30 December 2012

Princesses At The Dawn of History

Once upon a time, there was an Etruscan princess named Larthia who lived in Caere (now Cerveteri), a splendidly wealthy neighbourhood not very far from where Rome stands today.  Sometime before 660 BCE, she died and was buried (presumably with her husband, whose name is unknown) in what is called the Regolini-Galassi tomb:* 
In the first chamber lay the remains of a warrior, with his bronze armour, beautiful and sensitive as if it had grown in life for the living body, sunk on his dust. In the inner chamber beautiful, frail, pale-gold jewellery lay on the stone bed, earrings where the ears were dust, bracelets in the dust that once was arms, surely of a noble lady, nearly three thousand years ago....
The treasure, so delicate and sensitive and wistful, is mostly in the Gregorian Museum in the Vatican. On two of the little silver vases from the Regolini-Galassi tomb is the scratched inscription--Mi Larthia. Almost the first written Etruscan words we know. And what do they mean, anyhow? 'This is Larthia' -- Larthia being a lady? (D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places )
When the tomb was opened, they found an amazing wealth of precious artefacts, elaborate furnishings, silverware, gilded and bronze vessels decorated with lions and griffins, and immense golden pectoral pieces and a golden brooch over 30 cm [12"] long, decorated with embossed figures of sphinxes and griffins, which had once covered the body of the princess.

In addition, there were  two wide cuff-like bracelets (left) decorated with granulation and repoussé, depicting three women with alternating palm trees (top of post) and the Mistress of Animals between two rampant lions visible in the top rows (left). 

This splendid piece of jewellery is now on show in Athens, having a starring role in the long-awaited exhibition of Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History which opened last week at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.  The featured princesses are all real women, not goddesses nor legendary heroines. Or, rather, what we have are their burials and bones and their sumptuous grave goods -- objects from 24 women's graves found in Greece, Cyprus and Italy, truly at the dawn of history (10th-5th centuries BCE).  We don't know, of course, if they were princesses in our modern sense but they were certainly Princeps -- the first and highest ladies in their lands. Almost none is known by name: Larthia is a rare exception.

But she was far from exceptionally well-buried for a high-born Etruscan lady.  Many such princesses lived and died in the cities of the Etruscan federation.  Even outside of Etruria proper, from an Orientalizing tomb (Lippi 89) in the farthest east -- almost on the Adriatic shore -- comes this ornate bronze throne (left) decorated with scenes of women spinning wool and weaving cloth.  Very likely, it originally belonged to the lady buried close-by in the richly-furnished Amber Room Grave which, as its name suggests, was filled with enormous quantities of precious amber beads as well as other treasures, such as bronze urns inlaid with amber and a decorated bronze axe, presumably a ceremonial or ritual symbol of rank and power rather than a weapon. This throne, normally displayed in the local museum at Verucchio (near Rimini) is being shown for the first time outside of Italy.

And a Princess from the Etruscan Heartland

A princess of the next generation (ca. 625 BCE) was honoured in the Pietrera tomb at Vetulonia with this almost life-size limestone statue (left) --  one of four stone free-standing husband-wife couples housed inside the tomb; she is among the oldest examples of stone sculpture in Etruria. Her hands are posed flat on the breast, the right one over the left, in a gesture common in the ancient Near East to show reverence and submission.  Nonetheless, the costume of this woman and her hair-style, with her hair hanging down  in loose strands running over her shoulders, is found only in Etruria and reflects Etruscan custom.  She may well be dressed and posed as a priestess, but does she represent one of the aristocratic ladies buried in the tomb or is she a guardian female ancestor?

And now back to Greece 

During the darkest of the Dark Ages (ca. 1100-900 BCE), on the island of Euboea off the eastern coast of Greece, at the site of Lefkandi, there rose the most fascinating and mysterious building of that time (left) -- the Heroön, or monumental tomb, built some time around 950 BCE.  This unique structure had a curved (or apsidal) end and was surrounded by sophisticated colonnades which supported a wooden veranda.  At about 50 m long by 13.8 m wide [165' x 45'], it is the largest monument known anywhere in Greece during the Dark Ages.  And it was excavated by none other than my revered Oxford tutor, Mervyn R. Popham (1927-2000), so it is always a bitter-sweet pleasure for me to return to the site -- even if, as today, it is only a virtual visit.  In the large Central Room of the Heroön, Mervyn discovered two pits side by side (red arrow). 

The southern pit contained a double burial.  A large elaborately-decorated bronze amphora held the cremated remains of a warrior wrapped within a shroud of fringed linen.  This was placed within a still larger bronze bowl, and next to it lay his iron sword with wooden scabbard and an iron spearhead.  The bronze vessels sat near the right leg of the skeleton of a woman who was probably in her late twenties at the time of her death: she had been laid out on her back, her head to the west.

And she was dressed up to the nines in gold for her burial.  She wore gold hair coils, gold earrings, a gold pendant on her throat and a necklace of gold and faiënce beads, and sheet-gold disks embossed with spirals connected by a moon-shaped gold plaque were placed over her breasts.  Beside her head had been placed an iron knife with an ivory handle, perhaps a hint of her status, occupation, or family ties. 

Or perhaps it meant something much grimmer: note that her hands still rest close together, having been folded over on her stomach while her feet are also crossed. Because this happens so very rarely in natural burials, Mervyn suspected that the young woman had been bound and deliberately killed (that damn knife!) to accompany her lord-and-master to the other world.  If so, she certainly went out in style.

They both did, really. Within a short space of time, the upper walls, roofing, and support posts of the Heroön were dismantled, the rooms filled in, and a tumulus of pebbles, mudbricks, and earth was raised over the whole building. Thus, the edifice may have been intended for destruction from the beginning -- to remain forever as a hero shrine for a warrior whose name, alas, is long forgotten as well as that of his golden princess.

I leave you with an image of her golden brassiere of glorious dimensions, on show, too, at the Cycladic Museum.  Each disk measures 30 cm [12"] in diameter:  she must have been quite a woman.

Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History Showcasing more than 500 objects from 24 Greek, Cypriot, and Italian Dark Age women's burials.  The exhibition runs until 10 April 2013 at the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.  Highly recommended.

Happy New Year to all my readers!

* Named after the excavators who found the unplundered Etruscan tomb in 1836,  the arch-priest of the locality, Alessandro Regolini and General Vincenzo Galassi.

** The other shaft contained the skeletons of four horses, the iron bits still in their mouths. These animals were apparently thrown headlong into the shaft as a funerary sacrifice to accompany their late master into the next world.

My thanks to Dr Stephanie Budin who first reported on the Princesses exhibition on the Pandora Studies group website (digest # 360) on 8 December 2012.

Sources, in addition to the press kit of the Cycladic Museum (and I am most grateful to the Press Officer, Alexia Vasilikou, for sending me this information), include the website Mysterious Etruscans (don't be put off by its name!);  M. Nielsen, Greek Myth, Etruscan Symbol;  C.G. Thomas, C. Conant, Citadel to City-State, Ch. 4:  Lefkandi: New Heroes of the Ninth CenturyWomen of Lefkandi, at Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology;  British School of Athens.  'Jewellery from a female burial'. Early Excavations at Lefkandi: The Protogeometric Building and the Cemetery of Toumba. Web. 3 Dec. 2012;  M.R. Popham, E. Touloupa, L.H. Sackett, 'The Hero of Lefkandi', Antiquity, 1982, 169-198.


Top: Gold bracelet (detail), 675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Top left: Gold bracelets,  675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums.  Photo via Mysterious Etruscans website.

Middle left: Bronze-decorated wooden throne showing women spinning and weaving from Verucchio tomb Lippi 89, end of 8th-early 7th century BCE. Museo Civico Archeologico Verucchio. Photo credit: © Archaeological Superintendence of Emilia Romagna, via RayTalk for Archaeology .

Lower left 1: Head and torso of a female funerary statue (ca. 625 BCE).Vetulonia, Pietrera tumulus.Florence, National Archaeological Museum.  Photo credit: Fernando Guerrini and Mauro del Sarto. Soprintendenza Archeologica della Toscana. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Lower left 2: Lefkandi, graphic restoration of the apsidal building by J. Coulton, via Lefkandi, Euboea: Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology

Lower left 3:  Plan of southern burial shaft containing the cremated body of a man buried with his weapons and an inhumed woman with gold jewellery:  Jewellery from a female burial.

Lower centre: Photograph of the female burial in the southern pit, via Women of Lefkandi.

Lowest centre: Gold discs with stamped decoration placed over the woman’s chest, from the burial of the Lady of Lefkandi, ca. 950 BC. © Archaeological Museum of Eretria, 11th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities Photographic Archive. Photographer: Eirini Mieri. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Judith, I love this post about the princesses.I must visit the Museum of Cycladic Art,Athens. The jewelry looks exquisite,love the gold Bra. As you say she must have been quite a woman.But Ah! Im hooked with Nefertiti.


Blog Archive