Important text discovered at archeological site in Italy may shed light on Etruscan deities
Mon. April 4, 2016
Archaeologists working on the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project in Italy have discovered what may be a rare sacred text in the Etruscan language that is likely to yield rich details about Etruscan worship of a god or goddess. The project is co-directed by Dr. Michael Thomas, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. The lengthy text is inscribed on a large 6th century B.C. sandstone slab that was uncovered from an Etruscan temple. A new religious artifact discovery is rare, and most Etruscan discoveries typically have been grave and funeral objects.
“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden, Thomas’s co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.
Scholars in the field predict the stele (STEE-lee), as such slabs are called, will yield a wealth of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans. The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and measuring nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, likely with never-seen-before words.
The Etruscan civilization once ruled Rome and influenced Romans on everything from religion to government to art and architecture. Considered one of the most religious people of the ancient world, Etruscan life was permeated by religion, and ruling magistrates also exercised religious authority.
The slab was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. At one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority. Thomas supervised the removal of the stele and discovered the inscription while washing the stele in the field. He presented the discovery at the Annual Meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco this past January.
“The size and shape of the stone was our first clue that we had found something unique,” said Thomas. “The moment we recognized letters on the stone, we knew we had made a profound discovery.”
The Mugello Valley dig, specifically the Poggio Colla site, is northeast of Florence, Italy. The slab would have been connected to the early sacred life of the sanctuary there. Thomas’ research focuses on the architecture at the site.
“Though we have several phases of construction, the earliest structure at the site was a simple timber-framed oval hut. This would have been followed by a large temple set on a stone podium with large stone column bases of the Tuscan Doric type,” said Thomas. “It was within that stone podium that we discovered the stele.”
Conservation and study of the stele, with full photogrammetry and laser scanning to document all aspects of the conservation process and all details of the inscribed surfaces, is underway in the next few months at the conservation laboratories of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency in Florence by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone, likely from a local source, is heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened, possibly from undergoing burning in antiquity. Cleaning will allow scholars to read the inscription. The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In two decades of digging, Mugello Valley Archaeological Project has unearthed objects about Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. This wealth of material helps document the ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century B.C., including gold jewelry, coins, the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art and, in the past two seasons, four 6th-century bronze statuettes.
Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, said the stele discovery will advance knowledge of Etruscan history, literacy and religious practices.
“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,” Turfa 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 B.C. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure.”
It would be a rare discovery to identify the Etruscan god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated.
“Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified,” Turfa said. “A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”
Etruscans were a highly cultured people, but very little of their writing has been preserved, mostly just short funerary inscriptions with names and titles, said archaeologist Ingrid Edlund-Berry, a professor emerita at The University of Texas at Austin and consulting scholar at Poggio Colla.
“So any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge,” said Edlund-Berry, an expert in Etruscan civilization. “It is very interesting that the stele was found within the walls of the buildings at the site, thus suggesting that it was re-used, and that it represents an early phase at the site.”
The Poggio Colla site is in northern Etruria. Most inscriptions have come from centers further south, Edlund-Berry said.
Thomas has worked at the site since the first season in 1995. The project’s field school has trained numerous UT undergrads and graduate students over the last two decades. Besides the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy at The University of Texas at Austin, other collaborating institutions at Mugello Valley Archaeological Project include Franklin and Marshall College, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, The Open University (UK), Franklin University Switzerland and Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Ph.D. candidates in Art History raise funds for environmental exhibitions at the Visual Arts Center
Thu. March 31, 2016
In the offices of the Visual Arts Center (VAC), we fast forward to fall 2016 where Ph.D. candidates in Art History Dorota Biczel and Allison Myers are curating exhibitions. Both ambitious exhibitions will bring international artists to Austin, and Biczel and Myers have launched a fundraising campaign to raise $15,000.
“I think Austin is a very particular place,” said Biczel. “With its focus on creative industries and new, digital entrepreneurship, it’s quite far removed from the land, regardless of how much we enjoy its glorious outdoors. I hope that our exhibitions can serve as a reminder of Austin’s grounding in the larger Texas environment beyond the city limits and how important the land is to our collective wellbeing.”
Biczel, whose dissertation focuses on artists in Lima during the 70s and 80s, will bring artists Edi Hirose and Nancy La Rosa for an exhibition entitled Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru. The exhibition will draw attention to current environmental issues and how people reshape their landscapes. In a similar vein, Myers, whose research chronicles the reception of French art in the US during the 70s, will bring French artist Tania Mouraud for a solo exhibition entitled Regards. While in Texas, Mouraud will visit oil refineries and nuclear power plants across the state to gather material for her new work in the VAC.
“Much of Tania’s recent work has focused on the relationship between human activity and the natural world,” Myers described. “I wanted to commission a new Texas-based video installation from Tania, and she chose to approach it through the lens of Texas' investment in the energy industry. Tania's video and sound installations put viewers in direct contact with sites that are normally closed to the public, like refineries, paper mills and recycling centers. Her works emphasize the sensory experience of these places, so they connect with viewers on a visceral level. This connection helps to raise consciousness about humanity’s impact on the environment.”
Myers spend her childhood in a rural town outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma and went to Webster University in St. Louis. The open curriculum at Webster allowed her to focus on classes in art history, studio art and philosophy.
“I became interested in the process of writing histories about art, and the cultural and social forces that shape the way these histories are written,” said Myers. This curiosity brought her to UT Austin for a Ph.D. in Art History.
Biczel pursued studio art, working in primarily in printmaking, and attended the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts for her undergraduate degree. She moved to the U.S. in 2002 and began writing art criticism while running a small print studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Writing led her to completing dual degrees in Art History, Theory and Criticism and Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“When I finished, I realized I wasn’t done at all,” Biczel said. “It was clear to me that there was so much more work that needed to be done, which lead me to pursue a Ph.D.”
As both Biczel and Myers complete their dissertations, they are steadfastly planning exhibitions and are embarking upon a campaign to raise the money needed to bring their international artists to Austin.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to curate exhibitions with the support of the department behind us,” says Myers. “For me, it’s key that we have a lot of freedom to propose exhibitions and develop them while still having a supportive framework that helps us learn as we go. And any job in the arts is probably going to require fundraising at some time, so it’s great to be getting this experience now.”
Their fundraiser launches March 23 on Hornraiser, the university’s official crowdfunding platform. Biczel and Myers hope to raise $15,000 that will contribute to the transportation of artworks from and back to Lima and Paris, travel costs for the artist to be present at the exhibition openings and interact with students, framing, the construction of a video-projection room in the VAC, and production costs for Mouraud's new video commission.
“It’s exhilarating to be able to present some of the artists whom I admire to the arts community and general public at the VAC,” says Biczel. “I really believe that contemporary art can touch and affect anyone, regardless of age and education.”
Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru and Tania Mouraud: Regards will open September 23, 2016 at the Visual Arts Center.
Art History senior Katherine Jessen receives Undergraduate Research Fellowship
Thu. March 31, 2016
Art History senior Katherine Jessen received an Undergraduate Research Fellowship for her paper "Assessing the Impact of the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas." The Undergraduate Research Fellowship provides financial support for scholarly research projects conducted by undergraduate students. Jessen's paper abstract follows:
This thesis surveys the multitude of ways that the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American art has affected the city of Bentonville, Arkansas and the surrounding region. The museum opened November 11, 2011 and was funded and envisioned by Walmart heiress, Alice Walton. Calculating the museum’s economic footprint, measuring increases in tourism, and looking at new development in the area offers a holistic view of how Crystal Bridges has altered the local economy. A thorough investigation of the museum’s educational initiatives and public programming demonstrates the museum’s effects on the community. Finally, I will describe how museum professionals and the media have perceived the museum and what the future looks like for Crystal Bridges and the area community.
Jessen will present her thesis during the Annual Undergraduate Art History Symposium on Friday, April 22, 2016.