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Etruscan Sanctuary Discovered

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  • marco.pertoni@gmail.com
    Etruscan Sanctuary Discovered Spectacular find at Orvieto. Archaeologists have been searching for religious and political centre since sixteenth century.
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2006
      Etruscan Sanctuary Discovered
      Spectacular find at Orvieto. Archaeologists have been searching for religious and political centre since sixteenth century.
      ORVIETO – The amusing thing about this exciting story is that the heritage minister, Francesco Rutelli, knows absolutely nothing yet.Official notice to inform him is due to leave the university of Macerata only in late September.But for Etruscan scholars, this is extraordinarily exciting news.
      After six years of excavations and research, the department of ancient archaeological and historical studies of the university of Macerata is certain that it has located, on the flat Campo della Fiera area just below Orvieto, the mysterious Fanum Voltumnae, the federal sanctuary (“fanum” means sacred place, a much broader notion than a single temple) of the twelve Etruscan cities. It was a sort of Vatican, where each year the political and religious leaders of the Etruscan league met in “concilium”, as Livy describes it, to take political stock of civil and military affairs, and pray to the gods of Etruria.
      Today, it might be called a mass community event for it involved thousands of people.Priests, politicians, soldiers, worshippers, athletes taking part in the games, merchants and sellers all flocked to a huge fair that was well-known to the Romans. In fact, many traders set out from Rome to take part.This mass migration, which invariably took place in springtime, served to reinforce Etruscan roots and identity.The search for Fanum Voltumnae started in the sixteenth century, with the scholar Annio da Viterbo and his Historia Antiqua.Over the centuries, there have been hundreds of theories, but no certainties.
      The director of excavations, Professor Simonetta Stopponi, who holds the chair of Etruscan studies and Italic archaeology at Macerata, maintains with professional caution that absolute certainty will only come with the discovery of an inscription dedicated to the god Voltumna, the main earth god and patron of the Etruscans. “But”, she says, “it has all the hallmarks of a great sanctuary, of that precise sanctuary”.The professor, a veritable volcano of archaeological passion, lists those hallmarks: “The overall extent of the area, the plan with its wells and fountains, the temple building and a highly complex sacred zone, the site’s continuous use, starting from the fourth century bc to the fifteenth century ad, remains of cultural activities like the bronze votive offerings from the second century bc and fragments of superbly made Attic vases from the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, which were traditionally broken and buried after use”.
      The idea of digging at this spot is not a new one. The university of Macerata, which is excavating with ministerial permission, is following in the footsteps of late nineteenth-century archaeologists who uncovered parts of the walls and found large quantities of earthenware. Those finds, which were later sold to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, match the finds from the present campaign.Excavations began in 2000 on a site owned by Orvieto’s Opera del Duomo, which ceded the area to the local authority so that excavations could begin.
      Every year, Orvieto welcomes fifty pick, trowel and brush-wielding students from Macerata and other universities in Italy and elsewhere, some from as far away as America, Spain and Mexico. All this is possible thanks to funding from the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank and MPS Asset Management SGR. Other finance comes from the European Union and the Orvieto archaeological and nature park.
      At the end of the 2006 campaign, results are extremely encouraging. The twelve by six-metre plan of the main temple is now visible, as are its foundations and a massive podium in tufa blocks dating from the sixth to the fourth centuries bc, and a decorated opus signinum floor from the second century bc. A large portion of the eighteen metre-long wall, also in tufa, surrounding the sacred area is visible. Its precise date is still uncertain but it was built between the sixth and fourth centuries before Christ. The entire foundation plan of the twelfth-century church of San Pietro in Vetere has also emerged. It stood on one of the sacred sites of the Etruscan complex, as is clear from the first layer in tufa, which may date from the fourth century. This means there was a first Christian floor from the fourth century, a second in black and white mosaic from the fifth or sixth century and finally the twelfth-century church, which was entrusted first to the Franciscan Minorites and then to the Servites. At a certain point – it not known when – the church was abandoned and fell into ruin.The openings of the two wells required for religious ceremonies have been identified.
      Above all, two impressive roads, both made by the Etruscan from volcanic rock, have come to light.One, five metres wide, lies in front of the entrance to the main temple and must have linked Orvieto to Bolsena. The other is seven metres wide and, according to Simonetta Stopponi, offers more proof of the importance of this religious site, and the likelihood that it actually is Fanum Voltumnae.“It was a sacred way, for the route extends behind the temple and rises from the flat ground up to the hillside.Well away from the area where we are currently excavating, we have already found to large tufa-block structures in the characteristic Etruscan style. That is where the sacred site at the other end of the route must be.And indeed we have found a third well”.The tufa blocks of the latest find bear the marks of the passage of time and agricultural equipment.Deep scars left by ploughs are clearly visible, but it is not known when they were made.
      Yesterday evening, the group of young archaeologists celebrated the 2006 excavation campaign at a lavish dinner in the green of Orvieto. But many objectives still remain to be achieved, and of course funded.There is the excavation of the new finds to the north, the sports stadium, which may lie to the west, and the enticing possibility of tombs on the hillside.Excavation at Campo della Fiera has been going on for six years,but this could be just the beginning.
      Paolo Conti
      English translation by Giles Watson
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