A Field Class at Cerveteri

Inside la banditaccia at the Etruscan Necropolis near Cerveteri

Last Friday I finished teaching my art and cultural heritage law course here in Amelia as a part of ARCA’s masters certificate program. One of the highlights of my year is coming to Amelia for ARCA’s program, and the field class at Cerveteri captures so much of what makes cultural heritage policy a rich and interesting area  to study—but there are frustrations as well.

First the good. There are beautiful vibrant works of art in the houses for the dead. We met Stefano Alessandrini who took us through the necropolis and the tombs. They now have names like ‘the tomb of the Grecian Urns’—where of course many Greek pieces of pottery were found. And the highlight is the ‘tomb of the reliefs’ with wonderful frescoes, bas-reliefs, and sculptures that portray a number of professions. The images are familiar and comfortable, except maybe for the image of Cerberus on the far wall. The burial complex was quite large, far larger in fact than the protected area of Cerveteri in the banded area. And outside of the protected world heritage site are tombs in need of conservation, some exposed tufo rock tombs, and also some vulnerable unexcavated tombs.

You can see the area from this google maps image. To the right of the white line is the unexcavated or non-conserved area. To the left is the well-kept World Heritage Site.

There was one Italian archaeological excavation of a tomb outside la Banditaccia:

But also we saw a different kind of excavation, there were a few looters pits on the exposed hillside a few hundred yards up the road. These appeared to have been done in the last few months:
At the bottom of the hole you can see the outline of one of the tombs, likely a square tomb. So a looter may return at night and look for the entrance to a tomb. One difficulty is the remoteness of the field here. It’s just out of view of the little dirt track. On a dark night a looter could cover the hole with dark canvas and shine a flashlight underneath to do their work. 
Before the trip I assigned DH Lawrence’s short chapter discussing Cerveteri to the students. Though his scientific knowledge of the Roman and Etruscan civilization was lacking perhaps he did get the feel of these tombs just right. He travelled there in 1927 with a companion, and one imagines the little wine sink just off the main square is the same one where Lawrence popped in and complained about the lunch he ate before walking to the necropolis. But when he stops complaining about the food, the dust, the heat, and the Romans (the ancient ones), he describes a happy feeling walking among the tombs. He envisions the Etruscans thinking about a trip to the underworld. He suggested that the Etruscans might have burned their simple wooden homes (whether this is true or not I am not sure). But the point he draws from this writerly device gets the feeling of the place right. The Etruscans believed in a happy, joyous afterlife, which freed them to live in the moment while they were alive. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the time when Lawrence traveled to Italy and the Etruscan places was a time when Lawrence was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and he might have been thinking about his own legacy and afterlife.
And he notes that many of the best treasures of the tombs were missing from them. Some had been lost to the humidity of the tufo rock, or to scholarly study and excavation. Others had yet to be looted or excavated . The Sarpedon/Euphronios krater was still resting in its context while Lawrence was walking through the tombs. The terms cultural nationalist and internationalist had yet to be devised and attached to the arguments about the proper place for these objects. But Lawrence is a firm believer in the power of context for the aesthetic experience of the viewer: 

What one wants is to be aware. If one looks at an Etruscan helmet, then it is better to be fully aware of that helmet, in its own setting, in its own complex of associations, than it is to ‘look over’ a thousand museums of stuff. Any one impression that goes really down into the soul, it is worth a million hasty impressions of a million important things.

I guess we all have different views on our favorite way to see art. Walking through a large museum with many objects—millions might be a bit of an exaggeration—is certainly one way. And pairing a trip to the Villa Giulia with a trip to Cerveteri in the same day offers a deeper different experience of seeing the tombs and the objects removed from them in the same day. We can argue about the value of both. But in making the decision, we should respect the law and regulation. Disagree with it, work to change it, work to strengthen it, whatever. But looting, even looting from the distant past, should not be used to avoid or end the conversation.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “A Field Class at Cerveteri”

  1. The last photo is almost exactly the same as a photo I took in the summer of 1973 when I was with a group from Trinity College of Hartford, CN’s Rome Campus. We excavated a previously looted tomb at Cerveteri. “Our” tomb entrance started out looking exactly like that.

    Al Schlaf
    Des Moines, IA

  2. Your pictures look extremely familiar, as I was there on May 25th of this year, walking about. (I’m preparing a grad seminar on Etruscan history.)

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