearthed five stone column bases and other parts of a monumental building that are a testament to the scale and importance of this rural sanctuary at the frontier of the Etruscan world.

A highlight of the exhibition is the stunning deposit of gold jewelry, one of the few examples of Etruscan gold found outside of a tomb. Beyond the rarity and pristine condition of these pieces lies the fact that this jewelry was most likely a votive gift from a woman who visited the sanctuary. Her gift included three sets of gold crescent-shaped earrings as well as a single pair of large earrings in the shape of grape clusters, in addition to gold pendants, one with an attached piece of jasper and another holding what seems to be the tooth of a wolf. Finally, our Etruscan woman left behind a series of oval stones, possibly insets for pendants. Joining these were jasper backers for the pendants, an amber bead, and a painted boar’s tusk.

A votive deposit of a different nature also will come to Dallas. This deposit contains a collection of ritual objects that were laid to rest in a room at the northwest corner of the courtyard of the sanctuary. Excavators discovered a large circular pit, at the center of which was placed a sandstone cylinder, possibly the top of a votive column or altar. Carefully situated near the cylinder were two sandstone statue bases, the larger of which is inscribed with the name of the aristocratic donor. 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 sacrificial animal. This unique religious context allows us to reconstruct the actual rituals and actions of the priest/magistrate who presided over the ceremonies.

In addition to artifacts from the sanctuary, the exhibition also features an examination of daily life, including objects from a habitation and center of ceramic production discovered in a field below the acropolis of Poggio Colla. The structure includes 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. The Podere Funghi presents us with rare and valuable evidence for Etruscan ceramic production. Included in the exhibition 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 votives, weaving implements from the sanctuary, a section of reconstructed roof from the sanctuary, examples of the beautiful Etruscan black ceramic buchero, and didactic sections that explain the archeological process. The excavations at Poggio Colla represent the nexus of university research and teaching, a project where students learn and contribute to faculty research. The exhibition New Light on the Etruscans: Fifteen Years of Excavation at Poggio Colla brings to Dallas the fruits of this labor, a collection of rare and dramatic objects from this important Etruscan site in northern Tuscany.

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