TARQUINIA, Italy — Fresh discoveries near this hilltop town and elsewhere in western Italy are helping to lift a veil of mystery from the ancient Etruscans, the enigmatic people who taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads and bridges and the rest of Europe how to write and thereby become civilized.
For more than 2,000 years, so little was known about the elusive people who made a rich civilization in Italy from about 1000 B.C. to the 1st Century B.C.--for much of that time, the earliest Romans were still tending sheep--that they were treated by many scholars as a historic aberration.
Their language was considered an impenetrable mystery, their daily lives a historical blank. Because the remains of their obviously opulent civilization consisted almost solely of tombs and funerary artifacts, they were thought to have been more absorbed by death than by life.
Pictures in their tombs and on their pottery depicted happy-go-lucky games and feasts along with some of the most gruesome scenes of death and torture in ancient history, leading some scholars to dismiss them as frivolous but bloodthirsty numbskulls. Until a flood of new finds and new information began in the 1960s, that view was shared by many.
But during the last two decades, the rapid pace of new archeological and linguistic finds that one specialist says are coming "almost weekly" has vastly expanded the experts' understanding of a people who were refined and sophisticated and who, under Phoenician and Greek tutelage, sowed the seeds of European civilization--and apparently had a lot of fun doing it.
In the first six months of this year alone, archeologists have found the remains of two Etruscan cities, one of them only a stone's throw from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the other near Bolsena, north of Rome.
Neither has been excavated yet, but each is expected to yield major insights into the daily lives of a people who archeologists now see as among the ancient world's greatest engineers and city planners, according to Ludovico Magrini, editor of the Rome-based journal Archeologia, which focuses on Etruscan discoveries.
Another fresh find, in May, was a tomb carved into the rock beneath a modern highway in Tarquinia, one of the great cities of antiquity, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Prof. Paola Pelagatti, director of Rome's treasured Etruscan museum, the Villa Giulia, says the find, already known as the Blue Demon tomb because of its wall decorations, may be the most important painted tomb discovered in the last two decades. The demons appear in a wall painting of the netherworld opposite another wall painting that depicts a triumphal parade and adjoining a third that shows a traditional Etruscan banquet, with men and women happily wining and dining together while reclining on couches.
Dating from the 5th Century B.C., it is the oldest of thousands of Etruscan tombs to show underworld demons and the only one to depict Charon, the mythological Greek spirit, ferrying souls across the river Styx in his canoe-like boat. The tomb thereby underscores the importance of Greek mythology to Etruscan religious practices.
Like most other Etruscan discoveries, one made a few months ago at the ancient town of Ceri, north of Rome near Cerveteri, was almost accidental. Volunteer diggers from the mostly amateur Gruppo Archeologico Romano, a club of ancient history buffs, were excavating a long-known Etruscan highway that was constructed centuries before any roads led to Rome. In the course of their labors, they found 30 previously untouched tombs. None was richly painted or treasure laden, but together they did yield almost 300 vases and pieces of bronze that will add to the knowledge of the people who made them, Magrini said.
Discoveries are coming at such a fast pace that specialists "stand more of a chance of learning of a new find from the newspaper than from a book," marveled Larissa Bonfante, professor of classics at New York University and an internationally known expert on the Etruscan language.
Although the growing number of archeological finds has been vital in lifting the veil from the once dimly seen Etruscans, the experts say that patient scholarship, including painstaking re-examination of ancient Greek and Roman texts as well as of the long-dead civilization's own skimpy writings, has been just as important.
The result has been an increasingly well-rounded knowledge of 900 years of Etruscan history, according to Bonfante.
"The problem with studying them is that there is no Etruscan literature," she said in a recent interview in Rome. "What we know has had to be 'read' from their remains--tombs, monuments, artworks and mostly epigraphic inscriptions. Greek and Roman historians like Livy and Dionysius wrote about them, but by then Etruscan civilization was fading into history, and a lot of what they wrote was misleading or inaccurate."