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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Etruscan Language and Inscriptions

The Etruscan language is a unique, non-Indo-European outlier in the ancient Greco-Roman world. There are no known parent languages to Etruscan, nor are there any modern descendants, as Latin gradually replaced it, along with other Italic languages, as the Romans gradually took control of the Italian peninsula. The Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 A.D.), however, took a great interest in Etruscan language and history. He knew how to speak and write the language, and even compiled a twenty-volume history of the people that, unfortunately, no longer exists today. Etruscan did not appear in written form until the seventh century B.C., after contact with Euboean Greek traders and colonists, and it is the Euboean Greek alphabet that the Etruscans adopted and adapted to fulfill the phonological and grammatical needs of their native tongue. The Etruscans wrote right to left, and many of the Greek letters are reversed in orientation. Some early Greek inscriptions are also written from right to left, or in a continuous string of lines running first right to left, then left to right (16.174.6).

We have no surviving histories or literature in Etruscan, and the only extant writing that can be considered a text, as opposed to an inscription, was painted in ink on linen, preserved through the fortuitous reuse of the linen as wrappings for an Egyptian mummy now in Zagreb. The existence of such objects like an Etruscan abecedarium in the form of an inkwell (24.97.21a,b), as well as artistic representations of books or scrolls, confirms a written tradition on perishable materials. Despite the lack of preserved texts, the corpus of more than 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions on local and imported goods for daily, religious, and funerary use give us insight into the importance of language in Etruscan life and afterlife.

Etruscan inscriptions fulfilled a number of roles, and they often reveal the intended purposes of the objects that bore them. The writing system developed out of necessity when the Etruscans began to engage in Mediterranean trade, and inscriptions could address practical concerns, such as the price of an object, or indicate a buyer’s or seller’s mark (40.11.3a,b). There is an overwhelming number of “speaking” objects, or vessels inscribed with phrases to express ownership or dedication, written as if the object itself were speaking. For example, an Italo-Corinthian alabastron in the collection (26.60.94) is incised with the phrase “mi licinesi mulu hirsunaiesi,” or “I am the gift of Licinius Hirsunaie.” This could indicate that the vessel was intended as an offering to a deity, but it could also illustrate a gift exchange between wealthy individuals.

Inscriptions associated with pictorial scenes, such as tomb paintings, painted vases, or engraved mirrors, help us to understand what the scene represents. The Etruscans celebrated Greek myths and worshipped many of the same deities, but with variations in the conventions used to portray the narratives that can make them difficult to interpret. Engraved bronze mirrors from numerous Etruscan tombs bear intricate, rich, and nuanced mythological scenes that can be fully understood only through the carefully inscribed names that identify each of the figures (09.221.16). In fact, the only way we know the Etruscan names for the gods is through these labeled mythological scenes on objects and in tomb paintings. Some names are “Etruscanized” versions of the Greek names, e.g., Aplu for the Greek Apollo or Ercle for the Greek Herakles, but others are entirely different and only identifiable through illustrated, labeled scenes, e.g., Tinia for Zeus or Turan for Aphrodite.

Etruscan tombs, in both their construction and contents, prove that the Etruscans conceived of the afterlife as an extension of actual life. The tomb often replicates a domestic interior, filled with all the objects the deceased would need, like personal adornments, games, banqueting wares, and even food. Inscriptions played a key role in the afterlife, too. Etruscan sarcophagi and cremation urns bore the full names of their owners, often identifying the names of the individual’s father, mother, and for women, her husband (96.9.219a,b). Relatives entering a family tomb to bury an individual would be able to identify the effigies of their ancestors. Inscriptions also had the power to transform objects from things for the living to things for the dead. Through the act of inscribing the word suthina, meaning “for the tomb,” pottery, jewelry, and metal objects such as weapons, armor, mirrors, and vessels were thereby “transformed” and designated for use by the deceased in the afterlife (1972.118.87). Some objects were probably made or purchased expressly for burial and inscribed during or shortly after production. Others, however, may have been personal possessions that were inscribed upon the individual’s death and burial (03.24.34).

While there is still much we do not know about the Etruscan language, the corpus of inscriptions continues to grow through new discoveries, affording us new insights into the literary world of the Etruscans that was lost under the rising tide of Roman influence and power.