Inside an Etruscan hypogeum on Corsica

Discovering a previously unsuspected Roman cemetery would normally rank as the archaeological highlight of a building project. Recent work on Corsica, though, revealed an even greater surprise, as Marina Biron, Jean Demerliac, Vincent Dumenil, Catherine Rigeade, and Laurent Vidal explain.

Excavations on Corsica revealed a previously unsuspected Etruscan hypogeum dating to the 4th century BC. Here we see a view of the stairs and corridor leading to the burial chamber, which lies in the foreground. Various grave goods were arranged around the deceased, including two skyphoi (drinking cups), which were consolidated in situ before being lifted. [Image: Roland Haurillon, Inrap]

In June 2018, a team of archaeologists led by Laurent Vidal from Inrap set about excavating a hitherto unknown Roman necropolis on Corsica. This burial ground lay at Lamajone, to the south of the ancient and modern town at Aléria, and also several hundred metres from the important Etruscan cemetery at Casabianda, a listed Historical Monument. Inrap’s involvement began with an archaeological evaluation the previous year, carried out ahead of a new development project. These initial soundings encountered several burials in various states of preservation. Their distribution, though, suggested there might be as many as 500-1,200 graves, suggesting a site of some significance. Having pursued a heritage preservation policy for many years, the Regional Archaeology Service of Corsica (SRA) decided the findings merited excavation. Plans were duly put in place for fieldwork over an area of roughly 1ha, matching the footprint of the proposed development.

The excavation site, with the sea visible in the background. Archaeological investigation in advance of building work revealed a previously unknown Roman necropolis, which in turn led to the discovery of the hypogeum. [Image: Denis Gliksman, Inrap]
The Roman cemetery included tombs made from roof tiles. The example being excavated here overlies the hypogeum corridor, which is visible as an orangey stain in the soil, running more or less from top centre to bottom centre of the photograph. [Image: Roland Haurillon, Inrap]

The steps themselves presented a clue concerning what had been discovered. More than four decades earlier, the archaeologist Jean Jehasse had also found steps while working at the nearby Casabianda cemetery. These proved to be the entrance to a hypogeum: a subterranean burial chamber popular among wealthy Etruscans. Now all the signs pointed to the Inrap team having made an equally momentous discovery. Alerted to this development, the SRA decided to upgrade the status of the excavation to one of exceptional importance, bringing both more time to investigate the site and greater resources with which to do it. In collaboration with the SRA, Hervé Petitot – deputy scientific and technical director of Inrap for Corsica – and his team drew up specific research objectives for the discovery. After all, advances in archaeological techniques over the last 40 years meant that the Inrap team could address questions that were barely touched on during the earlier work at Casabianda. Although post-excavation work is currently still under way, fresh insights into Etruscan burial customs are already repaying this care.

Excavations in the necropolis: in the foreground, Catherine Rigeade, an anthropology and funerary archaeology specialist, is recording an individual buried over a tile tomb; on the right, Pierre-Hubert Pernici excavates the burial of an immature male dating to the 3rd century BC; in the background, Aléxia Lattard is investigating the top of a pyre; behind, Marina-Lou Mizael and Thomas Terracol excavate a burial in a coffin. [Image: Roland Haurillon, Inrap]

The Etruscan presence

Today, the Etruscans are probably best known from surviving ancient Greek and Roman texts, which do not always cast them in the most favourable light. Etruscan civilisation was focused on a collection of city-states, situated mostly in Tuscany (central and northern Italy) and at its height spread over a good chunk of Italy. At least some Etruscans proved to be great warriors and talented merchants, growing rich on trade with the Greeks to the east and the peoples often labelled Celts to the north and west. Elements of Greek culture seem to have been eagerly embraced, with the Etruscans adopting and adapting the Greek alphabet for their inscriptions, while also borrowing liberally from their mythology. But while there is ample evidence for Etruscan towns and cemeteries in their northern Italian heartlands, such centres are rarer overseas. On mainland France, evidence for an Etruscan presence first emerges around the middle of the 7th century BC, and is concentrated along the Mediterranean coast. Buildings that can be directly associated with Etruscan activity are scarce, with the only known examples occurring at the city of Lattara (modern Lattes). These probably belong to an Etruscan emporium established at the end of the 6th century BC and then destroyed during the first quarter of the 5th century. Elsewhere, evidence for Etruscan influence in regions such as Provence and Languedoc is limited to their merchandise. These goods suggest a somewhat unequal trading relationship, based on a local taste for imported wine. The appetite for this beverage can be gauged from both the remains of the amphorae it was transported in and the fine pottery cups – known as black bucchero – it was drunk from. An ability to cultivate new markets was not restricted to longstanding local groups living in France, as Etruscan merchandise is also found at Marseille in the years after it was founded by the Phocaeans, who were Greek settlers from what is now Turkey. But despite initially making promising inroads, the Phocaeans went on to turn the tables. From the middle of the 6th century onwards, their goods entered into direct competition with Etruscan suppliers, eventually squeezing them out. As a consequence, towards the beginning of the 4th century BC, Etruscan amphorae simply disappear from the archaeological record in southern Gaul. Traces of Etruscan settlement are more prominent on the island of Corsica, reflecting its location opposite the Etruscan heartlands in Italy. Aléria itself lies about 140km from the Italian coast and was already an important town in antiquity, when it spread over 13ha across the summits of two low hills. This setting dominated the plain where the Tavignano river enters the Mediterranean. Herodotus knew the settlement as Alalia, and reported it was founded by the Phocaeans in 566 BC. He describes a naval battle in 540 BC, which pitted the Phocaeans against an alliance of Etruscans and Carthaginians. The result was something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Phocaeans, as they emerged triumphant, but so weakened they were obliged to abandon their settlement. So it was that the Etruscans were free to occupy Alalia. They were not the last Italian power to control it, though, and in subsequent centuries a Roman town flourished on the site. One of the more remarkable relics of the region’s Etruscan heritage emerged in 1960, when ditch-digging during construction work at the Casabianda prison revealed pre-Roman artefacts. Jean Jehasse, who was then working in the ancient city, was informed of this discovery. Together with his wife Laurence, he excavated and studied the rich pre-Roman necropolis of Casabianda until 1983. This research led to the publication of two monographs examining Etruscan culture beyond Etruria. The work of the Jehasses resulted in numerous tombs being unearthed, most of which dated to the Etruscan era. All of them display a comparable configuration, namely a corridor leading to an underground chamber, which was often equipped with benches, forming what was essentially a subterranean triclinium (dining room). Rich grave goods were frequently deposited in this space. Appropriately enough for a chamber mimicking a banqueting place, the deceased was often accompanied by fine cups to sup beverages from, such as Attic ceramic cups or figured Etruscan oinochoai (wine jugs). On occasion, jewellery and toiletries were also present, including bronze mirrors, multicoloured glass perfume containers, and various examples of the silversmith’s art. A different note is sounded by the weapons and armour – including helmets, spears, and swords – sometimes deposited with the dead, reflecting the social status enjoyed by warriors.

Great care was taken when revealing the grave goods within, including the two bronze mirrors visible to the right of this photo. [Image: Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

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