Excavation of ancient well yields insight into Etruscan, Roman and medieval times

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During a four-year-long excavation of an Etruscan well at the ancient Italian settlement of Cetamura del Chianti, a team led by a Florida State University archaeologist and art historian unveiled a wealth of artifacts spanning over 15 centuries of Etruscan, Roman and medieval civilization in Tuscany.

“The total haul from the well is a bonanza,” said Nancy de Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics at Florida State. De Grummond, who has worked on the site since 1983, is one of America’s leading scholars of Etruscan studies.

“This rich assemblage of materials in bronze, silver, lead and iron, along with the abundant ceramics and remarkable evidence of organic remains, create an unparalleled opportunity for the study of culture, religion and daily life in Chianti and the surrounding region,” she said about the excavation of the well that began back in 2011, which is actually part of larger dig spanning over the entire Cetamura settlement.


A news conference took place on July 4th at Italy’s National Archaeological Museum in Siena, which drew in a standing-room-only crowd as de Grummond, along with her team, reported their findings from the well excavation over the last four years. Among some of the most notable finds are: 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, nearly 500 waterlogged grape seeds and an incredible amount of rare waterlogged wood from both the Roman and Etruscan periods.

The bronze vessels, of varying shapes, sizes and decorations, were used as vessels to extract water from the well, which has been excavated extensively, to a total depth of over 105 feet.

Examples of Etruscan vessels
Examples of Etruscan vessels: Wikimedia

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, discovered in at least three different levels of the well – including the Etruscan and Roman levels – are, according to de Grummond, of substantial scientific interest.

“They can provide a key to the history of wine in ancient Tuscany over a period from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.,” she said. “Their excellent preservation will allow for DNA testing as well as Carbon 14 dating.”

A large amount of the seeds discovered in 2012 and 2013 have been analyzed by Chiara Comegna in the laboratory of Gaetano di Pasquale at the University of Naples Federico II, using a morphometric program originally devised for tomato seeds. The seeds are measured in millimeters and can be sorted into types. So far, from analysis of seeds discovered in Etruscan levels in 2014. The payoff could arrive with matching these ancient specimens with modern grapes of known varieties.

Though the grape seeds are of a significant importance, they are placed into context by the various object associated with the drinking of wine – a wine bucket, a strainer, an amphora – and many ceramic vessels related to the storage, serving and drinking of wine.

The grape seeds were mostly discovered inside the bronze vessels, an interesting detail that de Grummonds says could be a sign of ritual activity. The incredible amounts of well-preserved wood found at the bottom of the well were also likely to be ritual offerings.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” she said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

These, among other discoveries – from the bones of various animals and birds to numerous worked and unworked deer antlers –implies that the Cetamura well, like other water sources in antiquity, was regarded as sacred. In the Etruscan religion, throwing items into a well filled with water was an act of religious sacrifice.

“Offerings to the gods were found inside in the form of hundreds of miniature votive cups, some 70 bronze and silver coins, and numerous pieces used in games of fortune, such as astragali, which are akin to jacks,” she said.

Besides being thrown into the well as part of a sacred ritual, some artifacts and items found their way in by intentional dumping or accidental dropping.

The well, dug out of the sandstone bedrock of Cetamura, has three major levels: medieval; Roman, dating back to approximately the first century BC; and Etruscan, which dates back the third and second centuries BC. A spring or other water source did not feed the well so the well would accumulate rainwater that filtered through the sandstone and poured into the shaft from the sides.

De Grummond’s team included Florida State alumna Cheryl Sowder from Jacksonville University, who acted as the registrar in charge of keeping an inventory of the objects and organic material coming out of the well; Florida State alumnus Jordan Samuels, who acted as the foreman for the handling the finds; Lora Holland from the University of North-Carolina-Ashville, director of the Cetamura Laboratory at Badia a Coltibuono, who processed the items for transport and storage; and Laura Banducci from the University of Toronto and Carleton College, who is currently organizing the ceramics for study, with special attention to the pottery made in the region of Cetamura.

The excavation of the well, an incredible engineering feat according de Grummond, was carried out by the Italian archeological firl Ichnos, which was directed by Francesco Cini of Montelupo Florentino. The bronze vessels and various other items are under restoration at Studio Art Centres International (SACI) in Florencr, under the supervision of Nora Marosi.

Over the four years, de Grummond’s excavations at Cetamura have not only produced archaeological finds but also a large amount of opportunities for student research at Florida State University.

“Thus far, two doctoral dissertations, 18 master’s theses and four honors theses have resulted from study of Cetamura subjects, and students have assisted with two exhibitions in Italy and the writing of the catalogs,” she said.

De Grummond is currently planning an exhibition of the new discoveries and, once again, Florida State students will provide valuable collaboration.



Contributing Source: Florida State University

Header Image Source: WikiPedia

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