Etruscan history gets a rewrite

Tabula Cortonensis

May 19, 2000

A civilisation 2, 500 years old is still yielding new treasures. Larissa Bonfante reviews an important discovery in the field of Etruscan studies

After the report of the existence of a new Etruscan inscription broke on Italian television and newspapers in the spring of 1999, Francesco Nicosia,the archaeological soprintendente at the time of the discovery, moved quickly to inform the public about details of the exciting find. By June he had presided in Florence, together with Luciano Agostiniani, professor of linguistics at the University of Perugia, at the official presentation of one of the longest Etruscan inscriptions to have come down to us, which was well covered in the world's media. Barely seven months later, with amazing speed on the part of authors and publisher, this handsome and authoritative volume provides an account of the discovery of the bronze tablet and a scholarly study of the legal document carefully inscribed on its surface.

The tablet, approximately the size of an A4 sheet of paper, was made and inscribed at the end of the 3rd or the first half of the 2nd century BC (225-150 BC), and originally hung by its handle in a public place, perhaps in an archive. It was broken in antiquity into eight pieces, one of which is now missing: someone evidently wanted to bury it, out of respect, or more practically, intended to melt and reuse the bronze.

Though persistent rumours had circulated among some scholars in Italy, the original discovery of the inscription in 1992, or even earlier, had been kept a secret - even from Massimo Pallottino, the dean of Etruscan studies, who at the time of his death in 1995 was writing a book on the Etruscan language. The soprintendenza of Etruria, to whom it had been reported, had hoped that by avoiding publicity they would stand a better chance of identifying the real find spot of the tablet. This was clearly not the location in Cortona to which the authorities had been taken by the workman who claimed to have found it on a construction site in the autumn of 1992; clearly he had lied about the place, and perhaps also about the date. He was taken to court and acquitted, but the reward was withheld. Neither the tablet's ancient context nor the missing piece were ever found,and in the end the discovery had to be publicly announced.

Yet, though the exact find spot is unknown, internal evidence confirms the provenance to have been the area of Cortona. The kind of writing and several of the proper names found on the tablet occur in other inscriptions from Cortona; and there is a reference to the plain of Lake Trasimeno, the scene of Hannibal's victory over the Romans, which today impressively spreads out in the distance below the steep hill of modern Cortona. It is therefore appropriately named the Tabula Cortonensis .

The inscription takes its place as one of the longest extant Etruscan texts. Almost all of the 12,000 or 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions, dating from c. 700 BC to the 1st century BC, are short epitaphs or votive inscriptions. Less than a dozen are of any length, and they occur on such unusual monuments as a bronze model sheep's liver, an epitaph incised on a scroll held by a stone image of the deceased, gold and lead tablets. The longest text (about 1,200 words), originally a sacred book listing offerings to be made to the gods, written in black and red ink on linen strips and eventually reused as wrappings for an Egyptian mummy, was brought to the Zagreb museum in the 19th century. The second longest, the Tabula Capuana (300 words), a religious calendar inscribed on a tile from Capua, is in Berlin.

The Perugia cippus , containing a contract between families concerning a funerary plot, with 130 words, has now been displaced as the third longest text by the Tabula Cortonensis , with a total of more than 200 words on 40 lines (side A = 32 lines, side B = eight lines). It is, Italians note proudly, still in Italy, rather than in a museum abroad. It is the most "normal" of the long texts, and the only one that is neither religious nor funerary.

This publication, by an archaeologist and a linguist working together, illustrates the kind of collaboration necessary in Etruscan studies. It also illustrates the way our knowledge of the Etruscan language is advanced by both spectacular discoveries and patient study. Three sections deal with tablet, text and interpretation. Texts of 57 other short inscriptions from Cortona can be compared with the Tabula , and 35 plates of striking colour photos, drawings, radiographs and details make it possible to follow step-by-step arguments and information. The authors make clear how much is still uncertain, state their preferences and explain the choices they have made. It is not certain, for example, whether the two sides constitute a single transaction or two separate documents: but because some of the proper names occur on both sides it makes sense to treat them, as they are here, as a single, continuous text. Of the two possible methods for inscribing the letters and signs on the surface of the tablet - incising them on the wax model used to cast it in the cire perdue (lost wax) method, or cutting it directly on the bronze - the authors consider the latter the most likely, with the inscription incised deeply on a specially prepared smooth, softened surface.

The text, written in the Greek alphabet, is clearly legible: though many of the words are hard to understand, Etruscan does not have to be "deciphered". It is the language, not the script, that is unknown and "mysterious". The situation is the opposite of that of Mycenean Linear B: there, an unknown script was used to write a known language - Greek, as Michael Ventris proved in 1953. (It is intriguing to note that Ventris long considered Etruscan as a working hypothesis in the decipherment of Linear B, until it became clear that the language must be Greek.) The direction is "retrograde", from right to left, as usual with Etruscan. Since this was also the direction of the Phoenician, Semitic alphabet from which the Greek - and the Etruscan and Latin - alphabet derived, the question is why the Greeks changed the direction from left to right.

The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds for B, G or D. Their neighbours, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way, or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The "paragraph" sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.

The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard ( vina ), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno ( celtineitiss tarsminass ), between the Cusu family ( Cusuthur ), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren ( clan , "son", and papals , "grandson").

There are formulas and repetitions, as in any legal document. Most of the 200 words are proper names. Thirty-two men are mentioned by name; one woman, Arntlei Petrus puia , is also listed ("Arntlei, the wife of Petrus"; the absence of the usual feminine praenomen, or first name, may be due to Roman influence). Ten men are identified by their mothers' names, or matronymics, also a typical feature of Etruscan society. Of the 60 different words other than names included (some are repeated, some, such as -c, "and", are enclitics), about half are new.

A close study of the various elements - the names, dates, magistracies, numbers, vocabulary - reveals new insights and confirms old hypotheses. Some words and phrases can be understood at once. "This writing (ie document) has been written": cen zic zichuche . The statement, repeated on a number of texts including the Zagreb mummy wrappings and the Perugia cippus , underlines the importance of the written word - after seeing the 1985 exhibit on Etruscan writing in Perugia, Pallottino began calling the Etruscans the "people of the book".

A date, given in the normal way by citing the name of the magistrates in charge, is zilci larthal cusus titinal larisalc salinis aulesla , "in the magistracy of Larth Cusu, (son of) Titinei, and of Laris Salini (son of) Aule". Also recorded is a "magistrate of the people", the zilath mechl rasnal . Words already attested include cel, "earth, land"; vina, "vineyard", related to vinum; sran, "surface measure"; tiur , "moon, month"; male , "(to) oversee, guarantee"; rasna , "Etruscans, people"; pava , "youth"; puia , "wife"; clan , "son"; papals , "grandson". Numerals, zal (2), sa (4) and sar (10), apparently refer to land measurements.

Aspects of the text relate to focuses of ongoing research on the Etruscans: Romanisation, literacy, field surveys, the local character of individual Etruscan cities, family genealogies, prosopography, the search for non-religious, non-funerary sites and texts, DNA analysis of Etruscan genetic traces, Indo-European origins and history. The non-Indo-European basis of the Etruscan language is proven by the names for numerals and relationships, such as puia and clan , quite different from those of Indo-European languages, though some vocabulary, such as vinum and vina , was quite naturally like that of their Indo-European-speaking neighbours in Italy.

Except for the missing piece (which contained only proper names), the inscribed bronze tablet is in an excellent state of preservation. It has defied time and the elements, like the (metaphorical) bronze monument remembered in Horace's Ode 3.30: " Exegi monumentus aere perennius,/ regalique situ pyramidum altius,/ quod non imber edax, non aquilo inpotens possit/ diruere aut innumerabilis/ annorum series et fuga temporum ."

"I have made a monument more lasting than bronze,/ more deeply set than the royal site of the pyramids,/ which the corrosive rain, the unbridled wind/ cannot destroy, nor the numberless/ epochs of years and the flight of time."

Larissa Bonfante is professor of classics, New York University, United States.

Tabula Cortonensis

Author - Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia
ISBN - 88 8265 090
Publisher - 'L 'Erma Bretschneider, Via Cassiodoro, 19, Rome
Price - Euros 128.00 (L250
Pages - 175

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