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Etruscan house reveals ancient domestic life

Italian archaeologists have discovered the first-ever intact Etruscan house, complete with furniture, bricks and terracotta tiles identical to the ones still used in Tuscany today.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Italian archaeologists have discovered the first-ever intact Etruscan house, complete with furniture, bricks and terracotta tiles identical to the ones still used in Tuscany today.

Found at an archaeological site called Poggiarello Renzetti in the Tuscan town of Vetulonia, some 120 miles north of Rome, the 2,400-year-old building has been only partially excavated.

Constructed in the Hellenistic period between the third and first century B.C., the house, about 33 by 50 feet, consisted of a basement to store foodstuffs and a residential area where the rather wealthy owner lived with his family.

Although only a storage room has been brought to light by a joint team from a local archaeological museum and the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, the standing ruins have been already hailed as an exceptional find.

"It's the Pompeii of the Etruscans. We are not dealing with tombs, but with some vivid remains of daily life," Simona Rafanelli, director of the excavation at Vetulonia's Isidoro Falchi Archaeological Museum, told Discovery News.

Paintings and artifacts found in burial chambers have so far provided our best glimpse into the Etruscan world.

Rising from prehistory around 900 B.C., these fun-loving and sensuous people forged Italy's most sophisticated civilization before the Romans. First defeated by the Romans in the 4th century B.C., the Etruscans became Roman citizens in 90 B.C., and their culture virtually vanished.

They left no literature to document their society — just a few traces of their puzzling, non-Indo-European language survive. Only the richly decorated tombs they left behind have provided clues to fully reconstruct their history.

"This intact house is helping us to write a new piece of Etruscan history since we can better understand their building techniques. With what we have found, we will be able to completely reconstruct the entire house," Rafanelli said.

The researchers believe that the room featured an "Etruscan loft" made from wood and clay, with wooden beams supporting it. Among the building materials, the team unearthed several parallelepiped-shaped clay bricks. They were placed on top of the dry stone walls and supported the wooden beams for the roof, which was covered with modern-looking terracotta tiles.

"These are the first intact Etruscan bricks ever found. Usually, the clay dissolves and, apart from some fragments, all that remains are red layers. These bricks have survived because they have been baked by the fire that destroyed the house," Rafanelli said.

Indeed, little pieces of charcoal, burnt wood beams and fragments of burnt pottery indicate that the house collapsed during a fire, probably set by dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 79 B.C.

"At that time, Etruscans and Romans lived peacefully together in Vetulonia," Rafanelli said.

According to Larissa Bonfante, professor of classics at New York University and an authority on the Etruscan civilization, the discovery is "really remarkable."

"This two-story domus allows us to imagine the Etruscans of Vetulonia living in their houses, and not just in relation to the dead buried in their tombs," Bonfante told Discovery News.

As the excavation continues, the archaeologists believe other exciting findings might come to light.

"This is just a little part of the house. Our goal is to uncover the entire structure, and we are excited for what we might find in the residential areas." Giuliana Agricoli, an archaeologist at the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, told Discovery News.

The team hopes to excavate the entire quarter and bring to light new houses and structures, including the remains of a monumental staircase which headed to an important building, perhaps a temple, on top of the hill.