Etruscan Inscription Offers Rare Clue to Mysterious People

The 2,500-year-old inscription found on a stone slab may describe an Etruscan fertility goddess.

Archaeologists have unearthed an inscribed sandstone slab in Italy that features what may be a rare sacred text written in the mysterious Etruscan language.

The finding promises to yield a wealth of new knowledge about one of the ancient world's most fascinating and mysterious civilizations.

Weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by two feet wide, the slab was unearthed at Poggio Colla, some 22 miles miles north-east of Florence in the Mugello Valley.

Intact, Packed Etruscan Tomb Found

The stone had been buried for more than 2,500 years in the foundations of a monumental temple at the Etruscan site. It was heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened possibly from burning.

According to archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery, the 6th-century B.C. slab has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks.

"Now if we could only unravel that text," Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, told Discovery News.

Skeleton of Ancient Prince Reveals Etruscan Life

He explained that it will probably take months of study by Rex Wallace, a noted expert on the Etruscan language at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, before the researchers can say anything definitive about the text written on the stele, as such slabs are called.

"At this point we have just finished cleaning the stele, and Professor Wallace is working from photos. He will return to Italy in June to continue to work on it," Warden said.

Warden speculates the text may refer to a goddess that was worshiped at the site.

"The center of worship was an underground fissure that was ritually treated after the destruction of the temple," Warden said.

Open House: Etruscan Site Reveals Domestic Treasures

He explained the ritual included placing a temple block in front of the fissure, along with a gold ring and a textile embroidered with gold.

"Underground cults of this type were often associated with female divinities," Warden said.

Considered one of the most religious cultures of the ancient world, the Etruscans were a fun-loving and eclectic people who, among other things, taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads, and introduced the art of writing into Europe.

Etruscan Tomb's Contents - Up Close: Photos

They began to flourish around 900 B.C., and dominated much of Italy for five centuries.

Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, they began to decline during the fifth century B.C., as the Romans grew in power. By 300-100 B.C., they eventually became absorbed into the Roman empire.

Since their puzzling, non-Indo-European language was virtually extinguished (they left no literature to document their society), the Etruscans have long been considered one of antiquity's great enigmas.

Much of what we know about them comes from their cemeteries. Only the short funerary inscriptions and the richly decorated tombs they left behind have provided clues to fully reconstruct their history.

"Any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge," Ingrid Edlund-Berry, an expert in Etruscan civilization, said.

First Ever Etruscan Pyramids Found in Italy

Indeed, Poggio Colla is one of the few sites offering insight of the Etruscan life in a non-funerary context. It spans most of Etruscan history, being occupied from the seventh to the second century B.C.

Centering on the acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau, Poggio Colla may have been the location of a cult-site for an Etruscan fertility goddess, as numerous votive objects near the sanctuary suggest.

The abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry discovered in previous excavations, already implied that the patron divinity was female. Four years ago, a unique scene of a goddess giving birth was found on a small fragment from a ceramic vessel.

Ancient Images of a Mother Giving Birth Found

The finding features the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art and pointed to an Etruscan fertility goddess.

Identifying the god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated would be a unique discovery as very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be conclusively identified.

"Inscriptions of more than a few words, on permanent materials, are rare for the Etruscans, who tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets," Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, said.

"This stone stele is evidence of a permanent religious cult with monumental dedications, at least as early as the Late Archaic Period, from about 525 to 480 BC. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure," he added.

This inscribed stone was found embedded in the foundations of an Etruscan monumental temple.

2015 has been a year of compelling discoveries. From sunken ships to megalithic stones, colorful mosaics to intact tombs, 2015 gave us a rich view into the past. Here are some of our favorite archaeology stories of this year.

Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2014

A new monument just two miles from Stonehenge stands as one of the most impressive finds of the year. Dubbed "


," it is one of the largest stone monuments in Europe. It consists of a row of huge stones arranged in an arena-like C-shape and dating back to 4,500 years ago. The site lies buried three feet beneath a thick, grassy bank at a Stone-Age enclosure known as Durrington Walls. The finding shows that Stonehenge wasn't standing in splendid isolation on the edge of Salisbury Plain. On the contrary, it was the center of a large and rich ceremonial landscape.

'Superhenge' Found Buried Near Stonehenge

Food was again at the center of the archaeologists' investigation as the wreck of a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman ship was found off the Liguria coast in Italy. The vessel was laden with thousands of jars containing

the ketchup of the ancient Romans

— a pungent, fish-based seasoning known as garum. A baking mistake 250 years ago made it possible to recover

the world's oldest pretzels

. Unearthed in Germany beneath the floor of structure long known to be a bakery, the two pretzels were totally carbonized but looked similar to today's product. It is believed the baker forgot the pieces in the oven and afterwards he threw them away in a hole under the floor.

World's Oldest Pretzel Found in Germany

Analysis of a Paleolithic stone tool provided the most ancient evidence of the processing of oat, revealing that

the world's oldest flour

was made from oat some 32,000 years ago. Eight fossilized peach endocarps, or pits, were found near a bus station in China. They are

the oldest peach pits

, dating back more than two and a half million years. Identical to modern ones, the pits show that peaches were a popular snack long before the humans arrived on the scene.

Oldest Peach Pits Found in China

This year will be also remembered for one of the most stunning Iron Age discoveries of the past century. Archaeologists in northwestern France unearthed

the tomb of an Iron Age Celtic prince

who was buried with his chariot at the center of a huge mound. Standing near the small village of Lavau, in northwestern France, the mound, 130 feet across, was dated to the 5th century BC. The 2,500-year-old tomb featured at its center a 150-square-foot burial chamber, housing the deceased and his chariot. Items found in the tomb included a large bronze-decorated wine cauldron, most likely made by Greek or Etruscans craftsmen. Measuring about 3.2 feet in diameter, the cauldron has four circular handles decorated with bronze heads that depict the Greek god Acheloos.

Impressive Tomb of Celtic Prince Found in France


stunning, intact tomb

was found at the end of the year in Tuscany. A farmer opened a void in the earth while working with his plow in a field near Città della Pieve, a small town some 30 miles southwest of Perugia, bringing to light a rare undisturbed Etruscan tomb. The 2,300-year-old burial revealed a 16 square-foot rectangular chamber with two sarcophagi, four finely sculpted marble urns and various grave goods. One of the sarcophagi, made from stone, bears a long inscription.The urns contained cremains, while one male skeleton was visible in one sarcophagus. The use of alabaster marble, the style of the burial and clues from the inscription suggest the burial belongs to an aristocratic family from the nearby Etruscan stronghold of Chiusi. A mysterious marble head, clearly broken at the neck level, was also found. It portrays the beautiful real-size face of a young man, but its meaning remains obscure.

Intact, Packed Etruscan Tomb Found

Biblical archaeologists made a major discovery as they solved one of Jerusalem's greatest mysteries -- the location of the biblical

Greek fort known as Acra

. Built by the Greek King Antiochus IV more than 2,000 years ago and mentioned in Jewish biblical sources, the fortress has been sought for over 100 years. The remains were unearthed in a parking lot in Jerusalem after 10 years of excavations and included a section of a massive wall, which was the base of an imposing tower measuring 66 feet long and 13 feet wide. The wall's outer base was coated with layers of soil, stone and plaster -- a specially designed slippery slope meant to keep attackers away. Among the ruins, the archaeologists also discovered lead slingshots, bronze arrowheads and stone catapults, all stamped with a trident, which symbolized the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (215-164 BC). The stronghold withstood all attempts at conquest and only in 141 BC was it conquered by the Hasmonean king Simon Maccabeus, after a long siege and the starvation of the Greek defenders.

Ancient Greek Fortress Found in Jerusalem Parking Lot

A discovery in a small Greek archipelago is perhaps this year's most significant finding in underwater archaeology.

Twenty-two shipwrecks

were found within an area of just 17 square miles around the small Fourni archipelago, a collection of 13 islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria. The finding added 12 percent to the total of known ancient shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters in just 10 diving days, basically revealing what may be the ancient shipwreck capital of the world. Overall, the shipwrecks span from the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.) to the Classical (480-323 B.C.) and Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.) through the Late Medieval Period (16th century). The cargoes revealed long distance trades between the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt in all those periods. The archaeologists have only examined about 5 percent of the archipelago's coastline, and are confident that many more wrecks will be discovered.

22 Shipwrecks Found in Single Location in Greece

Archaeologists weren't just busy in the field. A number of breakthroughs occurred also in the lab. Investigation with scanning electron microscopy on a 14,000-year-old molar revealed

the oldest known dentistry

, as the infected tooth was partially cleaned with flint tools. A powerful X-ray procedure was perfected which allowed for the first time to read letters hidden inside

two carbonized papyri

without unrolling them. The scrolls were reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that wrapped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. Paradoxically preserved forever, the papyri are now stored at the National Library of Naples, making up the only library known to have survived the ancient world. The new technology promises to produce the most significant rediscovery of classical literature since the Renaissance.

Oldest Dentistry Found in 14,000-Year-Old Tooth

Mummy research produced some of the most important findings for modern clinical medicine. Researchers found

the oldest case of heart failure

in the 3,500-year-old mummified remains of an Egyptian dignitary named Nebiri, a "Chief of Stables" who lived under the reign of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Thutmoses III (1479-1424 BC). Using high resolution CT scans, German researchers diagnosed

the oldest case of leukemia

in a 7,000-year-old skeleton. The remains belonged to a female individual who died at 30-40 years and were excavated in 1982 at an early Neolithic site near Stuttgart-Mühlhausen in south western Germany. A

mummy in a basket

helped understand the evolution of pathogens. Indeed, genes associated with antibiotic resistance were found in an 11th-century mummy's colon and feces, long before antibiotics were introduced. Coming from Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, the mummy belonged to a woman who had died between 18 and 23 years of age. The find suggests that gene mutations responsible for antibiotic resistance occurred naturally in 1,000-year-old bacteria and are not necessarily linked to the overuse of antibiotics.

Oldest Case Of Heart Failure Found In Ancient Mummy

Weird and odd findings in 2015 included the discovery of a

250-year-old sex toy

in an ancient latrine in the Baltic city of Gdańsk and the amazingly intact remains of a meditating monk in Mongolia. Covered in animal skin,

the mummified body

had been sitting in the lotus position for about 200 years. A

wooden sea monster

then emerged from the Baltic sea after lying on the seabed off the southern Swedish town of Ronneby for more than 500 years. The 660-pound figurehead represented a ferocious looking creature with lion ears and crocodile-like mouth. It was carved from the top of an 11-foot-long beam and stood at the prow of the Gribshunden, a 15th-century warship belonging to the Danish King Hans. Another

unusual breakthrough

was made in a small American museum when a scholar spotted a 2,500-year-old predecessor of DC Comics' Wonder Woman super heroine on a vase painting. Drawn on a white-ground pyxis (a lidded cylindrical box that was used for cosmetics, jewelry, or ointments) the image shows an Amazon on horseback in a battle against a Greek warrior. Much like the fictional warrior princess of the Amazons, the horsewoman is twirling a lasso. The drawing is the only known ancient artistic image of an Amazon using a lariat in battle.

2500-Year-Old 'Wonder Woman' Found on Vase