Much of the life of the once mighty Etruscans (here a tomb painting) has been forgotten - as well as the location of their highest sanctuary. Image: Waterborough, Wikipedia
Read aloud For centuries, researchers have searched for the lost central sanctuary of the Etruscans, the Fanum Voltumnae. Now Italian archaeologists believe they have discovered it in Umbria. The temple complex, fountains and streets are in keeping with what is known about the place of assembly: it served not only as a religious but also as a political center and was also the venue for large folk festivals. The excavations of the Italians should now help to learn more about the forgotten life of the Etruscans. Again and again it appears in Latin inscriptions and texts: the "Fanum Voltumnae", the central and legendary sanctuary of the Etruscans - a people that ruled from 800 to 100 BC, large parts of today's Italy, had a rich culture, lively trade drove and of which one still knows very little today. This poses a problem for archaeologists like Simonetta Stopponi of the University of Macerata, because despite the frequent mention, the location of the Fanum Voltumnae is never mentioned - probably because in the Roman era everybody knew it anyway. "It's like talking about the Vatican today. Everyone knows that it is in Rome, "Stopponi explains her dilemma.

In the course of time, however, the knowledge of the site of the sanctuary was lost, not least because of the active assistance of the Romans, who systematically destroyed the Etruscan heritage including literature, buildings and language. But now the search may come to an end, reports the magazine "bild der wissenschaft" in its April issue: Stopponi and her team found an Etruscan temple in Umbria, near the small town of Orvieto - and are convinced that it is the long sought sanctuary.

In the center of the site are the remains of a twelve-meter-long and six-meter-wide temple and two wells, scattered around it with red and black painted remnants of ceramic vessels used for consecrations to the gods. Two roads led away from the temple - one to the southwest to the Tyrrhenian coast and the other south to the surrounding hills. The former was lined with canals and was five meters wide enough for two carts to pass comfortably. The second was a veritable boulevard at seven meters and was probably used for religious processions.

The Fanum Voltumnae also needed such access roads: it was not only used by the Etruscans as a place of prayer but was also a political center. "Once a year, in the spring, the country's leading priests and politicians met there, " Stopponi explains. Because Etruria, an area that includes the present-day regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, was not a centrally governed state, but composed of various powerful city states together. display

In the 6th century BC, twelve of these actually independent small states joined in a loose covenant and held regularly a kind of summit meetings - in the Fanum Voltumnae. They defined common goals, defined general routes and, among other things, decided who could count on help and support and who could not. Decisive for this: the favor of the gods, which, as the Etruscans believed, could be secured with skilful negotiation and the right offerings.

Whether this was successful, the gods communicated to the chief priest by many signs - the flight of the birds, the form of lightning, or the quality of the liver of sacrificial animals, which had to be carefully evaluated. The meetings were anything but a dry political affair, as they were accompanied by a big folk festival including sports competitions, theatrical performances and markets.

What exactly happened on these festivals, however, can only be partially reconstructed today, because from the 3rd century BC the creeping downfall of the Etruscans began. He was probably initiated in 264 by a slave revolt in today's Orvieto: The beleagured rulers called the Romans to help to cope with the insurgents, and heralded their own end. Because the Romans seized the opportunity to get rid of the powerful neighbors, by the head, drove them away and took over the Fanum Voltumnae as their own sanctuary.

In 89 BC, the Etruscans eventually became Roman citizens. This end did not come as a surprise to them, according to "Bild der wissenschaft": they believed that every culture has to go through a similar life cycle of birth, growth and death as a human being. According to an ancient tradition, their own people were to survive about 800 years - an estimate that is surprisingly consistent with the reign of about 900 to 100 BC.

The excavations at Orvieto, however, take only about six years. Although they have already brought to light a large number of references to the fact that the temple complex is indeed the Fanum Voltumnae. A final watertight proof such as an inscription with the name of the deity Voltumna is still pending. However, Simonetta Stopponi hopes to be able to elicit this mystery from Earth, along with others that will give new insights into the mysterious life of the Etruscans.

Bettina Gartner: "The most sacred of the Etruscans", in bild der wissenschaft 4/2007, p. 84 ddp / Ilka Lehnen-Beyel

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