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Les Étrusques

This week has seen an investment in boxing and shipping books, maps and other miscellaneous paper accumulated during ten weeks in Brussels. There’s a lot of it. One book (too large for a standard BPost box) is about the Etruscans, collaborators in the creation of the Roman state but subsumed by their dominant Latin partners. The book is in French, but the photos aren’t.

Linear B, the language of ancient Crete was reconstructed in the 1960s* from hundreds of clay tablets accidentally baked in the fires that destroyed Minoan civilization that had created them. Their literary legacy? Inventories and tax rolls. By contrast, the Etruscans left only a handful of formal inscriptions: gifts to the gods and memorials recording personal and family achievement. But the Etruscan language will likely never be heard or understood; even the name they called themselves—the Rasna—is little known outside academic circles. What they did leave us is art, glorious art, much of it funerary.

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Howard wrote a piece about Elie Munro, an Agincourt girl who invested a summer during the 1930s working on an Etruscan archaeological dig near Cerveteri and came home with more than she’d bargained. In Italy, Elie acquired two Etruscan souvenirs: a pair of ancient bronze scissors (probably a reproduction/forgery) and her son Larth. As single mother and college dropout, she led three lives: telephone operator by day; amateur linguist on evenings and weekends; full-time mom.

At Cerveteri she probably excavated the Etruscan cemetery, a cluster of cylindrical earthen tombs along a ceremonial path, a true “city of the dead”. Rectangular chambers and alcoves within each tomb held sarcophagi topped with life-like full-scale figures of married couples, reclining as they had in life, as hosts for a dinner party, smiling at their assembled guests. All dressed up for an eternal celestial meal, consider the irony if they’d died from food poisoning, for beneath that representational lid lie their mortal remains. What a package of contrast. Remember that aluminum swan you brought home with the leftovers of Friday night’s anniversary dinner? OK, now reshape it to look a bit like you and…well, you get the picture.

Etruscan contributions to Roman culture were substantial—even if they weren’t literary—and remained potent throughout the Republic, even into the Empire. Somewhat like the Egyptians, however, they left us records in death of what they thought about life, and it was joyous.

By contrast, I think of 19th century romantic cemeteries and their melancholic ruminations on mortality, chewing the cud of “what might have been” again and again and…

*The historical record regarding the translation of Linear B has recently been corrected. English architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris had received the bulk of credit for its translation. A new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, has established the significant, even pivotal role of Alice Kober in that process. I just read that book and can recommend it.


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