Origins of the Etruscans: Was Herodotus right?

By Nicholas Wade

Published: April 3, 2007


Geneticists have added an edge to a 2,500-year-old debate over the origin of the Etruscans, a people whose brilliant and mysterious civilization dominated northwestern Italy for centuries until the rise of the Roman republic in 510 B.C. Several new findings support a view held by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus - but unpopular among archaeologists - that the Etruscans originally migrated to Italy from the Near East.


Though Roman historians played down their debt to the Etruscans, Etruscan culture permeated Roman art, architecture and religion. The Etruscans were master metallurgists and skillful seafarers who for a time dominated much of the Mediterranean. They enjoyed unusually free social relations, much remarked on by ancient historians of other cultures.


Etruscan culture was very advanced and very different from other Italian cultures of the time. But most archaeologists have seen a thorough continuity between a local Italian culture known as the Villanovan that emerged around 900 B.C. and the Etruscan culture, which began in 800 B.C.


"The overwhelming proportion of archaeologists would regard the evidence for eastern origins of the Etruscans as negligible," said Anthony Tuck, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts.


Even so, a nagging question has remained. Could the Etruscans have arrived from somewhere else in the Mediterranean world?


One hint of such an origin is that the Etruscan language, which survives in thousands of inscriptions, appears not to be Indo-European, the language family that started to sweep across Europe sometime after 8,500 years ago, developing into Latin, English and many other tongues. Another hint is the occurrence of inscriptions in a language apparently related to Etruscan on Lemnos, a Greek island. But whether Lemnian is the parent language of Etruscan, or the other way around, is not yet clear, said Rex Wallace, an expert on Etruscan linguistics at the University of Massachusetts.


An even more specific link to the Near East is a short statement by Herodotus that the Etruscans emigrated from Lydia, a region on the eastern coast of ancient Turkey. After an 18-year famine in Lydia, Herodotus reports, the king dispatched half the population to look for a better life elsewhere. Under the leadership of his son Tyrrhenus, the emigrating Lydians built ships, loaded all the stores they needed, and sailed from Smyrna (now the Turkish port of Izmir) until reaching Umbria in Italy.


Despite the specificity of Herodotus's account, archaeologists have long been skeptical of it. There are also fanciful elements in Herodotus's story, like the Lydians' being the inventors of games like dice because they needed distractions to take their minds off the famine. And Lydian, unlike Etruscan, is definitely an Indo-European language. Other ancient historians entered the debate. Thucydides favored a Near Eastern provenance, but Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared the Etruscans native to Italy.


What has brought Italian geneticists into the discussion are new abilities to sequence DNA and trace people's origins. In 2004, a team led by Guido Barbujani at the University of Ferrara extracted mitochondrial DNA from 30 individuals buried in Etruscan sites throughout Italy.


But this study quickly came under attack. Working with ancient DNA is extremely difficult, because most bones from archaeological sites have been carelessly handled. Extensive contamination with modern human DNA can swamp the signal of what little ancient DNA may still survive. Hans-Jurgen Bandelt, a geneticist at the University of Hamburg, wrote that the DNA recovered from the Etruscan bones showed clear signs of such problems.


But a new set of genetic studies being reported seems likely to lend greater credence to Herodotus's long-disputed account. New and independent sources of genetic data suggest that Etruscan culture was imported to Italy from somewhere in the Near East.


One study is based on the mitochondrial DNA of residents of Murlo, a small former Etruscan town whose population may not have changed all that much since Etruscan times.


When placed on a chart of mitochondrial lineages from Europe and the Near East, the people of Murlo map closest to Palestinians and Syrians, a team led by Torroni and Alessandro Achilli reports in the April issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.


In Tuscany as a whole, the Torroni team found 11 minor mitochondrial DNA lineages that occur nowhere else in Europe and are shared only with Near Eastern people.


Another source of genetic data on Etruscan origins has been developed by Marco Pellecchia and Paolo Ajmone-Marsan at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza. Tuscany has four ancient breeds of cattle. Analyzing the mitochondrial DNA of these and seven other breeds of Italian cattle, Ajmone-Marsan found that the Tuscan breeds genetically resembled cattle of the Near East. The other Italian breeds were linked northern Europe.



2,200-year old amphoras contained wine


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, April 9 (UPI) -- Parts of amphoras believed to be 2,200 years old uncovered in a Bosnia-Herzegovina swamp are suspected to have carried wine, experts said Monday.


Snjezana Vasilj, head of a Bosnian team of archaeologists, said a preliminary analysis showed amphoras, found at what are believed remains of the first-ever discovered Illyrian ships, were used for transporting wine, the Bosnian news agency FENA reported.


Late in March, Vasilj and her team found what they believed were the Illyrian ships in the Desilo location, more than 20 feet under the water level of the Hutovo Blato swamp, near Capljina in southern Bosnia.


The Illyrian ships are believed to have sailed from the Adriatic Sea up the Neretva River carrying merchandise to the inland Balkans.


The Illyrian ships, suspected dating back to the 2nd century B.C., are known to historians only through Greek and Roman legends as their physical existence had never been established, Vasilj said.


Illyrians are considered as the earliest inhabitants of what is today Bosnia-Herzegovina, long before the Roman Empire took control of the Balkans.





11:50 - 13 April 2007


Ancient caves where Plymouth's oldest known human remains were discovered are under threat, experts warned today.


The Cattedown Bone Caves, hailed as a national treasure, are next to a site earmarked for a concrete processing plant.


The city council is considering a planning application from Hanson Aggregates for the scheme, which archaeologists say could damage the nearby site, listed by English Heritage as a national monument.


During the late 19th century partial skeletons of at least 15 early humans - known as 'Cattedown Man' - were found in the limestone cave system, intermixed with fossils of Ice Age woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer, hyenas and a woolly mammoth. They were excavated by local historian Robert Worth.


'Cattedown Man' is believed to be the city's earliest known inhabitant. The remains could be up to 140,000 years old and of international significance, archaeologists say - potentially making them the oldest ever found in Britain.


Experts have slammed the planning application for Shapters Way as a serious threat to the caves, which contain further important human and animal remains, and say they are stunned that the council is even considering it.


Brian Lewarne is the honorary science officer of the Devon Karst Research Society, which is working to preserve and further excavate the site (karst is the term for a landscape shaped by the dissolution of soluble bedrock, often giving rise to complex networks of caves).


"This is the jewel in the crown of Plymouth's heritage and its scientific integrity is very seriously under threat from this planning application," he said.


"Do we really want a concrete batching plant stuck next to a national monument site? It could cause direct and indirect damage.


"Anyone Plymouth-born or who has an interest in the early heritage of the city should have an interest in what's going on at this paleolithic cave site and its environs."


The society, which is currently seeking to gain charity status, is looking to create an educational Cattedown Bones Caves heritage site.


Mr Lewarne said it was a 'shocking story of complacency and non-interest by the political fathers of our city' and the the society had been fighting the ongoing planning application for 20 months.


"In the 21st century I find it extraordinary that we have to fight for any support for such an important location," he said.


"We have tried and tried again and again to get the political process of the city council involved with the site planning application and to find ways around saving the site should the planning application be successful."


He added: "We have no problem with the planning department. The council has excellent officers who've done their job very well, to the benefit of the site. "Wouldn't it be great if they had some support from the political side?"


Worth's Cattedown Bone Caves, where the remains of the 15 hominins were discovered, are part of a huge system of caverns and fissures thought to spread beneath the length and breadth of Cattedown and to around 50 metres below sea level.


The society has not revealed the main cave's exact location, on a large site owned by oil company Chevron, for fear it will be ransacked by fossil-hunters. Meanwhile its members are working with the University of Plymouth and Oxford Brookes University to accurately date exhumed bones fragments, which are kept at Plymouth City Museum.


The dating process is complicated by the fact that many fossils were smashed and scorched during the Blitz when the Plymouth Athenaeum, where they were being stored, was hit by a bomb.


A range of methods are now being used to date the material, including the University of Plymouth's centre for expertise, Innovate, which is using 'non-contact 3D laser scanning' to reconstruct the missing parts of bones.


Dr Simon Underdown, senior lecturer in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, said that the fact human remains had been found among Ice Age animal fossils suggested they were more than 10,000 years old.


He said: "Cattedown Man is the earliest known inhabitant of Plymouth.


"We got one successful date out of one human tooth which placed it between the mesolithic and neolithic - the middle and new stone ages.


"Some of the 15 skeletons are in all probability a lot older than that."


Dr Underdown added that any dust from a concrete processing plant could waft through interconnecting caves to pollute the site.


"The fact that Plymouth City Council is considering the idea that you could have a concrete processing plant behind a scheduled ancient monument is stunning," he said. "English Heritage does not give that status lightly."


The Devon Karst Research Society has been working with Chevron to preserve the ancient site since 2000, when the oil company purchased much of the area.


A Chevron spokesman said: "In 2005, we agreed in principle that we would be happy to donate the land at our fuel terminal where the caves are sited to a charitable trust created by the Devon Karst Society, and work is continuing to achieve this.


"Chevron is committed to ensuring that this historic site is maintained for future generations."


A spokeswoman for the city council said the authority fully recognised the local and national historical importance of the caves and was taking advice from English Heritage on the possible impact of the plans.


She said: "We're still considering this application and will be making a decision by following the statutory planning process.


"The potential future promotion of the caves as a heritage centre is a separate issue and is something we will continue to explore with the Devon Karst Research Society and other interested parties."


David Weeks, a spokesman for Hanson Aggregates, said: "We were made aware of this potential issue some time ago and, as a result of a report by Wessex Archaeology, changed quite substantially the way we are to build the plant, to minimise the impact on the cave.


"It's really over to the council now to make their minds up," he added.


"We're going to put pressure on the officers to go ahead with their determination."


Five other landowners, most of them commercial, own sites adjacent to the Bone Caves, further complicating preservation efforts.


For more details of Cattedown Man, the caves in Cattedown and information on how to get involved with excavation on the site, log on to http://www.devonkarst.org.uk dprince@eveningherald.co.uk



Stonehenge Amulets Worn by Elite

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News


April 6, 2007 — Forget dressing for success: Clothing ornaments thought to confer supernatural power were all the rage among chiefs and other important people in England 4,000 years ago, say scholars.


A recent find indicates some of these fashion trends might have originally been designed by Stonehenge leaders.


While working two months ago in South Lowestoft, Suffolk, British archaeologist Clare Good excavated a four-sided object made of the mineral jet. It closely matches a geometrically designed gold object found far away at a burial site called Bush Barrow near Stonehenge in Wiltshire.


The match is so close that experts believe the black artifact is a skeuomorph, or a copy in a different material.


Good, who is with the Suffolk County Archaeology Service, told Discovery News that she made the discovery while investigating the remains of a probable funeral pyre dating to 1900-1700 B.C.


The funeral pyre, she said, is "a normal sort of feature we come across every day while out digging."


She thinks someone placed goods, including a flint knife, pottery and the jet object, inside the pit after the body was burned.


The findings are documented in the current issue of British Archaeology.


Editor Mike Pitts describes the jet object as having "two parallel lines around the edge, supporting 12 pendant semi-circles inside with a double circle and dot in the center. Small floating lines of rocker decoration, some on the side facets, complete the design."


"Rocker" refers to the rocking motion that the artist likely used when carving, drawing or chiseling out the design.


Like Stonehenge itself, the meaning of the design remains a mystery, but the material — though not as flashy and precious as gold — held significance for the ancients, according to Alison Sheridan, head of early prehistory in the Department of Archaeology at National Museums Scotland.


"Lots of substances are likely to have been ascribed magical powers, and were used as amulets," she explained. "Jet is a classic example, as it's electrostatic, as well as being rare and beautiful, and has been used by many people around the world and over time as an amulet."


She added that this particular piece was made from a "large lump of jet" so it would have been "extra-precious." It might have even been a commissioned "studio piece," perhaps copying the Stonehenge wearer's overall design.


Sheridan analyzed the jet piece and found traces of copper in 4 holes that were cut into the object. She said "it's likely that the lozenge had been fitted onto a garment by copper pins. This would suggest to me that we're thinking leather."


Put together with the position in which the Bush Barrow object was found, she thinks both the jet and gold pieces probably were fitted onto leather garments at the chest.


Sheridan, who came up with the term "supernatural power dressing," said these objects, and other evidence, indicate the Stonehenge-era elite were extremely "status and fashion conscious."


While no one knows who these people were, she theorizes they probably were wealthy individuals, local leaders, or even maybe some kind of early royalty.


She said, "(We) wouldn't want to conjure up images of Prince Harry, or maybe we would!"


Unique jet plaque matches Stonehenge gold

A small jet lozenge, probably worn as a dress ornament around 1900–1700BC, is matched only by three gold plaques found in the 19th century. It was excavated in South Lowestoft, and was found in a small pit with a flint knife. The plaque, made of Whitby jet from Yorkshire, is uniquely decorated in concentric lines and rings engraved with a “rocker”. Two comparable gold lozenges were found in a grave close to Stonehenge known as Bush Barrow, with many other rich artefacts, in 1808; a third gold plaque was found in Dorset in 1882. The jet lozenge has a domed front, matching the shape given to the larger Bush Barrow lozenge in a controversial British Museum restoration in the 1980s


Excavators: Clare Good, project officer Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service

01473 583288



Prehistoric jet: Alison Sheridan, head of early prehistory National Museums Scotland

0131 247 4051





By Caroline Lewis     12/04/2007


Archaeologists unearthing parts of an underground Roman aqueduct in Lincoln have found the first evidence that it was actually used, contrary to previous thinking.


The aqueduct, near Lincoln’s Nettleham Road, has been known about for centuries, and archaeological investigations of it were carried out in the 1950s and 70s, with no firm evidence for their ever carrying water being found. However, with the recent start of a housing development on the site, the time came for sections of the piping to be removed and studied thoroughly.


Excavations also revealed that a road thought to have been a Roman construction is in fact post-medieval.


Simon Johnson, principal archaeologist at Pre-Construct Archaeology, who carried out the work, explained that visible calcium deposits suggest the pipes did carry water.


“There’s been persistent questions over whether the aqueduct ever functioned,” he said. “We’ve got at least one section where there is furring around the full circumference, suggesting it was used. Who knows for how long? You’re looking at decades to produce that sort of deposit, I should think.”


The aqueduct – an ingenious piece of Roman engineering – is thought to have taken water from a spring known as Roaring Meg, about one kilometre north of the site. There are several theories about the pipes: they might have been up to ten miles long, and possibly fed public baths, or a header tank for further distribution.


The Roman plumbing system is constructed from a series of terracotta pipes surrounded with ‘Roman concrete’, a lime mortar mixed with brick dust and chips (opus sigininum). The sealed construction meant that theoretically, water could be pressurised and transported uphill.


 “Lincoln’s Roman aqueduct is one of the most famous in Britain,” said Michael Jones, the city archaeologist for Lincoln, “but also the most problematic, since we are still trying to understand how and from where water was brought uphill to the Roman city.”


“Any new evidence such as this is a bonus, and will not only allow more people to enjoy its fascination but also specialist engineers to test its strength under pressure.”


The sections of aqueduct within the site are well preserved due to their strong construction, apart from some damage by tree root growth and in places where service trenches have been dug. A section of the aqueduct will now be offered to Lincoln museum The Collection for public display, and site developers David Wilson Homes (who also funded the archaeological work) are donating another piece to a local school.


It is hoped that one part of the aqueduct will be subject to further analysis to determine whether it would have been able to support a pressurised flow of water. The limescale deposits could also be analysed, though whether this will yield clues as to how long the aqueduct was used is not certain.


The excavation also threw up a surprise about the road on top of the Roman water system. It was accepted that the road was a Roman creation (simply due to its proximity to the aqueduct) but these are usually well constructed, with cambers and ditches. The one on the site turned out not to be like this, and featured noticeable wheel ruts. In addition, investigations found artefacts such as glazed pottery fragments that date the road to much later, with lots of 17th-19th century debris including horseshoes, a buckle and lead shot adding weight to the theory.


“The excavations have shown clearly that the wide road surface that sealed the aqueduct is relatively recent and might date to the time when the city was growing again in the 18th century,” said Michael. “For example, do the ruts indicate very heavy loads, perhaps stone being brought from nearby quarries?”


One further discovery made during the work, prior to 43 homes being built on the site, has been that the individual pipes of the aqueduct were joined by terracotta collars – similar to modern drains.


“What we were assuming was that the pipes slotted together, with male and female ends, but actually they were male fitted with collars – a bit like modern pipes,” said Simon. “It was an unusual thing, bizarre really!”





09:45 - 12 April 2007


Ancient 2,000-year-old sections of a Roman aqueduct have been unearthed in Lincoln.


Pieces of the underground aqueduct, thought to have been up to 10 miles long, were discovered, giving archaeologists more vital clues on the city's past.


The four sections, each measuring around three feet long, were dug out of the ground in Nettleham Road ahead of a house building development.


And historians made another startling discovery on the site - a road previously thought to be Roman but which actually turned out to be post-Medieval.


The road, complete with wheel-ruts and pottery fragments, was unearthed as part of excavations on the site, between Broadway and Long Leys Road.


A section of the aqueduct will eventually be offered to Lincoln museum The Collection for display. A section also discovered in Nettleham Road is already on display at the museum.


The aqueduct, which displays ingenious Roman methods of engineering, was capable of supplying Lincoln with fresh water sourced from either a spring on the outskirts of the city or possibly even from as far away as the Wolds.


The water may have been stored in a tank in the city's East Bight, close to Newport Arch.


Simon Johnson, principal archaeologist at Saxilby-based firm Pre-Construct Archaeology (Lincoln), which carried out the excavations, said the finds offer the first evidence that the pipework was actually used.


"The aqueduct has been known about for the past 20 years but it has never been proven that it was actually used to carry water," he said. "Limescale deposits inside the pipework suggest to me that it was, especially as the deposits are evenly distributed.


"Like our kettles today, the pipes would have furred-up due to the calcium in the water."


More investigations should also reveal where the aqueduct was built, with Washingborough being considered as a possible site.


The aqueduct went at least as far out of the city as the current Waitrose site where there was a spring called the Roaring Meg, although experts now believe that the source of the water was actually the Wolds.


A section of a 15-metre wide road discovered on top of the aqueduct sections was also unearthed.


David Wilson Homes, which is building 43 homes on the site, commissioned the archaeological work to be carried out.







Roman camp's occupiers may have built the Antonine Wall


ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found a camp thought to have been built to accommodate Roman construction workers who constructed the Antonine Wall.


It was discovered in a dig following the demolition of the former OKI factory at Tollpark, near Castlecary, North Lanarkshire.


Ross White of CFA Archaeology said the rectangular camp's outline was first identified in cropmarks on aerial photographs taken in the late 1940s, before the development of the area.


The camp was situated about 400 metres south of the Antonine Wall and midway between the Roman forts at Westerwood and Castlecary.


Mr White's report on the find, published in the Scottish Archaeological News yesterday, reveals two possible entrances and the likelihood of a fortifying rampart.


"The camp is typically Roman and is assumed to be associated with the construction of the Antonine Wall," he said.


"Depending on the precise date at which it was built, it may have been used by Roman scouting parties looking for the best place to build the wall itself and monitoring the locals.


"It would then have been used to accommodate those building the wall."


Construction of the Antonine Wall began in 142, during the reign of Antoninus Pius. It stretches 37 miles from Old Kilpatrick in West Dunbartonshire on the Firth of Clyde to Bo'ness, Falkirk, on the Firth of Forth. The wall was intended to replace the superior Hadrian's Wall, 100 miles south.




Archeologists Discover Medieval Jewish Bath in Erfurt


Archeologists have unearthed a rare find in the eastern German city of Erfurt: a medieval Jewish ritual bath.


Remains of the Jewish ritual bath, called a mikwa, were found near Erfurt's Krämerbrücke (Krämer Bridge). The two-story high construction had been located in the cellar of a building along the bank of the Gera River. The bath was especially well preserved, according to Sven Ostritz of the Thuringian state authority for historical protection and archeology.


The Erfurt mikwa's existence had been documented in the year 1250, but in a systematic search for it several years ago archeologists had failed to locate it, Ostritz said.


Archeologists now have to figure out how the mikwa workedBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift:  Archeologists now have to figure out how the mikwa worked

The town is also the site of a medieval synagogue, which was built around 1100 and is currently being renovated. The city plans to install a permanent exhibition on the importance of Erfurt's Jewish community in the building.


Few medieval mikwas have been preserved in Germany, Ostriz said, drawing attention to those in Worms, Speyer, Cologne and Sondershausen, which is also in the state of Thuringia.


The head of Thuringia's Jewish community, Wolfgang Nossen, told German news agency dpa that the find could help to make attract tourists to the town.


"Tourists only visit cities where they are offered something unique," he said.


Mikwas are used for the ritual washing of dishes and for women to clean themselves after menstruation and giving birth.




By Graham Spicer    10/04/2007


Archaeologists are excavating a house they think may have belonged to legendary Scottish outlaw Rob Roy.


The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) dig is examining the lower slopes of Ben Lomond at Ardess, where Rob Roy is known to have lived in early 18th century.


“Documentary evidence records that Rob Roy owned land at Ardess in 1710-11 and the Duke of Montrose became his feudal superior,” said Derek Alexander, NTS archaeologist.


“However, facing bankruptcy he secretly signed the lease over to his nephew James Graham of Glengyle and John Hamilton of Bardowie in order that it was protected from the claims of his creditors.”


The archaeologists have uncovered the large boulders forming the foundations of a possible turf-built longhouse, located in the oak woods beside the Rowchnock burn and close to the 19th house of Tigh an Eas along the Ardess Hidden History Trail.


“The large boulder wall suggests the building is earlier in date than the 19th century,” said Derek. “We are hopeful that artefacts such as pottery, glass and tobacco pipes will be able to date the site back into the early 18th century, when Rob Roy would have been here.”


Rob Roy McGregor became renowned as an outlaw who clashed with the Duke of Monmouthshire after defaulting on a loan. His exploits were romanticised in his own lifetime through Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of his life, Highland Rogue, published in 1723.