by Ariane Beldi
It is hard to determine exactly when the history of the Etruscans started, but most historians, now, agreed on the period between the tenth-eleventh century BC as the time of the arising of their civilisation. It is also almost certain, from archaeological results as well as from genetic evidences that the Etruscans were a people who had been living in Italy since a very early time---at least from the time of the iron age. Some people suggested that an other people, immigrated from the Aegean region or from North-Eastern countries, might have settled down in Italy and mixed with the Etruscan population of the tenth century, bringing with them the seeds of a highly civilized culture. However, evidences to back up this hypothesis are still lacking, so the origin of the Etruscan development is still a controversy.
It is during the eighth and seventh century BC that the Etruscan civilisation and power reaches its maxima. During this time, they had active trading with the Greek populations of the Great Greece region in Southern Italy and seated two of their kings on the royal throne of the growing Rome, founded in around 753 BC. Towns like Tarquina, Vulci, Cerveteri, and Veio became important trade and cultural centers, well protected and provided with ports-of-call on the coast. Etruscan were excellent navigator on the rivers and coastal seas and dominated Italy for at least 200 years before being taken over by the Romans and the Greeks from Sicilia.
Etruscan art is best reflected in the remains of pottery, jewels and tombs paintings that archaeologists have been able to excavate. A lot of art work, though, had been looted by adventurers from the 16th to the 19th century when the fashion pushed explorers to dig everywhere they suspected an ancient site to be. Thus, most of it comes from personal and familial collections, even though a lot has been found those last 100 years. Most of their pottery styles were taken from Greek model, but they also introduced unique techniques of fabrication such as the one used to make buccheros. They also improvised on Greek themes of pottery paintings and brought to it their own conception of aesthetic. These features can also be found in the wall painting of their tombs, which, although also influenced by the Greek culture, included stylistic and design features that reflected their culture. Etruscans were also masters in making extremely fine jewels and they improved techniques of working metals such as gold, silver, and bronze that they had inherited from the Greeks and Egyptians. They were also famous for their skills in making clothes and in working material such as leather and they retained those skills until today.
Since Antiquity, Etruscans have been subjects to all kinds of questions and critics regarding their origins, customs and language. Indeed, these people were already quite a mystery for their contemporaries and some ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus thought that they had come from Lydia or Anatolia. Others like Dionysius of Halicarnassius thought that they originated in Italy. Two millenia later, during the 15th-16th century, the mystery of Etruscans origin and legends about them were revived when certain sites were discovered, often accidentally. Indeed, at these times, the craziest theories about them were made and for a long time, people believed that they were from Asian origin, this idea coming from the discovery of statues or portraits of people with Asian-like eyes, such as the Apollo of Veii. The mystery was deepened by the strangeness of their writting, which although used the Greek alphabet, could not be translated. It was discovered, much later, that this inability of translating the inscriptions found on sarcophagi, potteries and walls, was due to the fact that the first scholar of the Renaissance time were reading them from left to right, when many of them were written from right to left (like in Arabic) and sometimes in columns, like hieroglyphs.
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