Archaeology Related to Pre-Roman Italy and Legendary Period Rome

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Jon Morter of the University of Texas wrote: “Capo Alfiere is the name of a Neolithic site located on a small headland on the eastern coast of Calabria. Archaeological excavations at the site were conducted by a team from the University of Texas in the summers of 1987 and 1990. The digging was directed by Jon Morter. The work is part of a broad study of the landscape of the territory of the Classical Greek colonial city of Kroton (modern Crotone) under the supervision of Prof. Joe Carter. [Source: Jon Morter, Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Texas at Austin ]

“The excavations have revealed the surviving portions of a stratified deposit dating to the Middle Neolithic period. Two main strata have been defined to date, each with sub-phases. The majority of the pottery appears to be of the Stentinello tradition, a type first defined in eastern Sicily by Paolo Orsi at the end of the last century. Other finds include both ground and chipped stone objects. A large floral and faunal assemblage is currently under analysis at the Laboratorio per Bioarcheologia in Rome under the supervision of Dott. Lorenzo Costantini.

“We were fortunate in obtaining a series of radiocarbon dates from the site which give a general and broadly consistent picture of its overall date. Three dates from the upper stratum (5650+/-70 bp, 5450+/-60 bp, 5410+/-80 bp) date the hearth and the surface sealing it to the second half of the 5th millennium B.C., after calibration. There was no suitable carbon from stratum I so resort had to be made to dating with animal bone. This gave a date of 5950+/-100 bp, indicating a calibrated range towards the beginning of the 5th millennium B.C.

“These dates are interesting as they put the upper stratum rather late in the accepted range for Stentinello sites. The lack of ceramics attributable to the supposedly successive Serra d'Alto phase, and discovery of some closer to the purportedly Late Neolithic, Diana types, has led us to question the general applicability of the accepted southern Italian ceramic sequence hereabouts.”

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Capo Alfiere Architecture and Artifacts

Jon Morter of the University of Texas wrote: “ The site's architectural remains are particularly interesting. These are best preserved in the upper stratum (II). Two stretches of an extremely large stone wall were discovered. These form an angle and appear to enclose the cobble floor of a house. We estimate that about 50% of the latter has survived. A reflooring of this structure had sealed a large quern and the stone-lined hearth of the hut, both features being built into the original cobble floor. The floor appears to have been about 4.8m on its surviving complete side and probably at least that long in the incomplete dimension. The corners of the paving are curved. The hearth was probably originally central to the structure and the large emplaced quern was beside it. A small portion of a similar pavement (from a structure now largely destroyed by recent agriculture) was found in the earlier stratum. [Source: Jon Morter, Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Texas at Austin ]

“The massive walls are of a peculiar construction. A central core of large blocks was faced on one or both sides by large slabs set vertically. Unfortunately, due to plough damage, the large walls had not survived above the first course or two. Thus it is impossible to say with certainty how high they originally stood. As they are a metre or more thick, it seems logical that they originally stood quite high. There was considerable rock and daub tumble above the hut paving in the area delimited by the walls.

“Studies of the ceramics, lithics, floral and faunal collections from the site are still in progress, but some preliminary observations can be made. Stentinello ceramics are distinguished by their use of elaborate impressed and incised decorative design work. This seems to represent a divergence from the painted finewares produced elsewhere in the lower Italian peninsula at this time. At Capo Alfiere, there are definite differences between the Stentinello style ceramics from the upper and lower strata. The earlier material is more consistently black in colour and the finer decoration makes use of coloured pastes (ochres and calcium carbonate) in a variety of colours (yellow through red and also white) to enhance the decoration. The use of ochres seems to have fallen out of favour by the period of the upper stratum but the actual impressed designs are, if anything, more elaborate. The site has produced very little painted pottery; what there is seems to be on a distinct and possibly imported, fabric (Morter and Iceland 1995).

“Although the chipped stone artifacts from this site are not in of themselves particularly exciting technologically, being a fairly straightforward microblade industry, an examination of the raw materials used is very interesting. There appears to have been a shift in raw material usage or availability over time. The lithics from the lower stratum (I) contained 28% obsidian (by count), while the upper stratum had almost 67% obsidian. The balance of the lithic material was cherts and quartzites available fairly locally.

“This apparent increase in obsidian availability, only obtainable from Lipari by long distance exchange, may be signaling an increase in material traffic by the upper level. This may also be reflected in the discovery of a cache of large ground stone axes in that level — also probably derived from some distance from the site.

“Analysis of the floral and faunal remains from the 1990 excavations and hence the lower stratum is not quite complete. The recovery of floral remains from the upper stratum (II) has been good with a variety of wheats and barley represented plus a good selection of legumes and weeds (information provided by Dott. L. Costantini listed in Morter 1990). Although the proportion of identifiable animal bones is small, the collection has demonstrated a good selection of domesticate and some vermin (Scali 1990). Domesticated animals predominate over game as is typical for this period.”

Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps

According to UNESCO: “This serial property of 111 small individual sites encompasses the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling (or stilt house) settlements in and around the Alps built from around 5000 to 500 B.C. on the edges of lakes, rivers or wetlands. Excavations, only conducted in some of the sites, have yielded evidence that provides insight into life in prehistoric times during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Alpine Europe and the way communities interacted with their environment. Fifty-six of the sites are located in Switzerland. The settlements are a unique group of exceptionally well-preserved and culturally rich archaeological sites, which constitute one of the most important sources for the study of early agrarian societies in the region. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The series of 111 out of the 937 known archaeological pile-dwelling sites in six countries around the Alpine and sub-alpine regions of Europe is composed of the remains of prehistoric settlements situated under water, on lake shores, along rivers or in wetlands. The exceptional conservation conditions for organic materials provided by the waterlogged sites, combined with extensive under-water archaeological investigations and research in many fields of natural science, such as archaeobotany and archaeozoology, over the past decades, has combined to present an outstanding detailed perception of the world of early agrarian societies in Europe. The precise information on their agriculture, animal husbandry, development of metallurgy, over a period of more than four millennia, coincides with one of the most important phases of recent human history: the dawn of modern societies. =

“In view of the possibilities for the exact dating of wooden architectural elements by dendrochronology, the sites have provided exceptional archaeological sources that allow an understanding of entire prehistoric villages and their detailed construction techniques and spatial development over very long time periods. They also reveal details of trade routes for flint, shells, gold, amber, and pottery across the Alps and within the plains, transport evidence from dugout canoes and wooden wheels, some complete with axles for two wheeled carts dating from around 3,400BC, some of the earliest preserved in the world, and the oldest textiles in Europe dating to 3,000 B.C. This cumulative evidence has provided a unique insight into the domestic lives and settlements of some thirty different cultural groups in the Alpine lacustrine landscape that allowed the pile dwellings to flourish. =

Why the site is important: 1) The series of pile dwelling sites are one of the most important archaeological sources for the study of early agrarian societies in Europe between 5,000 and 500 B.C. The waterlogged conditions have preserved organic matter that contributes in an outstanding way to our understanding of significant changes in the Neolithic and Bronze Age history of Europe in general, and of the interactions between the regions around the Alps in particular. 2) The series of pile dwelling sites has provided an extraordinary and detailed insight into the settlement and domestic arrangements of pre-historic, early agrarian lake shore communities in the Alpine and sub-Alpine regions of Europe over almost 5,000 years. The revealed archaeological evidence allows an unique understanding of the way these societies interacted with their environment, in response to new technologies, and also to the impact of climate change. =

Etruscan Areas in Italy

Powerful Etruscan cities included Tarquinia, Vulci, Cerveteri, Vertolunia and Veii. Tarquinia was an important Etruscan city that flourished between 600 and 400 B.C. Located about 80 kilometers northwest of Rome, it is the home of a five-kilometer-long necropolis filled with more than 6,000 tombs cut into tufa hills between the 7th and 2nd centuries B.C. The tombs have have yielded much of what we know about the Etruscans.

The archeologist Alessando Mandolesi of the University of Turin told Archaeology magazine: Tarquinia “was one of the most powerful cities of the Etruscan league and a wealthy center of trade and commerce. You have to imagine people arriving from the port and seeing the two imposing mounds ...of the Tarquinian rulers." According to Roman tradition Etruscan reached its height when one of its king married a Tarquinian noblewoman and brought a team of painters and artists from Tarquinia to Rome.

Fiesole, Chiusi, Volterra and Populonia were important Etruscan settlements in Tuscany. Fiesole (near Florence) is beautifully situated on a hill overlook the Arno. Here you can find a ruined Etruscan temple, a Roman amphitheater and bath and archeological museum with Roman and Etruscan treasures. Volterra (61 kilometers from Pisa) is situated among hills and crags and boasts an old Etruscan wall and museum.

Umbria also has a number of important Etruscan sites. Underneath Rocca Paolina fortress in Perguria is an underground city and near villa dela Prome is the largest Etruscan arch in Italy. The archeological museum in Tarquina has a fine Etruscan exhibit, including a beautiful pair of winged horses. There are also some excellent tomb painting in the Tarquina area but visitors generally aren't allowed in the tombs. A few miles away is Ipogeo di Volumni there is an interesting Etruscan tomb. There are also Etruscan sights in Todi, Bettona and Orvieto.

Origin of the Etruscans

The long-running controversy about the origins of the Etruscan people appears to be very close to being settled once and for all. Professor Alberto Piazza, from the University of Turin, Italy , a geneticist, told a conference of the European Society of Human Genetics that there is overwhelming evidence that the Etruscans were settlers from old Anatolia (now in southern Turkey). [Source:, June 18, 2007]

The origins of the Etruscans have long been debated by archaeologists, historians and linguists. Three main theories have emerged: that the Etruscans came from Anatolia, Southern Turkey, as propounded by the Greek historian Herotodus; that they were indigenous to the region and developed from the Iron Age Villanovan society, as suggested by another Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus; or that they originated from Northern Europe.

Piazza and his colleagues study genetic samples from three present-day Italian populations living in Murlo, Volterra, and Casentino in Tuscany, central Italy. "We already knew that people living in this area were genetically different from those in the surrounding regions", he says. "Murlo and Volterra are among the most archaeologically important Etruscan sites in a region of Tuscany also known for having Etruscan-derived place names and local dialects. The Casentino valley sample was taken from an area bordering the area where Etruscan influence has been preserved."

The scientists compared DNA samples taken from healthy males living in Tuscany, Northern Italy, the Southern Balkans, the island of Lemnos in Greece, and the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The Tuscan samples were taken from individuals who had lived in the area for at least three generations. The samples were compared with data from modern Turkish, South Italian, European and Middle-Eastern populations. "We found that the DNA samples from individuals from Murlo and Volterra were more closely related those from near Eastern people than those of the other Italian samples", says Professor Piazza. "In Murlo particularly, one genetic variant is shared only by people from Turkey, and, of the samples we obtained, the Tuscan ones also show the closest affinity with those from Lemnos."

Scientists had previously shown this same relationship for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in order to analyse female lineages. And in a further study, analysis of mtDNA of ancient breeds of cattle still living in the former Etruria found that they too were related to breeds currently living in the near East.

Herodotus' theory, much criticised by subsequent historians, states that the Etruscans emigrated from the ancient region of Lydia, on what is now the southern coast of Turkey, because of a long-running famine. Half the population was sent by the king to look for a better life elsewhere, says his account, and sailed from Smyrna (now Izmir) until they reached Umbria in Italy. "We think that our research provides convincing proof that Herodotus was right", says Professor Piazza, "and that the Etruscans did indeed arrive from ancient Lydia.

Romulus and Remus Story, Fact?

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “The story of Romulus and Remus is almost as old as Rome. The orphan twins were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave on the banks of the Tiber. Romulus grew up to found Rome in 753 B. C. Historians have long since dismissed the story as a charming legend. The 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen said: “The founding of the city in the strict sense, such as the legend assumes, is of course to be reckoned out of the question: Rome was not built in a day." Yet the legend is as imperishable as Mommsen's skeptical verdict, and it has been invigorated by recent archaeological finds. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, June 12, 2007]

In 2007, Italian archaeologists reported discovering the long-lost cave under the Palatine Hill that ancient Romans held sacred as the place where the twins were nursed. The grown brothers fought over leadership of the new city, the story goes, and Romulus killed Remus and became the first king.

The cave was no surprise to Andrea Carandini, a historian and an archaeologist at the University of Rome, who has said, “The tale of the birth of Rome is part myth and part historical truth." He had already found remains of an ancient wall and ditch and also ruins of a palace that he said was built in the eighth century B.C. “When I excavated the Romulean-age wall on the Palatine, I realized that I was looking at the very origins of Rome as a city-state," Dr. Carandini told the magazine Archaeology.

Dr. Carandini said the wall, built on the slopes occupied by huts of the pre-Roman settlement, was dated through a number of foundation deposits to about 775-750 B.C. He said that the wall was possibly the sacred boundary in Rome's foundation legend and concluded that it was “archaeological evidence of the existence of Romulus and Remus." Based on these and other findings, Dr. Carandini said of Rome's founding, “everything was born” after 750 B.C. “There was no gradual expansion of an old core, but the sudden evolution of a city that was great and remains great."

The magazine noted that Dr. Carandini's support of the legend “has earned him the admiration of the Roman public but the disapproval of many of his colleagues." A lecture that Dr. Carandini gave last fall in Rome attracted 5,000 people, an Italian newspaper reported. But other archaeologists, while praising his excavations, were skeptical of his interpretations. Albert Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University who has excavated Roman ruins, said in the magazine that the presence of certain physical remains did not necessarily validate the literary tradition of Rome's founding and the existence of someone known as Romulus.

Annalists and the Legendary Period of Roman History

Annalists (from Latin annus, year) were a class of writers on Roman history, the period of whose literary activity lasted from the time of the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) to that of Sulla (139-78 B.C.). They generally wrote the history of Rome from the earliest — legendary — times down to their own time. Annalists differed from historians in that they were more likely to just record events for reference purposes, rather than offering their own opinions or insights into events. There is, however, some overlap between the two categories and sometimes annalist is used to refer to both styles of writing from the Roman era. [Source: Wikipedia]

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “It is customary to begin any discussion of Early Rome with a discussion of the literary tradition. Modern writers on early Rome fall into two groups, broadly speaking: those who try to interpret the archaeological record in such a way as to be able to claim that there are kernels of truth in the annalistic tradition (Ogilvie is among these), and those who regard that attempt as fruitless and confine themselves to remarking on the archaeological record, believing in essence that nothing of what the classical writers have to say about pre-Republican Rome is true (e.g. Holloway). [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“In one sense “the annalistic tradition” is used as a kind of shorthand to designate the works of T. Livius (Livy) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Both of these were writers of the Augustan age. Both claimed to provide scholarly historical accounts stretching back to the foundation of the city of Rome by Romulus, an event which they believed had occurred some 700 years before their own day. How did information about a past so distant get down through the centuries to them? This, for the critical historian, is the crucial question to ask: what was the source, and how reliable was it? With ancient history, the ideal source is someone such as Thucydides or (on the Roman side) Polybius, who writes entirely or mostly about events which he himself has seen, or relies to the greatest extent possible upon eyewitnesses. ^*^

“Obviously that kind of method was impossible for someone in Livy's position, and he was well enough aware that what he was doing was not writing history in the Thucydidean mold. Rather, for each episode in the history of ancient Rome, he selected one or two from the available sources and rewrote their account (or cobbled them together if there were two), embellishing them liberally with speeches (for like Dionysius he was a rhetorician), and exercising only a minimum of critical judgement (understanding that to mean attempting to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the record of the past). Perhaps it is true, as Livy's modern champions such as Ogilvie and Walsh insist, that he brings a certain narrative genius to this task; but that is not germane to our present concern. As will become clear over the next few weeks, the inveterate weakness of the annalistic tradition is retrojection. Recent innovations were projected into the past in order to imbue them with the authority of early antiquity. Likewise, when the sources presented no filter or context in which to understand the few events from the regal period and the first century of the Republic which were recorded, the annalistic tradition responded by supplying one: namely, the struggle between the orders, the social and economic classes. ^*^

“The problems of reconciling the annalistic tradition with the archaeological evidence certainly do not end when we come to Servius Tullius. Timaeus of Tauromenium, the Sicilian annalist of the third century B.C., recorded that he had introduced coinage. But the archaeological record shows that earliest Campanian coins are not in use at Rome until the fourth century BC; earlier, the Roman currency was cattle and sheep for barter (the Latin word for money, pecunia, derives from pecus meaning 'herd') and aes rude, uncoined bronze ingots such as were found in the votive deposit, dated to the sixth century, associated with the paving over of the monuments covered by the lapis niger.” ^*^

Archaeology from the Legendary Period: Latin Cremators Versus Sabine Inhumers?

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Whether we call the inhabitants of Rome and the Alban hills in the early Iron Age southern Villanovans, or rather follow Holloway and insist that Latial culture develops directly from proto-Villanovan (that, in other words, there is no true Villanovan in Latium) is mainly a matter of terminology. These early Romans lived in circular huts, as the discovery of these post-holes from the Palatine show. The form of the huts is known from the hut-urns in which they buried their cremated dead, and these hut-shaped urns are a distinctive feature of this proto-Latial culture. The hut urns were found primarily in a cemetery in the Forum Romanum excavated by the great Italian archaeologist Boni in the early part of this century. The grave goods are characterized by miniaturization, as seen in this sketch of Forum Grave Y; the smaller vessels contained foodstuffs. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“From approximately the same time period, nearby on the Esquiline hill, there are a number of inhumations a fossa (in trenches, as opposed to the cremation burials a pozzo, in pits). The Corinthian olpe, dating to around 720 B.C. and inscribed with the name of its Greek owner, Ktektos, comes from one of these graves. The key question for the history of early Rome is whether the people who bury cremated remains in urns in the Forum Romanum are the same people as, or ethnically distinct from, the ones who practiced inhumation in graves on the Esquiline. ^*^

“One approach to this question, still popular today, is to say that the cremators were Latins, the inhumers Sabines. This argument points out that there are parallels for the inhumations to the south of Latium, and that later on in the Forum cemetery we get a combination of inhumation and cremation burials. This seems to indicate that two different peoples combined with one another, and recalls what the Romans believed happened in the time of Romulus, with the rape of the Sabine women and the subsequent commingling of the two peoples. A form of this approach appears in Ogilvie. ^*^

“A refinement of this hypothesis is given by Torelli (CAH 7.2). He suggests that after the two types begin to appear together, only "princes" are being buried in the cremation graves, because the cremation graves contain primarily the remains of adult males, with weapons. He also thinks that the hut-urn marks the deceased as a head of household, a paterfamilias. The burial practice would thus reflect an increasing degree of social stratification, consistent with the tradition of the kings. Torelli’s softer approach is reasonable. Increasing social stratification appears at the same time in neighboring Etruria (though not, apparently, in the houses which continue to be of uniform type into the 6th century), no doubt a reflection of Greek influence. But the whole idea that we have two distinct cultures combining in 8th century Rome has been called into question. The differences between the pottery and other objects in the graves on the Esquiline and in the Forum are subtle at best. It may be that they represent different time periods as opposed to different ethnic groups (see revised chronology). Finally, the presence of a few early cremations in hut urns on the Esquiline badly upsets the neatness of the scheme. It stems from the desire to rescue some shred of truth from the annalistic tradition on early Rome; but that desire, as we will see more fully next time, is hardly worthy of being fulfilled.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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