Tablet decodes a tenth of Etruscan language

March 31, 2000

A bronze tablet, inscribed with more than 200 words of Etruscan text, has increased the known vocabulary of the ancient language by 10 per cent.

The Tabula Cortonensis, which was discovered near Cortona, in Tuscany, is being examined by Etruscologists at the University of Perugia. Luciano Agostiniani, professor of glottology and an international authority on the Etruscan language, is leading the team.

"The tabula is the third-longest Etruscan text in existence," said Professor Agostiniani. "But its essential importance is that it is a legal text. "We believe the tabula concerns the sale or rental of land near Lake Trasimeno, some kind of contract between two families.

"Our knowledge of the Etruscan language amounts to only 300 words, the meanings of which we believe we know, and another 300 that remain unknown.

"From the tabula we are reaching fairly solid conclusions regarding another 30 words. Each new piece of the puzzle paves the way for placing more pieces together," Professor Agostiniani explained.

There are about 12,000 Etruscan writings in existence, but the vast majority are brief religious, commemorative or funeral inscriptions, with many repetitions.

In pre-Roman times, the Etruscans inhabited much of central Italy, reaching their heyday around the 6th century BC. They were noted for the sophistication of their culture and craftsmanship, but were wiped out by less sophisticated, more vigorous peoples such as the Gauls, Romans and other pre-Roman populations.

The tabula is an important find for the future of research on the Etruscans. It will be compared with another legal text, the Perugia Tablet.

The longest Etruscan text is the Liber Linteus, a long linen sheet inscribed with 1,300 words. It was discovered at the turn of the century wrapped around an Egyptian mummy. The second-longest text is Tavola di Capua, about 300 words inscribed in clay.

The Tabula Cortonensis has a mysterious history. In 1992, seven fragments of the tablet (an eighth is still missing) were handed over by a local carpenter to a police station near Cortona, in eastern Tuscany, an area known to have been dense with Etruscan settlements.

"We are using the tabula to prove or disprove existing hypotheses on the meanings of words, and to make fresh hypotheses for new words," said Professor Agostiniani. "One example is the word 'et', which we have found on a number of occasions at the beginning of texts."

Until recently it was thought it might be a conjunction. "Thanks to the tabula, we are now pretty sure it means 'so' or 'thus'."

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