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Etruscan Life and Afterlife

By T.J. Cornell | Published in History Today 1988 
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A Handbook of Etruscan Studies
  • Etruscan Life and Afterlife. A Handbook of Etruscan Studies
    Edited by L. Bonfante - Aris and Phillips, 1986 – xxvii + 290pp - £28

The Etruscans are not as mysterious as they used to be. Thirty years ago this ancient Italian people were the subject of much popular interest, and hardly a week went by without the publication of a book or article on this or that aspect of the great Etruscan enigma. Their mysterious origin, their indecipherable language, their obsession with death and the afterlife: these were the familiar Etruscan puzzles. In recent times, however, this mystical image has faded. The Etruscans have been overtaken in the field of occult archaeology by the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud, ley lines, pyramid-building astronauts and those old friends of every nutter, the Knights Templars. As far as I know the Etruscans have not been considered enough of a mystery to merit the attention of Arthur C. Clarke, and they have become far too ordinary for the likes of Velikovsky or von Daniken.

This process of demystification has arisen from the solid progress of scientific research during the past generation, or so Larissa Bonfante maintains in her introduction to Etruscan Life and Afterlife. The volume contains essays by different experts on aspects of modern Etruscan studies, and is designed to introduce the general reader to the current state of research. In my view it carries out this task extremely well. The book is attractively produced and superbly illustrated. Moreover, it undoubtedly succeeds in putting the Etruscans back into the mainstream of ancient history. The emergence of Etruscan civilisation in the eighth and seventh centuries BC is now seen not as an extraneous phenomenon to be explained by the arrival of the Etruscans from some exotic place, but as the result of a long process of cultural formation in Italy, Modern research has shown that the Etruscans were not unique or isolated; on the contrary, as J.M. Turfa shows, their civilisation was to a large extent the product of extensive contacts with other peoples of the Mediterranean in the so-called 'orientalising' period (seventh - sixth-centuries BC). Etruscan art, treated here by M.-F. Briguet, has to be understood as a creative reaction to oriental and particularly Greek influences. Etruscan history is defined by M. Torelli as a story of city-states dominated by aristocratic clans and their servile dependants; the decline of Etruria in the fifth and fourth centuries is not to be explained by some mysterious national death wish, but by the more prosaic realities of economic recession and social crisis.

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