Under the Tuscan sun, FSU professor uncovers Etruscan secrets

This summer, Nancy Thomson de Grummond is heading back to Italy—just as she has done nearly ever year since 1983. Although she will be spending plenty of time in the sun, this is no vacation: De Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics at Florida State University, will be leading another group of FSU students into the Tuscan countryside to learn more about the region’s ancient residents, the Etruscans.

De Grummond serves as director of excavations at an Etruscan archaeological site, Cetamura del Chianti, under the auspices of the FSU Archaeology Programs in Italy. Currently she is sharing much of what she has learned about the Etruscans in two new books. "The Religion of the Etruscans," published this spring, was written and edited by de Grummond and Erika Simon, another expert in classical archaeology who served as the Langford Family Eminent Scholar in Classics at FSU in 1999. The second book, "Etruscan Myth, Sacred History and Legend," will be published later this year.

"The Etruscans are fascinating to me in part because they left so few clues behind," de Grummond said. "We know a great deal about the ancient Greeks and Romans because so many of their texts were preserved. However, no Etruscan texts have survived.

"For a classical scholar, this poses a wonderful challenge. Much of what we now know about these people comes from digging into the ground and making sense of bits and pieces of pottery and other artifacts."

In their time—which was roughly between 1000 and 100 B.C.E. ("Before the Common Era")—the Etruscans were the most prominent culture in Italy, controlling virtually the entire peninsula. Along with the ancient Greeks, the Etruscans developed the first true cities in Europe. They also taught the alphabet to the Romans—and, ironically, gave them what are now known as "Roman" numerals. In addition, highly advanced temples, roads and sewers were built by the Etruscans at a time when their Roman neighbors still were considered savages.

From bits and pieces of inscriptions on mirrors, pottery and other artifacts, researchers have developed a convincing picture of the Etruscan religion. In "Religion of the Etruscans," de Grummond and her co-editor, Simon, have compiled that body of knowledge into a single volume—a significant step in understanding who the Etruscans were and how they influenced our world.

"We know that the Etruscans recognized many gods, who lived in 16 regions of the Etruscan heaven," de Grummond said. "A number of these gods have definite parallels to those from Greek and Roman mythology. For example, the highest Etruscan god, known as Tinia or Tin, roughly equates to the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter."

Other archaeological clues indicate that animal sacrifice was practiced, and that soothsaying priests, known as haruspices, closely examined the livers of the animals to divine the will of the gods.

"The ancient Etruscans haven’t gotten their due," de Grummond said. "In literature, in government, in architecture, they influenced all who came after them. I’m proud that my research is helping to increase awareness of this once-great civilization."

For more information about FSU’s Archaeology Programs in Italy, please see www.fsu.edu/~classics/cetamura/arch_programs_index1.html.

In addition to her Etruscan research, de Grummond will take several students to Ukraine later this year to continue her archaeological work on the Scythians, a nomadic people who lived at about the time of the Etruscans—and about whom even less is known.

"Now, the Scythians are a real mystery," de Grummond said. We know that they produced bronze and iron implements, and that they traded extensively with the ancient Greeks on the Mediterranean. But we don’t know exactly what became of them."