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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.