Monday, 18 June 2007

The Origins of The Etruscans

This is a fascinating article from The Guardian which shows that recent DNA research has proved that the enigmatic Etruscans of Italy originally came from what is now Turkey, as indeed Herodotus claimed. Not only that but from western Turkey around 1200 BC which is roughly when the citadel of Troy was presumed to have been lost. So perhaps there is a grain of truth somewhere in Virgil's Aeneid. The Etruscans have always interested me and so I'm reproducing this article in full.

They gave us the word "person" and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.

Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.

Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey - and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today's Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.

The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.

They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.

"The DNA samples from Murlo and Volterra are much more highly correlated to those of the eastern peoples than to those of the other inhabitants of [Italy]," said Alberto Piazza of the University of Turin, who presented the research. "One particular genetic variant, found in the samples from Murlo, was shared only with people from Turkey."

This year, a similar but less conclusive study that tracked the DNA passed down from mothers to daughters, pointed to a direct genetic input from western Asia. In 2004, a team of researchers from Italy and Spain used samples taken from Etruscan burial chambers to establish that the Etruscans were more genetically akin to each other than to contemporary Italians.

The latest findings confirm what was said about the matter almost 2,500 years ago, by the Greek historian Herodotus. The first traces of Etruscan civilisation in Italy date from about 1200 BC.

About seven and a half centuries later, Herodotus wrote that after the Lydians had undergone a period of severe deprivation in western Anatolia, "their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed".

It was a Roman who muddied the waters. The historian Livy, writing in the first century BC, claimed the Etruscans were from northern Europe. A few years later, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer living in Rome, came up with the theory that the Etruscans were, on the contrary, indigenous Italians who had always lived in Etruria.

The Lydian empire had by then long since passed into history. Its inhabitants were said by Herodotus to have been the first people to make use of gold and silver coins and the first to establish shops, rather stalls, from which to trade goods. They gave the world the saying "as rich as Croesus" - Croesus was their last king.

Herodotus's story about the drawing of the lots may or may not be true, but the genetic research indicates that some Lydians did, as he wrote, leave their native land and travel, probably via Lemnos, to Italy.

There, they were called "tuscii" in Latin. The obvious explanation for this has always been their fondness for building tower-like, walled, hilltop towns like those still to be seen scattered across Umbria and Tuscany.

But the latest conclusions may add weight to a rival, apparently more fanciful, theory that links their name to Troy, the "city of towers" and a part of the Lydian empire. The most likely date for the fall of Troy, as described by Homer, is between 1250 and 1200 BC.

The Etruscans' contribution to Roman civilisation is still debated. They provided Rome with some of its early kings, and maybe even its name.

The "fasces", the bundle of whipping rods around a double-bladed axe that became an emblem of authority for the Romans, was almost certainly of Etruscan origin.

However, not many words in Latin are thought to derive from Etruscan. An exception is "persona" from "phersu".

The Etruscans unquestionably created glorious art. Among their most celebrated works is the so-called Sarcophagus of the Bride and Bridegroom (or Married Couple), which is in a Rome museum. It shows two people with slightly tip-tilted noses and pixie-like features.

It is known the Etruscans tried to predict the future by reading the patterns of lightning. It is thought that they introduced the chariot to Italy. They almost certainly ate good meat. Tuscany is famed for its beef, particularly that from the Chiana valley, which has been celebrated since classical times.

Another recent genetic study, of "chianina" and three other Tuscan cattle strains, found they were unrelated to Italian breeds. Yet matches were found in Turkey and the Balkans, along the supposed route of some of ancient Italy's most enigmatic immigrants.


1200BC First traces of Etruscan civilisation

700BC Etruscans borrow alphabetic writing from Greeks, and become first people in Italy to write

616-579BC Rome ruled by its first, legendary Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus

550BC Etruscan power at zenith. Three confederations hold Po valley and coast south of Rome, heartland of southern Tuscany, and western Umbria. Allied with Carthaginians, Etruscans trade across the Mediterranean

535BC At Alalia, off Corsica, fleet of Carthaginians and Etruscans defeat Greek fleet. But Carthaginians, not Etruscans, assert control over seas

510BC Last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is expelled from Rome

474BC At Cumae, off Naples, Greek fleet defeats Etruscans, who start to lose grip on area south of Rome

396BC Romans capture Veii, an Etruscan settlement north of Rome; destruction of settlement marks start of long period in which Romans gradually annex towns of Etruscan heartland. By start of first century BC, all of Etruria has been absorbed by Rome republic

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Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Lenin's Tomb on the Dutch Revolt

This is a great piece of writing from Lenin's Tomb. I wanted to link to it here because it covers a period of European history that I have been studying recently. What is particulary fascinating about this period is the stage in the development of modern states. It was a turbulent time with the Reformation seeping through Europe challenging the old order of things. This article covers in great detail some of those changes. I'm not going to reproduce any of it here, you'll just have to go and read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, 4 April 2007


The Mediterranean island of Sicily is a fascinating place for anyone interested in ancient civilisations and the classical world in particular. Sicily has been a cultural crossroads for many centuries and the numerous peoples who have settled there over the ages have left visible footprints all over the island. These peoples include: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans; and their presence is reflected in the diverse architecture of Sicilian towns and the ruins which surround them.

The city of Syracuse lies on the south east coast of the island and was originally a Greek colony. The 5th Century historian, Thucydides tells us that the colony was founded between 734 BC and 733 BC by Corinthian settlers. Its name originates from the nearby marsh called Syraka. Syracuse quickly rose to become one of the most powerful cities in Sicily, eventually rivaling Athens in splendour. In the 7th and 6th Centuries BC, Syracuse founded sub-colonies of its own in Sicily, primarily to ensure the defence of the surrounding terrain. The first of these was Akrai, founded between 664 and 663 BC, then Kasmenai in 643 BC and Kamarina in 598 BC, but it is to Akrai where we shall now focus.

Akrai is now a ruin on the outskirts on the Baroque town of Palazzolo Acreide. It is located some 44 km west of Syracuse on a plateau in the Iblean Mountains overlooking the River Anapo. Its high location made it a strategically important military outpost. The name "Akrai" literally means "promontory" or "high-up place"; considering the location of the settlement, the name is apt. The ancient name for Sicily, and the name of its flag, is Trinacris or, more commonly, Trinacria. This derives from the Greek Treis Akrai or Three Promontories of Pelorus, Pachynus, and Lilybaeum that give the island its unique shape. In The Odyssey, Homer speaks of the island of Thrinakia, home of the sun god Helios (the sun has long been a symbol for Sicily). The name "Akrai" still forms part of the name of the modern town of Palazzolo Acreide. Under the Romans, the town's name was changed to Acre and it became a Civitas Stipendiaria (a city conquered by the Romans and therefore obliged to pay certain perpetual taxes in punishment for rebellion).

The ancient site itself can be somewhat confusing to interpret because it has suffered so much damage over the centuries. It was destroyed by Arabs in 827 AD and in 1693 AD the whole area was devastated by a violent earthquake. Adding to the confusion are the different phases of construction, reconstruction and change of use by different cultures over the centuries. This originally small settlement tends to look even smaller now because so little of it remains. What does remain however, gives the impression of a compact town with all the amenities one would expect to find in a Greek polis. In fact, Akrai can give us a unique view of what a small Greek colony was like.

The most recognisable feature of the site, and the best preserved, is the theatre. Again, this is very small compared with other Greek theatres but has the usual features. It could seat about 600 spectators on a semicircular cavea with twelve steps divided into nine segments surrounding a paved orchestra. Unlike its much grander counterpart in Syracuse, this theatre is not cut out of the rock but constructed from the abundant white stone in the area and built into the hillside. Different archaeologists date the original theatre to either the 3rd or 2nd Centuries BC. However, it is accepted that the theatre was substantially altered during the Roman period when a stage was added or replaced an earlier one.

Connected to the theatre by the remains of a west-leading passage at the top level of the cavea are the remains of a small bouleuterion or agora (meeting-area) where leading citizens of the polis, the Boule, would meet in council. This was built at about the same time as the theatre and has a similar form but is about a quarter of the size. Part of the staircase and the perimeter of the foundations are still standing. Behind the cavea of the theatre and perhaps 50 metres away and at the highest point of the archaeological zone, there is a ruined temple of the goddess of sexual passion, Aphrodite. Once more, this is surprisingly small and has the dimensions one would associate with a Christian chapel. It is barely recognisable as a temple and overgrown with vegetation. This is one of the oldest parts of the site, possibly dating as far back as the 6th Century BC. Further back still is an ancient necropolis.

South-east of the theatre are two ancient stone quarries called in Italian the Intagliata and Intagliatella latomie. The Intagliata is wide and curved and the Intagliatella deep and narrow. These resemble cliff faces with large room-like holes smoothed out of them creating interesting shapes in the rock. Inside there are labyrinths of interconnected chambers. These quarries provided the stone for construction all around the area but they have also been used as a necropolis and even as dwelling places, particularly by the Byzantine era Christians. In the Intagliatella, a rock carved relief dating from the 2nd or 1st Century BC called in Italian "Banchetto degli eroi" or "Banquet of the Heroes" shows scenes of the heroes feasting and making sacrifices. This is believed to be associated with the cult of the dead.

Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a Roman road running from east to west of the site. This road or decumanus maximus is paved with volcanic lava and spanned the two gates to the settlement, one eastward towards Syracuse and the other westward towards Selinunte. Along this road are the circular remains of a building which may once have been a public bath or possibly a Roman temple. It is assumed however, that during the Byzantine period it was converted into a baptistery. This appears to have been the residential area of the town although very little evidence remains of private houses.

About 1km from the main archaeological site in a small valley by the Orbo hill in the Santicello district are twelve figures carved in the rock dating from the 3rd Century BC. These are known locally as the "Santoni" or "Big Saints". This group of sculptures is dedicated to the worship of the Goddess Cybele in the Roman Pantheon or Demeter in the Greek; possibly originating from the very ancient Mesopotamian cult of the Magna Mater or Great Mother who represents grain and the harvest. The main sculpture shows the goddess, enthroned with a lion on each side of her and other smaller figures around her. Another sculpture shows Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, on horseback. These "Santoni" show both positive and negative aspects of the goddess, the duality of nature. They are interesting because they provide evidence of a very ancient cult surviving until relatively late in the classical era.

Despite the destruction the site has suffered over the years and the frustrating gaps in our knowledge of Akrai, it does nonetheless provide an intriguing glimpse into the past. Akrai is not well known as a major tourist attraction. It is off the beaten track and is usually only of interest to locals and archaeologists. Yet whereas Syracuse, Athens and other Greek cities continued to develop to what they are today, Akrai remains frozen in time; not as glamorous or as well preserved as say, Pompeii, but still interesting in that so many cultures left their mark on it. From the early period of Greek colonisation, through the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods and all through the Roman Empire, Akrai thrived, and was still thriving through the Byzantine Christian period. Not only did it play an important strategic role in the control of the paths of communication with the towns on the South coast, but the rich agricultural land around it assured it prosperity. After it was finally destroyed by Arabs in the 9th Century AD it vanished for a while until a new town sprung up nearby around a Norman castle (now also destroyed). This new town, Balansùl, became Placeolum then Palazzolo and finally in the 19th Century the name Acreide was added, in a sense reviving Akrai. The new town too has seen a similar passage of peoples and styles. The old Greek theatre in Akrai is still used for performances in the summer adding to the sense of continuity.

Not only does Akrai have an interesting history, it is located in a truly beautiful spot, with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains with Mount Etna in the far distance. Perhaps it wasn't just strategy that compelled the Syracusans to place their first colony where they did.

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Yet Another Blog

Welcome to Under The Sands. The purpose of this blog is to make a record of the recent developments in history and archaeology. History has always been an interest of mine and though I'm not yet an historian, I do study the subject. When I first started blogging my original intention was to write about politics and history. However, the blog I created to do this very quickly became a political blog and I have no intention of changing that. It seems only natural to create a separate blog just for history related news.

Because I have saved numerous links to news reports about history and archaeology, the first few posts will be putting these links here for future reference (and to clear them from my bookmarks). Later I hope to do some more substantial writing as time allows, but like all blogs I expect this one to evolve from humble beginnings. I may from time to time rework some of the better essays I've written for my university studies (not current courses obviously) and post them on here as some of them are quite good.

I think that history and politics are inextricably linked so the political will inevitably intrude from time to time but I'll try to keep this to a minimum. I expect that posting will be haphazard to start with because of other commitments and the irregularity of history related news coming to my attention. As time goes on I'll add links to other history related websites and blogs which should make this site act as a gateway for further information. I look forward to reading comments from readers, particularly if they are better informed than I am, and maybe having some interesting debates.