06 October 2013

How a Prince Became a Princess

Quick Sex Change in Etruria

Just last month, Italian archaeologists discovered a remarkable, intact Etruscan burial at Tarquinia in the heartland of Tuscany.  On 21 September, Alessandro Mandolesi, Professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquity at the University of Torino, and his team removed a perfectly sealed stone slab door to enter the newly discovered rock-cut tomb.

This is what they saw.

The skeleton on the left platform with the spear beside the body (marked by arrow)
Within the burial chamber was the complete skeleton of an individual resting on a stone platform with an iron spear lying alongside the body.  Brooches on the chest indicated that the man (for, presumably, the spear makes the man) had been dressed for his funeral in a cloak fastened by those brooches.  Gold jewellery and engraved sealstones were found, while a still unopened jewellery box on the opposite narrower platform hints at more treasures to come.  On that platform, too, were the incinerated remains of a second person, presumably his wife.

Cleaned up a bit, her pile of ash and burnt bones looked like this:

The tomb and its contents date to ca. 610-600 BCE.  The fact that the burial chamber lies on the very flank of the giant tumulus of the so-called Queen’s Tomb, dated a little earlier to mid-7th century BCE, indicates that it belonged to one of the princes of Tarquinia,  who would have been closely related to the founders of the Queen’s Tomb.*  It was tempting (and who can resist the temptation?) to connect this new-found prince with Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome from 616 to 579 BCE.

Imported Corinthian vases confirm late-7th c. BCE date
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera,  Prof. Mandolesi said that the last time a comparable tomb had been discovered intact was more than 30 years ago, but that it collapsed before it could be excavated. “It’s a unique discovery, as it is extremely rare to find an inviolate Etruscan tomb of an upper-class individual." And he added, "This one is completely intact and may well reveal further surprises."

A rare find indeed.

World media reacted swiftly:

Italian archaeologists hail discovery of Etruscan warrior prince's tomb (Daily Telegraph)

Etruscan Prince's Tomb Found Intact In Italy After 2,600 Years (Huffington Post)

Tomb of Etruscan Prince Hints at Ancient Society's Secrets (Discover Magazine)

Ancient Etruscan Prince Emerges From Tomb (Discovery)

The story had everything: royalty, rarity, and mysterious Etruscans.  It lacks only one thing.  There is no prince. 

Or, at least, it's not his skeleton.

Now you see him, now you don't.

“There are two [stone] platforms," Prof. Mandolesi said, "one bigger and the other narrower. It was probably for a couple, especially if you consider the objects. The point of an iron spear is male...while other objects such as a jewellery box are female."

Not necessarily, my good sir. 


While jewellery boxes are indeed gendered female (although Etruscan men wore jewellery, too), all that means is that there was a woman in the tomb.  Since Etruscan tombs are family tombs, that's no surprise.  What is a surprise, however, is that the skeleton with the lance is female.  Osteological analysis (reported on 26 September) indicates that the body on the bigger platform was that of a woman who was 35 - 40 years old when she died.  And the incinerated corpse on the narrower platform belonged to a male.  In other words, gendering the grave goods got it backwards.

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance," explained Mandolesi.  "After having had the results of the anthropological analysis of the skeleton, and having found the [ashes of] the male, we have a clearer picture of the situation.  The lance, in all probability, was deposited as a symbol of the union between the two deceased." (my translation and my italics).

So the newly-identified lady still doesn't get credited with her own lance.  The thought doesn't even arise that it might be a symbol of her power and authority rather than the weapon of a warrior.  Downplayed like this, this major revision of the original story dropped like a stone into the media pool without leaving so much as a bubble behind.** 

Why is it so difficult to understand that the ruling class of Etruscan society was made up of both men AND women? 

And that some Etruscan women were tough as old boots?

Their exceptionally emancipated status is perfectly clear from the surviving stories that harp on their scandalous behaviour.  The Greeks and Romans, who wrote everything that has survived, were enemies of the Etruscans and despised them for their way of life.  And they certainly did not like what they saw of Etruscan women's relatively free and easy-going habits. Take Theopompus, for example, a Greek historian of the 4th c. BCE:
Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches [when dining] with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive. 
The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom.
Lust, luxury, nudity, and indiscriminate whoopie-making.  How unlike our dear Greek women, who know their place and stay in the women's quarters.  The famous story of the Rape of Lucretia (told by Livy, writing at the turn of the 1st c. BCE/CE) starts off, too, with those notorious drinking parties.  Livy contrasts the licentious Etruscan women -- whooping it up with young male guests -- with the virtuous Roman matron who spends her evenings with her maidservants spinning wool.
While [the men] were drinking at Sextus Tarquinius' house, where Tarquinius Collatinus was also dining, the conversation happened to turn to their wives. Each one praised his own, and the discussion heated up. Collatinus said there was no need for all the talk as only a few hours were needed to prove beyond a doubt that his wife was the most virtuous. 'We are young and strong. Why don't we get on our horses and make a surprise visit. Then we'll see with our own eyes how our wives behave when we're not around.'  The wine had got them fired up. 

'Let's go!' they cried and flew off towards Rome, which they reached as twilight was falling. There they found the daughters-in-law of the king [= Etruscan princesses] in feasting and luxury with their friends. They continued on ... to check on Lucretia [wife of Collatinus], whom they found, not at dinner like the others, but in the atrium of the house, with only her maidservants, working at her wool by lamplight.

There was no question who won the contest.

Paintings from Tarquinia provide ample evidence of elegant Etruscan ladies reclining with men on banquet couches amid festivities, with musicians, dancers, and youthful naked servants bringing food and drink. In contrast to the male world of the Greeks and the Roman paterfamilias, the Etruscans included the women of the ruling noble families in their public life.  Such mingling of the sexes seemed, in their eyes, to be a serious breach of decorum which could only lead to gross indecency ... and worse; much worse.  

According to Livy, the wives of the Tarquins played a major role in acquiring royal power for their husbands.  Tanaquil, wife of the first Tarquin, could foresee the future and so urged her husband to leave Tarquinia and seek his fortune in Rome: they worked together to get him chosen as king.  Her prophetic ability helped, but she  could also plan and plot with the best of them: later, by covering up the violent death of her husband, pretending he was still alive and issued orders, she bypassed the true heirs and raised her son-in-law Servius Tullius to the throne.  The deeds of his younger daughter, Tullia, in turn, show off Etruscan muliebris audacia ("the daring proper to a woman") in the most dramatic ways possible. Our Lady Macbeth could take lessons from Tullia.  Tullia  murdered her sister and then her own husband in order to marry her brother-in-law, Lucius Tarquinius, whom she pushed into taking over the throne. To accomplish this, she went so far as to drive her chariot over the body of her father, King Servius Tullius, spattering herself with his blood.  This was going a bit far, and eventually led, in 509 BCE, to the overthrow of the monarchy.  Her husband is thus the last king of Rome.  He, his murderous wife, and their sons were sent into exile to the Etruscan city of Caere, not far from Tarquinia, where they continued to make mischief for the new Roman Republic. 

I can well imagine Tanaquil or Tullia being buried with a spear by her side.  Or any other of their female kin, for that matter, who displayed a lively dose of muliebris audacia. 

As inspired by the image of the Etruscan goddess Menarva (Minerva/Athena), perhaps.

Well, that's how the Prince from Tarquinia became a Princess.  And not just another pile of ashes.

Ancient women are so confusing!

Part II of this post continues with What's Up With Etruscan Gender?

* The designation of the largest tomb in Tarquinia as the "Queen's Tomb" is entirely conventional.  No human remains, male or female, have yet been discovered.  The tumulus covering the tomb is 40 meters in diameter, similar to that of another monumental tomb, 200 meters/yards away, the so-called King’s Tomb. Hence, the conceit of King and Queen.  A staircase descends about 7 m (left) into a room built from large limestone blocks. Some of the walls were covered in a  gypsum plaster that has close parallels in Cyprus; the crypt's design resembles the royal tombs of Salamis on Cyprus. A horizontal band of red paint once ran around the walls, a treatment that also appears in the new tomb from Tarquinia.  On recent excavations in the Queen's Tomb, see 'Etruscan Necropolis Yields Fresh Discoveries', 05 August 2010.

** Despite intense searching, the only notice I've come across appeared in Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival 33 on Kristina Killgrove's blog, Powered by Osteons, on 30 September -- which linked to the Italian report in Viterbo News 24, with Prof. Mandolesi's response.  I warmly thank Dr Killgrove for the reference, which certainly got my attention.

Sources.  In addition to those cited in the post, I have made much use of L. Bonfante, 'Daily Life and Afterlife', Ch. VII, in Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies (Detroit, 1986), 232-254; V. Izzet, 'Etruscan Women: Towards a reappraisal', in (S.L. James, S. Dillon, eds.) A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (Blackwell, 2012), 66-78. I also happily credit two posts from Rosemary Joyce's blog, Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives for their inspiration: Ancient Women Are Confusing and Powerful Women Existed in Moche Society: Now Move On.


Top: The complete skeleton of an individual resting on a stone bed on the left (

Upper left: Grave goods, including large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, on the floor of the tomb (

Lower Centre: Le Sarcophage des √©pouxPainted clay sarcophagus from Caere (Cerveteri), ca. 520-510 BCE.   Photo credit: Louvre Museum, dist. RMN/Phillpe Fuzeau.

Bottom centre:  Banqueting men and women, Tomb of the Triclinium, near Tarquinia, ca. 470 BCE.  As preserved in a watercolour made in 1895 by Gregorio Mariani.

Bottom left: Bronze mirror engraved and inscribed with Menrva (Athena) holding the child Maris Husrnana, from Bolsena, 330-300 BCE. British Museum 1868,0606.1, AN256892. Photo credit: Courtesy of the British Museum.

Footnote: Current excavations in the Queen's Tomb at the Doganacci necropolis, Tarquinia.  Etruscan Necropolis Yields Fresh Discoveries, 05 August 2010.  Photo Credit: © Copyright ANSA


  1. Wonderful pictures and history.
    Thank you for your excellent writing and blog.

  2. Thank you for your excellent work with such broad intelligence , this story reminds me of the two spirit fenomina

  3. thank you very very much for your post! Here in Italy nobody said a word about the ridiculous prejudice that leads to judge the grave, as a warrior's one until the body was considered masculine and as an embroiderer's one when they discovered needles in bronze ciborium.
    Please take a look at this link http://www.viterbonews24.it/foto/e-la-tomba-della-ricamatrice_31386_6188.htm#news.
    Hope you'll write down again on it.

  4. Can you tell me what the circles at the top of the tomb painting represent?

    1. I don't know for a fact but I have always assumed them to represent flower garlands hanging on the walls.

  5. Interesting. Just an observation, the "Imported Corinthian vases confirm late-7th c. BCE date" are all Etrusco-corinthian pitchers. Are there anywhere better photos of thsese vases? I have a painter in mind, but I am not sure.

    1. Very interesting indeed. Some reports said Etrusco-Corinthian, others simply Corinthian. Without having them in hand, I (who am not an expert on the period!) could not tell. The close-up photo gives the most detail but there are other illustrations on the excavation website (which you can reach via the DiscoveryNews link given in the credits). Please keep me posted!

    2. I would love to see an Etruscan DNA comparison with other known Indo-European peoples, such as Irish Celtic, Scythian (Amazons) who are known to have female warriors and a more free female population. I would not be surprised to see them to be related... to the peoples of Minos prehaps... hmmmm or the Basques

    3. Many thanks for the answer. The two oenochoai and the olpe are no doubt Etrusco-corinthian (the olpe and the oenochoe on the same picture seem to be by the same hand). The aryballos hanging from the wall is more likely a "running-dog" type Etrusco-corinthian, than a Corinthian Subgeometric (as far as I can see its form and decoration), but I should see a close up photo. I try to see this week-end what can I do about the attribution.


      Andras Marton

  6. Oops! Tarquinia is in Lazio (Latium) not in Tuscany!
    Ciao, Marina Marini from Tarquinia, Lazio, Italia

    1. Phooey, modern boundaries! Or is it an ancient one? Oh dear!

    2. Marina, I just came across a book review which also criticized the scholarly author's grasp of pre-Roman Italian geography:
      "From a practical point of view, Crouwel’s geography of Italy refers to modern regions instead of ancient peoples: it is therefore strange, for instance, to find that Cerveteri and San Giuliano are in Lazio as well as Satricum and Colle del Forno, not distinguishing among Etruscan, Latin and Sabine contexts. Moreover, there are some errors in attributions, such as Tarquinia and Vulci in Tuscany, or Veii mistaken for Vulci and put in Tuscany rather than in Lazio ."
      I'm glad not to be the only one to put Tarquinia in Tuscany but both Prof. Crouwel and I need to do better!.

  7. Nothing to say about the new role of embroiderer assigned to the Princess? http://www.viterbonews24.it/foto/e-la-tomba-della-ricamatrice_31386_6188.htm#news.

    1. I have quite a lot to say about it, as you can well imagine :-), and am mulling over a follow-up post. Details of where they found the bronze (or bronze-plated) pyxis are still unclear and also if they have actually opened the box or are only working from X-rays. Any further new links would be greatly appreciated.

    2. Elvira Bevilacqua24/10/13 01:04

      As you can see from picture 4 of this gallery it seems that the pyxis was found at the same side of the princess corpse.

      All the news reports that they saw the needles using X-rays.
      Hope this helps.
      See you soon :)

  8. Great post. Have you contacted Mandolesi to give him your two cents? :)

    1. I absolutely agree :)

  9. I love this blog!! So glad to have found it.

  10. Amazing blog. Very inspiring.


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