Shackle-Bound Skeleton Found in Etruscan Burial

The gruesome find suggests the ancient people had a dark side.

Archaeologists digging in central Tuscany have brought to light a dark side of the Etruscan civilization, unearthing a 2,500-year-old skeleton still bound by shackles on his neck and ankles.

The finding appears to be the first case of an Etruscan burial containing a shackled individual.

The unusual grave was found in Populonia, a unique Etruscan settlement built directly on the sea. There, in a simple pit dug into the sandy soil near the beach of Baratti, the archaeologists found the complete skeleton of a male between 20 and 30 years of age.

Almost five pounds of iron bound his legs, while a heavy iron collar was wrapped around his neck.

"He died in shackles and was buried with a shroud tied to the body. We found a black spot under the nape, most likely what remained of a wood object which was likely connected to the iron collar," Giorgio Baratti, professor of archaeology at the University of Milan, told Seeker.

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It's likely the unfortunate man endured a device that was connected from the head to the feet with perishable materials such as ropes or leather.

An iron ring found in one of his left fingers might have been part of the device, which was meant to impede his ability to take long steps.

Baratti, whose last name is oddly the same of the beach where the skeleton was unearthed, believes the man was likely a slave or someone who had to bear a definitive punishment.

A slave might have been employed in maritime activities as well as in the iron mines in the area. Between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., Populonia was the main center in the Mediterranean for iron processing, with the metal coming mainly from the Elba island.

"Notably, he was interred in a necropolis which features normal burials. This is something you would not expect," Baratti said.

Despite the lack of grave goods, Baratti was able to date the shackle burial to at least the 5th century B.C.

"Right on top of the shackled man, we found the grave of a woman buried with earrings and other goods which clearly date to the 4th century B.C. We estimate that at least a century had passed before they built a new necropolis," Baratti said.

The finding reveals a lesser known aspect of the Etruscan civilization, which began to flourish around 900 B.C., and dominated much of Italy for five centuries. Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, the Etruscans became absorbed into the Roman empire by 300-100 B.C.

Their richly decorated tombs have painted an image of a fun-loving and eclectic people who respected women and taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads, and introduced the art of writing into Europe.

The shackled man reveals a more disturbing side of the traditional Etruscan image.

"They could be cruel as well," Baratti said.

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He described the Phersu funerary game, depicted in at least four tombs in Tarquinia, in which a masked man known as Phersu holds a dog on a leash.

As the Phersu pulled on the leash, a nail on the dog's collar dug into the animal's neck, angering the dog and causing it to attack a man. Many scholars are also now convinced that the Etruscans performed human sacrifice. Excavations carried out between 1982 and 2005 revealed gruesome remains in a monumental sacred area of Tarquinia.

"Many individuals, including children, a woman and a foreign man, were decapitated, dismembered and/or physically abused," leading Etruscan scholar Nancy Thomson de Grummond, professor of classics at Florida State University, told Seeker.

According to Baratti, further research is needed to understand the shackled burial.

Analysis, including DNA, might reveal more about the mysterious individual, if he had diseases and whether he was a local or foreigner.

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