By Antonella Romualdi
Direttore della sezione etrusca del Museo Archeologico di Firenze
Translated by Susan Glasspool
We would like to draw our reader's attention to the archeological site of Populonia, the wonderful Etruscan necropolis overlooking the gulf of Baratti on the Tuscan Tyrhenian coast. These excavations - discovered in the early 20th century - have been extremely important for reconstructing the town's historical, political and religious background between the 5th and the 4th century B.C., a particularly difficult time for the Etruscans that brought many social changes. Populonia was extraordinarily prosperous in this period, unlike many other Etruscan cities, which had a hard struggle to recover after being defeated in the naval battle of Cuma in 474 B.C. This wealth was partly due to the exploitation of the local mineral resources in the Campiglia Mountains and on the Isle of Elba and partly to the intensive metal production which, under the powerful political protection of the "state", was carried out in the lower part of the town, close by the busy harbour, for centuries a port of call for trade ships from all over the Mediterranean. This was the period in which Athens, exhausted by the Peloponnesian wars and oppressed by the growing ambitions of Siracusa, tried to win the support and approval of the Etruscan aristocracy. According to the historian Thucydides, various Etruscan cities therefore sent troups, under the command of the city of Tarquinia (at the time head of the Etruscan league), to take part in the expedition of Athens against Sicily in 414-413 B.C. which was to lead to disastrous results for the Greek metropolis.The discovery One day, when Isidoro Falchi was visiting Baratti,he discovered a tomb built with blocks of sandstone, quite by chance, under the iron "slag" left by the Etruscans, in a dip in the land near the old farmhouse of S. Cerbone. Falchi's description of the area at the time gives a vivid and very good idea of the way the landscape in the Gulf of Baratti appeared before him: "The place known as San Cerbone is a valley, partly cleared of trees and partly still under woods, that slopes gently down towards the harbour of Baratti: it is certainly where the ancient people of Populonia once had their furnaces for smelting iron minerals because all the slag from the furnaces was dumped here: an area of about half a square kilometre in the valley is covered with little hillocks of various sizes, some of them irregular, like the ones in the area where the woods have been cleared and the land farmed..." After obtaining permission from the landowner, Falchi started excavating near the farmhouse in the month of November 1897, extending the area around the first discovery and bringing to light a large number of tombs, all situated very close together, some built one on to the other and most of them covered over with iron slag. Quite unexpectedly the owner of the land told Falchi to suspend the diggings and refused to give him the permission necessary at the time to carry out any more excavations or even photograph or draw the various finds. All this took place between the two centuries, at a time of change, when a particularly animated discussion was evolving in the more advanced cultural and political environments around the problems related to the protection of the national archeological heritage. In November 1903 Isidoro Falchi informed the head of the Florence Archeological Museum about the discovery of two exceptional vases with gilding, found "in the same spot as the tomb I discovered in the year 1889 that taught the tomb robbers where to look for all the others", thus also showing his particular interest in the application of the new heritage protection law that would allow him to start excavating again at Populonia. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of the tomb, unearthed by unofficial diggers, prevent us today from having all the various elements of interpretation that are normally deducible from scientifically controlled excavations, for deposition methods and the distribution of the funerary furnishings laid out with the dead are of fundamental importance for fully understanding the historical and religious messages connected in every era to the funeral rituals marking the passage from life to death. The monumental chamber tombs with the primitive dome shaped roof covered by a mound of earth are one of the most significant expressions of the power and prestige reached by the aristocracy in the 7th century B.C., when they controlled access to the mines and landing at the Gulf of Baratti. The tumulus of the Carri or Carts at the necropolis of San Cerbone is the largest and most imposing of the tombs discovered at Populonia so far. The plinth, built with squared blocks of stone, is surrounded by a slabbed pavement interrupted at the entrance to the dromos or corridor. The grundarium, or gutter, sticks out at the top and is formed of a series of flat and sloped limestone slabs, supported by another row of slabs below. The row of square blocks of stone above creates a sort of containing ring around the tumulus. The cell, on a square plan originally contained at least four funeral beds. Three tiny little cells open off the dromos, one on the righthand side and the other two on the left. The discovery of the tomb took place in two stages. The main chamber and the small cell on the right, where the currus was found, still closed with its original slab of stone, were brought to light in 1914. We have very little information on the various depositions that were laid out in the main chamber over the years. Apart from the fragments of a bronze shield with geometric decorations, unfortunately lost, found on top of one of the funeral beds and very probably part of the oldest deposition, and to a broken incense bearer of typical Vetulonian production, also lost, and other fragments of unidentified vases, the chamber apparently also contained "numerous fragments of objects in iron, most of them so eaten up by rust that it was impossible to understand what they were: the only recognisable objects were some handles, some flat elongated spear points and a few knife blades". Two gold globular-shaped pendents, one of which was found under the slab of closure of the cell still exist today. The contents of the lateral cell indicate a person of high rank, presumably a man, judging from the bronze spearheads, arrowheads, drinking horn and bronze horn, though these should not be interpreted as battle equipment but were placed there to show that he was allowed to exercise some particular activity, like hunting, that was reserved for only a few.The Archeological Park of Baratti and Populonia is one of the most important testimonials of the Etruscan culture that flourished and prospered in central Italy before the arrival of the Romans. A permanent exhibition moreover illustrates - by means of panels and multimedial information - the history of the Etruscan city of Populonia and its territory and the Via del Ferro (Metal Path) and the Via della Cave (Quarry Path) take the visitor along nature and cultural itineraries within the park. The archeological area, which is only an hour and a half from Florence by car, is open daily from June to September from 9am to 8pm.