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Etruscan necropolis yields fresh discoveries

Rare plaster walls, Tarquinia's oldest painting discovered

05 August, 18:04
Etruscan necropolis yields fresh discoveries (ANSA) - Rome, August 5 - An Etruscan necropolis in central Italy has yielded up a string of fresh discoveries this summer, after archaeologists set their sights on an ancient royal tomb.

Tarquinia, one of Lazio's richest Etruscan sites, is home to dozens of tombs but this is the first time archaeologists have been given the opportunity to excavate the 'Queen's Tomb' in detail.

Created in the mid-7th century BC, the crypt is thought to have hosted someone of royal rank although no remains have ever been found. Instead, archaeologists have uncovered elements of decoration indicating the settlement had much wider links with the outside world than previously realized. The first stage of the excavation revealed a wide, imposing, open-air staircase leading down to the crypt's entrance. After entering the tomb, archaeologists discovered the walls were covered in a form of gypsum plaster, using techniques common in the ancient civilisations of modern-day Cyprus, Egypt and Syria. This is the first example of this technique found in the central Italian region of Etruria and is believed to have been created by specialists from the eastern Mediterranean area. This theory is further backed up by the design of the crypt itself, which appears to be modelled on a style common in Cyprus, particularly in the ancient city-state of Salamis. The fact a royal tomb was created by a team of foreign architects and craftsmen is strong evidence of a solid network of ties and trade with other cultures, archaeologists said.

Faint traces of paint on the plaster offer another tantalizing insight into Tarquinia, indicating that decorative imagery may have been used in the necropolis much earlier than previously realized. The paintings appear to have been created using the oldest artistic technique in written records, described by the Roman writer and historian, Pliny the Elder. Similar to tempera, the technique was invented in Greece between the mid-8th and 7th centuries BC. If further discoveries confirm the tentative date of the crypt as mid-7th century BC, the Queen's Tomb would be home to the oldest funerary painting in Tarquinia, predating earlier discoveries by several decades. The traces of paint on the plaster reveal a horizontal band of red once ran around the walls and surrounded the entranceway.

A black image outlined in red above the door has not yet been deciphered but may have been an animal symbolizing the underworld. The necropolis of Tarquinia contains 6,000 graves cut into the rock but has won worldwide fame for its painted tombs.

Nearly 200 crypts at the site are decorated with frescos in the early Etruscan and Greek style.

Today considered the most important galleries of ancient art, the Tarquinia necropolis, along with that of the nearby Cerveteri, have been on UNESCO's world heritage list since 2004.

The graves reflect changing burial practices over several centuries but their decorations have played an even greater role in educating archaeologists about Etruscan culture. Most of what is known about the Etruscans derives from these tombs, as their cities were built almost entirely of wood and so vanished quickly, leaving little for archaeologists to investigate.

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