Thinking Out Loud About That ‘Etruscan Pyramid’

As I was driving in this a.m. after posting about that recent Etruscan pyramid find (Etruscan ‘Pyramids’ Beneath Orvieto?  ), it struck me (and coincidentally, one of my twitter correspondents A.M. Christensen) that the structure sounded like a rather ‘fantastic’ structure we read about in Pliny’s Natural History (36.19 ), namely, the tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium. Here’s the Perseus version:

As to this last, which Porsena, King of Etruria, erected as his intended sepulchre, it is only proper that I should make some mention of it, if only to show that the vanity displayed by foreign monarchs, great as it is, has been surpassed. But as the fabulousness of the story connected with it quite exceeds all bounds, I shall employ the words given by M. Varro himself in his account of it:—”Porsena was buried,” says he, “beneath the city of Clusium;17 in the spot where he had had constructed a square monument, built of squared stone. Each side of this monument was three hundred feet in length and fifty in height, and beneath the base, which was also square, there was an inextricable labyrinth, into which if any one entered without a clew of thread, he could never find his way out. Above this square building there stand five pyramids, one at each corner, and one in the middle, seventy-five feet broad at the base, and one hundred and fifty feet in height. These pyramids are so tapering in their form, that upon the summit of all of them united there rests a brazen globe, and upon that a petasus;18 from which there hang, suspended by chains, bells, which make a tinkling when agitated by the wind, like what was done at Dodona19 in former times. Upon this globe there are four other pyramids, each one hundred feet in height; and above them is a single platform, on which there are five more pyramids,”20—the height of which Varro has evidently felt ashamed to add; but, according to the Etruscan fables, it was equal to that of the rest of the building. What downright madness this, to attempt to seek glory at an outlay which can never be of utility to any one; to say nothing of exhausting the resources of the kingdom, and after all, that the artist may reap the greater share of the praise!

As folks might be aware, most modern scholars associate Clusium with modern day Chiusi and in regards to the tomb of Lars Porsena, it is assumed it was destroyed when Sulla sacked Clusium in 89 B.C.. But like most things associated with Lars Porsena, there is a bit of controversy about this. Indeed, as ‘recently’ as 2004, back when rogueclassicism was still a baby, we mentioned the work of Giuseppe Centauro, who was looking for Lars Porsena a bit closer to Florence (Searching for Lars Porsena). So here’s where I got to thinking out loud … Orvieto is merely a development of Urbs Vetus (Old City), but, as might be imagined, there is a debate on what it was called in antiquity. What if the ‘Old City’ is actually the Clusium that Sulla destroyed and what we call Chiusi is a relocated version? Is it possible Dr George and crew have found the remains of the tomb of Lars Porsena? Or have I caught the ‘sensationalism’ bug from all these other reports I read every day?

Etruscan ‘Pyramids’ Beneath Orvieto?

Tip o’ the pileus to Explorator reader Don Buck for pointing us to a version of this story, which really should be getting wider attention. Here’s the version from St Anselm College:

Classics professor David George and a group of Saint Anselm students and alumni discovered for the first time a series of pyramidal structures under the city of Orvieto, Italy.

For 20 years, George has led students to archaeological dig sites to uncover the mysteries of the past including trips to Greece and most recently Castel Viscardo and Orvieto, towns in the southwest edge of Umbria, Italy.

This year, George and co-driector, Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeogico Ambientale dell’Orvietanoas, an expert in Orvieto archaeology, worked at a second site in addition to the first at Castel Viscardo. There they discovered pyramids dating to at least the 5th Century BCE carved into the plateau rock on which Orvieto stands.

The archaeologists and students uncovered a series of Etruscan tunnels, 5th century BCE Etruscan pottery, as well as material dating back to 1200 BCE. George believes the subterranean pyramids were likely tombs or part of a sanctuary. He says there are no parallels to this anywhere in Italy.

“We know its not a quarry or a cistern; the walls are too well dressed to be a quarry and there is no evidence of mud which would point to a cistern. That leaves just a couple of things, some sort of a religious structure or a tomb, both of which are without precedent here,” says George.

At the time of their discovery, the structures were filled, covered by a top floor that had been modified for modern use, most currently, a wine cellar. Upon noting some Etruscan construction techniques in the stone stairwell, Drs. George and Bizzarri obtained a permit to dig deeper.

Excavating Pyramids

Excavation of the site began on May 21 where the group dug through a mid 20th century floor reaching a medieval floor. Immediately beneath this subfloor, George and Bizzarri with their team excavated a layer of fill containing materials and artifacts ranging from the middle of the 5th century BCE to 1000 BCE.

The archaeologists believe they are currently at least 12 meters from the bottom, having already dug down 5 meters. The Etruscan stone steps continue to descend and the group discovered a caniculo leading into the second pyramid. The site will sit idle until May 2013, when Drs. George and Bizzarri return with their crews.

What’s Next
In May 2013, George will also resume his work at the original site in Coriglia, near Castel Viscardo for his eighth season. You can read about George and his crew at Over the past seven seasons, they have uncovered evidence for occupation of the site dating from the 10th c. BCE all the way to the 16th c. CE (as well as random regalia from World War II). To date, the site’s strongest phases are Etruscan and Roman (Republican, Early Imperial, and Late Antique). This year they discovered an Etruscan foundation deposit dating to the 6th century BCE underneath one of the walls.

The original article has links to a flickr set of photos from the dig (including one which will, not doubt, have some group claiming the Egyptians were in Italy). There is also a link to this interview with Dr George by an Italian station taken inside the ‘pyramid’:

Also worth a look is the news and video coverage from WMUR:

This Day in Ancient History: idus septembres

idus septembres

  • ludi Romani (day 9)
  • epulum in honour of Minerva and others (connected to the ludi Romani)
  • ritual of the ‘driving of a nail’ by the Pontifex Maximus/Rex Sacrorum into the Temple of Jupiter (likely connected to the above and below entries)
  • 509 B.C. — dedication of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (and associated rites thereafter; also incorporated into the ludi Romani, it seems)
  • 490 B.C. — yet another reckoning for the Battle of Marathon
  • 16 A.D. — revelation of the conspiracy of Lucius Scribonius Libo, leading to the first of the maiestas trials which characterized the emperor Tiberius’ principate
  • 81 A.D. — death of the emperor Titus; his brother Domitian is acclaimed as emperor
  • 122 A.D. — construction of Hadrian’s Wall begins? (I’d love to know the source for this claim)