Friday, November 13, 2015

Etruscan Orvieto

Of special interest in Orvieto is its connection to the Etruscan past of the region. The Etruscan empire encompassed most of what is today Tuscany and parts of neighboring regions including Umbria. We were able to see several different examples of the Etruscan past, but Orvieto has three of the most interesting.

First, they have an excellent museum. As often happens, this museum came from the collections of a local merchant who had an interest in the past. Beginning in the mid-1800s, his first collections were unorganized items he gathered because he liked them, including what became a large and significant coin collection. Later as archaeologists became more insistent on provenance, he began to focus on items from Orvieto, particularly from the two necropolises beneath the town’s cliffs.

That is his hand stroking his beard

The museum houses the coin collections and an incredible set of artifacts. Of particular interest are the vases imported from Greece. The Mediterranean has long been a trading area so the fact that there was trade between Greeks and Etruscans should be no surprise. Still, it is exciting to see so many of these vases in almost pristine condition. The commentary in English was a pleasant surprise and it helped us learn about the changes in the styles of the vases over time and what that meant about the world of the time.

The panels rotate allowing us to see both sides

Closely connected to the museum are the two necropolises that have been excavated below the cliffs of the city. By the time archaeologists took control of the area, some of the area had been looted. However, many of the tombs were still uncovered so there was much to learn from what was left. Interestingly, we still are not able to read most of the Etruscan language. What little we have figured out comes from places like these necropolises so most of the understood words are related to death and burial leaving a great deal undeciphered.  

We were able to walk through the entire area of one of the necropolises and peer into the graves themselves. It was a bit eerie to know that once this had really been a city of the dead. The map showed over 250 different tombs. On another day, I walked part of the path around the town the city has built beneath the cliffs giving me a bird’s eye view of the necropolis and the door to what was a religious site hewn out of the cliff side. Today it is another Catholic church. It is seldom used and not open for viewing.

Today it is a Catholic Church, But there was an Etruscan temple here first.
On our last full day in Orvieto, we took the underground tour. The layer underneath the city is honeycombed with caves many of which were first dug by the Etruscans who lived there. These have been added to since and today are used for a variety of storage facilities. They are perfect for long-term wine storage. The city no longer allows any new construction and is working to shore up the existing caves so they don’t collapse under the weight of the buildings above them.

The red dots are the caves
The black lines are buildings above
No caves under the Duomo.
They were probably destroyed when building the foundations for the heavy cathedral.

Olive presses
We visited two of the more than 1200 caves. In one of these we saw a well dug by the Etruscans those many years ago. At a depth of over  40 meters, it is an amazing engineering feat. Barely large enough for a person, it was dug with hand tools and required a person to descend each time water was extracted from the well. We could see the footholds carved into the side of the well to allow a person to climb up and down like a ladder.

Another cave had something even more interesting: pigeon holes. During the Middle Ages, residents carved nesting holes for pigeons in caves on the edge of the cliffs. Not being stupid, the pigeons would flock to these holes for nesting which made them easy picking for the residents who looked at pigeon meat as an essential part of the diet. While the pigeons no longer use these particular holes for nesting, pigeons can still be found on restaurant menus around town. 

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