Archaeologists Find Rare Stele Inscribed in Etruscan

Mugello Valley Project
Mugello Valley Project / Mugello Valley Project

Sometimes, our planet can seem like a really big, really cool sandbox. Archaeologists digging in Italy’s Mugello Valley have unearthed an enormous stone tablet bearing what appears to be a rare Etruscan sacred text. The team presented their discovery to the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency earlier this month.

The Etruscans were an ancient people who lived in what is today Italy from about the 8th to the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE. At the height of their power, the highly religious Etruscans ruled over the Romans. Eventually, their civilization was assimilated into, and gradually overshadowed by, the Roman republic.

The Mugello Valley excavations have been in progress for more than two decades now, and the dig has uncovered objects both mundane and sacred, including pottery, statues, jewelry, coins, and the earliest known European depiction of a woman giving birth.What they haven’t found are many sacred texts. It’s not that they didn’t exist—the team has found other ritual artifacts—just that they didn’t last. “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 said in a press statement. 

So you can imagine the researchers' excitement when they found a 500-pound sandstone slab, or stele, covered in writing and buried in the foundations of an ancient temple. The stone is nearly four feet tall, and is carved with at least 70 legible letters and punctuation. Likely dating to the 6th century BCE, the stele was re-used in the temple, which is a slightly younger structure.     

“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 principal investigator Gregory Warden.

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

Because so few examples of Etruscan writing exist, “any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge,” said archaeologist Ingrid Edlund-Berry. “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.”

All images are courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.