The Etruscan necropolis of Monterozzi in Tarquinia contains a number of tombs dug into the rock, these are accessed by stairways or inclined corridors leading from the surface, and consist of one or two rooms for burial, many of which contain a double sloping ceiling.
Originally, the Etruscans cremated their dead and placed the ashes mainly in biconical or less frequently in hut-shaped urns and then placed in well-like tombs. The lids to the urns would indicate the gender of the person contained with bowls for women and helmets for men.
A number of the stone containers can be seen enclosed by a wooden fence. These biconical urns, or urns fashioned to represent huts where the ashes of the cremated dead were placed come from the cemetery of the Early Iron Age community which lived on the outskirts of Tarquinia, and date from 1020 to 750 BC.
Following the cremation on a funeral pyre the bones were collected, washed and broken, in order to fit into the urn. This would then be placed into the grave, the upperpart of which was a large circular pit cut into the ground. A smaller cylindrical shaft was then cut into the floor of the pit where the urn would be placed. Following the ceremony some of the ashes would be tipped over the urn. The lower shaft would then be sealed with a stone slab. Sometimes the urn would be placed inside a stone container for protection and it is these which are on display.
Over a period of time The Etruscans began to bury their dead, although cremation persisted up to the 1st century BC.
The first tombs date from the 7th century BC, but it was from the 6th century BC that they began to incorporate the painting of frescos completely covering their walls. Many scholars believe that this indicates existence of a powerful aristocratic class, with craftsmen, merchants, and seamen forming a middle class. The frescoes found in the tombs provide a good depiction of the Etruscan home and provide useful indications of their way of life. The tumuli or burial mounds provide a good insight as they reproduce the homes in their various types of constructions and mirror the Etruscan habitation itself, providing the only examples remaining. Originally the tombs were for a husband and wife but later they came to be used for the whole family.
The tombs associated with the societies’ leaders or aristocrats would contain several precious items such as weapons for men and jewellery for women but also a selection of ceramic or bronze vases. These tombs would also contain decorations, as only the wealthy could afford this. The tombs do not appear to have been placed in a specific order although those of a particular painter do seem to be in near vicinity to each other. The paintings found in the tombs indicate the influence of Greek painters and artisans. Of the 6,000 tombs discovered in the area around 200 contain decoration.
The paintings are significant in that they depict Etruscan life and death. In the oldest tombs the paintings were limited to the gables of the shorter walls of the rooms, although around 530 BC the paintings started to cover all the walls, depicting the scenes from the life of the aristocracy of that period.
Over a period of time the necropolises spread over a wide area surrounding the ancient town and consisting of a number of sites. The area does contain a number of other tombs which were discovered but were subsequently filled again as this, at the time, was considered the best way to preserve them.
The tombs consist, for the most part, of rooms dug into the stone and surmounted by tumulus, although the tumulus can hardly be seen, that has the place name of Monterozzi, which means hillocks or humps.
Of the tombs which have been catalogued, only a few dozen are open to the public and precautions have been taken to reduce the risk of damage as the visitation causes an increase in temperature and humidity which results in the deterioration of the tomb. To counter this, glass panels have been placed preventing people from entering but allowing them to see the tombs. This, together with the restriction on the number open to the public does go some way towards their preservation, but it does mean that some of the most interesting tombs are not accessible to the public. Measures have also been taken to record the internal conditions, which it is hoped will allow a greater number of tombs to be opened to the public in the future.
Of the 20 or so tombs (named according to the frescos depictions) that are accessible to the public, these are protected by small modern buildings, called “cassette” which prevent rain from getting into the tombs.
The origins of the Etruscans is not known, but they inhabited central-western Italy, between Tuscany and Lazio, from the 9th Century BC. They reached their greatest number around the 6th Century BC, before completely disappearing. This has been attributed to its merging with the Roman civilization.
The tombs represent a significant period in the history of the region and reflect different types of burial practices from the 9th to the 1st century BC, and they bear witness to the achievements of Etruscan culture, so, for this reason in 2004 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.