Kicking the Bucket in Ancient Etruria

The most published and discussion-worthy object in RISD’s Greek and Roman collection is not our massive Roman sarcophagus, a striking imperial bust, or a masterpiece of Greek vase painting, but rather an Etruscan bucket. This bucket, or situla (a Latin word meaning a pail with a moveable semicircular handle), is a piece of remarkable craftsmanship that opens a window on a lost people.

In the well-trod paths of classical archaeology, the Etruscans are one of the last great mysteries in the field—or, at the very least, criminally overlooked by scholars and laypeople alike. The Etruscans were the inhabitants of Etruria, an ancient name for the region of central Italy now known as Tuscany. A sophisticated, literate Etruscan civilization arose around 800 BCE and flourished before the Etruscan city-states were all conquered or assimilated by their Roman neighbors to the south 500–600 years later.

The Etruscans are mysterious because we know so little about them in their own words. Their origins have been a matter of debate for over two millennia, with the two most popular hypotheses being that they were either indigenous or migrants from Lydia, in what is now Turkey. Because nothing is simple, there is no archaeological evidence for such a migration (indicating they were natives to the region), but a recent genetic study of modern men in the heart of the Etruscan homeland has revealed that many had a genetic marker only found in central Turkey. To further complicate things, because only short inscriptions and religious formulae written in Etruscan have survived, scholars have been unable to fully reconstruct their language, though it has been demonstrated to be related only to two other similarly poorly understood ancient languages, Rhaetic, spoken in the eastern Alps, and Lemnian, from the Greek island of Lemnos. The Roman emperor Claudius supposedly wrote a 20-volume encyclopedia about the Etruscans and a dictionary of their language, both of which are lost.

The beauty and value of Etruscan objects has also made it more difficult to study the people who made them. Scientific archaeology, that is, understanding ancient objects through the meticulous recording of the context in which they were found, is barely a century old; the practice of willy-nilly digging holes in Italy to find Etruscan art to hang on the mantle, however, has been going on since the Renaissance. Compounding this, most Etruscan cities were built over by the Romans, so much Etruscan archaeology (like that of ancient Egypt) is based on burials, which were located away from town centers and were thus relatively untouched by the Romans. Just as everyone is a saint in their obituary, grave goods tend to be nicer than everyday fare.

This situla was likely found in a grave. While it’s not clear whether it was purpose-built to be a grave good or was a prized possession or heirloom buried with its owner, it was certainly a prestige object: its ornate decoration precludes its use as an everyday bucket. Its body consists of a single sheet of bronze riveted together to form a pail. There are three registers of figures on the situla: a procession of almost Seussian horned animals, a procession of soldiers, and what is likely a scene of funeral rites. The figures were made with repoussé technique, which involved tracing the outlines and details then hammering them out. A thick wire forms the rim of the situla and features a dedicatory inscription in Rhaetic that says, “The dedicatory offering is donated on behalf of Dekie.” (Schürr, 243–255).

The inscription on the rim

The funerary scene is symmetrically arranged around two boxers and the robed men standing behind them. Between the boxers is an ornate basin or vessel. The scene taking up the third of the relief to the right of the boxers is similarly composed, with the boxers replaced by two seated syrinx (Panpipe) players and seated men with fans. The left third of the relief consists of (from left) four pairs of facing people: a seated man playing a syrinx and a standing woman with a ladle, a seated man drinking from a ladle as a standing man points at him, two men drinking on either side of a large vessel similar to the one between the two pipers on the other side, and a mirror image of the first pair, only with a harpist instead of piper. This combination of booze, tunes, and blood sport can only mean an Etruscan party.

Banquets and feasts are a major feature of Etruscan art. European writers and artists of the early 20th century rediscovered the Etruscans largely due to D. H. Lawrence’s accounts of his travels to Etruscan necropoleis. He projected his own status as a decadent bon vivant onto the Etruscans because of their tomb paintings of raucous revelry and remarkable feats of sexual derring-do, and cast them in opposition to (what he perceived were) the dour, repressed Romans. Making generalizations about ancient peoples is at worst dangerous and at best not constructive, but the prevalence of festive scenes in tombs indicates the importance of such activities in Etruscan society, especially for the aristocracy, as part of funeral rites. Musicians and drinkers like those on our situla have analogues in contemporary tomb paintings from Tarquinia.

Revelers on the Situla

Etruscan funerals were not all fun and games, however, or rather, the fun and the games were necessarily the same thing. Funeral games were a well-established tradition in the ancient Mediterranean, going all the way back to the athletic contests in honor of the fallen Patroclus described in the Iliad. Wrestling was often included in these events, but it was the Etruscans who introduced the spectacle of mortal combat between slaves. The marking of special occasions with fights to the death was adopted (like much of Etruscan religious practice) by the Romans, and eventually evolved into gladiatorial games. Our boxers were likely related to this tradition.

The images on the situla are unquestionably Etruscan, but situlae themselves are fascinating relics of cross-cultural contact in ancient Italy. Our example bears a strong resemblance to two other situlae, the Este situla, found in Este in the Veneto, and the Certosa situla, found in Bologna and arguably the most famous Etruscan situla (when you study archaeology you learn there are such things as “famous” Etruscan buckets—the Museo Civico Archaeologico di Bologna website even calls it the “queen of buckets”). Both feature similar combinations of soldiers, horned animals, and banqueting scenes, and marked similarities with the latter indicate ours was likely also from the area around Bologna. Bologna is located in northern Italy; though located outside of Etruria, the Etruscans were known to have a colony there, likely to trade with the tribes of northern Italy. The figures on the situla also aren’t formed like those elsewhere in Etruscan art: their “puffiness” is more typical of the art of the Celtic-speaking tribes who, while most closely associated with what are now France and Britain, also lived in central Europe and northern Italy as far south as Bologna.

The situla is also not a traditional Etruscan form of vessel, but is instead associated with the Veneti, who inhabited and gave their name to the region at the head of the Adriatic Sea in what is now Italy, and the Illyrians, who populated the eastern side of the Adriatic in the present-day states of the former Yugoslavia. Tellingly, the banquet-goers of these situlae are depicted seated, as opposed to reclining, as was the norm in Etruria and the Greek (and, later, Roman) world. This situla is an exciting document of life and death on the Etruscan periphery, where cultures, ideas, and practices all mingled.

Further Reading:

Schürr, Diether. “Die rätische Inschrift der Situla in Providence.” Studi Etruschi 50 (2003): 243–255. [Thanks to Gina Borromeo for translating parts of this article]

Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. Ed. Larissa Bonfante. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986.

Brendel, Otto J. Etruscan Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Jonathan Migliori ( BA, Archaeology and the Ancient World, Medieval Cultures, and Classics, Brown University, 2011, MA Archaeology, University of Durham 2013) is currently an intern in the Ancient Art and Education departments at the RISD Museum and a member of the RISD CE faculty.