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2,500-Year-Old Monument Could Help Crack the Mysterious Etruscan Language

Researchers found the inscribed slab near Florence and believe it might hold secrets behind the language of Italy’s pre-Roman culture

Can you see it? Some of the Etruscan letters found on a sandstone slab in the Mugello Valley (Mugello Valley Project)
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We know a lot about the ancient Romans—from their legal system to how they liked to cook their chicken stew. We have thousands of monuments, books, and archeological sites detailing their accomplishments and famous individuals. But before 500 B.C. when the Romans took over, the Estruscans ruled the central and northern portion of the Italian peninsula. And this culture remains an enigma to modern archaeologists.

Of particular mystery is the Estruscan language, which doesn't seem related to other nearby languages. And researchers have uncovered few inscriptions or documents to help us figure it out—until now. Archaeologists of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project recently uncovered a 500-pound, four-foot by two-foot stele, or monumental marker at Poggio Colla site, northeast of Florence. The sandstone slab originally stood in front of an Etruscan temple and is inscribed with 70 legible letters and punctuation marks.

“We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language,” Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the project who made the discovery, says in a press release. “Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long, so there will be new words that we have never seen before, since it is not a funerary text.”

Most of what historians know about the Etruscans comes from their elaborate burials, which are still sometimes found in the Italian countryside. But it has been difficult finding documents about their government, daily life, and other aspects of Etruscan culture. Even though scholars know they were one of the most religious peoples in the ancient world, they don’t even know the names of their gods, though Warden hopes the new stele may finally reveal that.

“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 of the University of Pennsylvania Museum says in the release. “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 BCE. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure.”

Researchers are currently cleaning and scanning the stele in Florence, and they will turn the inscriptions over to an expert in the Etruscan language to decipher the text after that.

“We know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words,” Warden says. “But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site. 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.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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