Saturday, October 31, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Vedia Izzet, The Archaeology of Etruscan Society. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 320. ISBN 9780521858779. $99.00.
Reviewed by Hilary Becker, Oberlin College


A central issue in this monograph is an exploration of the cognitive process that shaped and influenced the creation of Etruscan artifacts, architecture and landscapes at the end of the sixth century B.C., a period when significant changes in population dynamics and urbanization affected Etruria. For Izzet, the creation of objects and architecture is a linked series of events and decisions that is particularly indicative of one's cultural identity. Izzet's approach is based upon the chaîne opératoire, a method of processing cultures that was developed for prehistoric societies by authors such as P. Lemonnier, C. Karlin and M. Julien.1

Izzet applies this line of thinking to Etruscan culture by concentrating on surfaces in order to look for changes in appearance, design and/or layout. The idea is that if, for example, the layout of a house changes over time, these changes are not simply part of an inevitable, evolutionary process, but rather represent a series of decisions made in each step of the design and redesign of the house. For Izzet, breaking down the units of a house (as well as other categories of Etruscan material culture) into separate, constituent parts, is a way of discerning the Etruscan mindset: "the specifics of an object's physical form will be seen as deeply implicated in the creation and transference of that object's meaning" (21). One of the virtues of Izzet's work is that it employs a unified approach, with the result that various categories of material culture (ranging from mirrors to urban layouts) are addressed from a similar methodological perspective. There are few synthetic treatments of Etruscan archaeology and also few that utilize theoretical approaches and thus Izzet's book is an original contribution. While this book is entitled The Archaeology of Etruscan Society, it touches very little on social dynamics or class diversity.2 The title of the author's Cambridge Ph.D. thesis (Declarations of Difference: Boundaries and the Transformation of Archaic Etruscan Society, 1997) provides a better indication of the topics discussed here.

Chapter 1, which explains Izzet's theoretical viewpoint and methodology, easily demonstrates Izzet's fluency with varied fields and approaches in Etruscan archaeology and this overview will be useful reading for students and anyone new to Etruscology (10-23). Izzet outlines some of the biases and trends in Etruscan research to date, such as the preponderance of information pertaining to the funerary sphere, the need for more synthetic studies and the over-reliance on Greek and Latin sources. While Izzet is wary of using Greek and Latin sources, this caution is taken to the extreme in that textual sources are employed hardly at all, an oversight that in some ways limits the synthesis offered by her exploration of the main subjects of the book. Additionally, Izzet makes little use of Etruscan epigraphy, even going so far as to say that there was a "lack of an Etruscan language" (15), although this is clearly unfortunate phrasing as elsewhere a few inscriptions are mentioned.

Izzet begins her series of case studies with mirrors, a personal aspect of Etruscan culture, then moves, in later chapters, to other, increasingly more public aspects of material culture. Many will find useful the well-balanced discussion of the Etruscan mirror as a unique personal object. Izzet considers not only the daily use of mirrors but also their ritual significance as objects carefully selected for deposition as part of a funerary assemblage. While Izzet's focus on the special circumstance of Etruscan mirrors is a good one, it would seem that the discussion here overemphasizes the ultimate use of a grave good as a determining factor in the manufacture of the very mirrors themselves (46). In fact, based upon the recent work of Nancy de Grummond, which provides an excellent complement to Izzet's discussion here, it seems clear from the study of a group of mirrors that reveal signs of ritual cancellation (the phrase "for the tomb" (suthina) certainly demonstrates a deliberate change in purpose) that this object class was regarded differently in death (perhaps due to its reflective power) than it was in daily life.3 For this reason, and also because mirrors are the only personal object treated (as well as the only case study using art historical methodology), the inclusion of another class of personal object in this book would have also been welcome (e.g. women's chariots or industries).

Izzet reviews many examples of female adornment scenes, where the women are the objects of the visual attention of others as they prepare themselves for male viewers or even perhaps marriage. Men, on the other hand, are featured in scenes of sport, wrestling and warfare, all clearly public activities that stand in apposition to the more personal female scenes. Izzet believes that the contrast between men's public display and women's more private toilette reveals an imbalance between the genders. Specifically, Izzet believes that these mirrors, from the late 6th-4th c. B.C., document women who are not "liberated" and whose relatively restricted life was more in line with the lives of Greek and Roman women. The perceived de-liberation of Etruscan women is not well supported by Izzet's discussion since it does not offer much in the way of comparanda in order to support this idea of a significant change in women's social status.

This theory would have been better supported by the inclusion of comparanda from other media, but only two tomb paintings and a sarcophagus are offered.4 Here, and at other times, Izzet's focus on a single class of material means that she neglects whole categories of potentially complementary evidence. Another perspective on women's roles might also be found on the wall paintings in the Tomb of the Monkey from Chiusi (early 5th c. B.C.), where an elite woman sitting under an umbrella is thought to be either the deceased witnessing her own funerary celebrations or else a widow witnessing the funeral games of her husband, which she herself has convened. Varied evidence could only have added to our understanding of women's roles during this period, and if anything, Izzet's contribution urges us to think that the status of Etruscan women may have been more nuanced, with diverse behaviors and expectations possible in the private and public spheres.

The next chapters (chapters 3-6) also utilize the chaîne opératoire methodology, considering the changes that occur in funerary, sacral, and domestic architecture, as well as urban planning, in the late 6th century B.C. and beyond. These chapters certainly demonstrate the applicability of this line of thinking to architecture, considering not only the various choices made in the construction of a building but also the ways this built space programs its users' behaviors as they move through it; Izzet's focus on individual architectural elements serves to reify the experience of using space in a way that a presentation of architectural measurements alone could not do.

Chapter 3 deals with tomb architecture, exploring the alterations to structure and decoration over time, changes that resulted in an increasing emphasis on the exterior of the tomb (i.e. the eventual loss of the dromos, carved furniture, etc.). This discussion would have been more effective if domestic architecture had been treated first. As Izzet indicates generally (108, 111), domestic architecture lent both layouts as well as individual architectural features to the funerary sphere. Thus treating funerary architecture alone artificially simplifies our understanding. For example, Izzet considers the effect of a protruding lintel and the ways that it separates funerary from non-funerary space and yet this feature takes on less significance if it is also found on houses. Similarly, the significance of the orthogonal layout of necropoleis (115-119) is limited by not exploring contemporary developments in urban layouts (discussed 171). This chapter offers a thorough, procedural perspective of issues related to Etruscan tombs. In particular the increasing importance of the tomb's exterior over time becomes clear. This discussion is indeed valuable, prompting the reader to consider just what might be the significance of these changes.

The fourth chapter discusses the codification (with substantial variation) of Etruscan ritual space, relating the different ingredients of inaugurated ritual space that helped to make ritual sites distinct. Izzet enables her reader to easily recreate the subtle expectations of an Etruscan temple user as he or she built and then used the ritual space. One thing that might be asked is how many users actually used the temple itself? Rather, how many people instead used the temple as a backdrop for the sacrifices and votive activity--if this is true, then the framing of the space around the temple (and potentially forbidding aspects of some antefixes) would take on a greater significance.

The fifth chapter presents an overview of the archaeological data on the development of Etruscan domestic structures. While explaining reasons behind changes such as the move from curvilinear to rectilinear domestic shapes or the use of more durable materials, Izzet acknowledges technological reasons for their introduction, but at the same time considers "cultural factors"; namely, it is not enough to say that durable materials are a desirable building tool, but on a different level durable materials are appropriate because more permanent domestic structures are desired (153).

The sixth chapter, entitled "Urban form and the concept of the city" draws on the material of the architectural groups that have already been presented as we are confronted with the extent of change and development in Etruria. In this chapter and in the following chapter, the chaîne opératoire approach is used more selectively and Izzet treats urban planning as an artifact of material culture. This chapter, along with the final chapter dealing with the development of contemporary, neighboring cultures, contains excellent treatments of these topics and easily demonstrates what strides have been made in the last 50 years (thanks to the initiative of the surveys of the British School at Rome and others) in understanding the urban and rural landscapes of central Italy.

The distinctions between different classes of architecture and different zones of a city are a bit repetitive (funerary and non-funerary, domestic and non-domestic, urban and non-urban--especially as this is a frequent refrain) but these distinctions bear fruit as Izzet discusses Etruscan zoning preferences. With Marzabotto as an example, Izzet makes clear the consciousness of spatial division between urban and non-urban space; it is at Marzabotto where gateways were erected even though the site seems not to have had a corresponding wall (185).

The seventh and final chapter, which ostensibly contains the conclusions for the volume, seeks to place the Etruscans within a wider Mediterranean context, which while fitting in the wake of The Corrupting Sea, does not return to gather the brief concluding remarks presented at the close of the preceding chapters and blend them into an over-arching, synthetic conclusion that addresses and reaffirms the discussion offered throughout the volume, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead, Izzet offers a discussion of the varied connections between the Etruscans and the Greeks, pointing out how both parties were actively trading with one another and both borrowing and rejecting imported ideas. Following this discussion is a general summary of other Italic regions, namely Umbria, Samnium, and Latium. These sections assemble a wealth of information that seems a bit out of place so near to the end of the book, but it is included in order to contextualize the cultural transformations seen in Etruria by reviewing the centuries of internal development and increasing urbanization of neighboring cultures. In sum, the late sixth century B.C. is a time of stress and uncertainty for the Etruscans, something that can be detected in increased levels of contact with other areas of the Mediterranean and internal power shifts. As Izzet sees it, these strains in turn caused anxieties that resulted in the renegotiation and redefinition of boundaries, leading ultimately to the myriad decisions that influenced changes in the personal, urban and territorial spheres.

Izzet documents effectively the extent of the changes (the how and the what), but the social implications of and social explanations for these changes (the why) are probed little. One impression that emerges from a book covering so many varied topics is that the Etruscans were not just passive copiers, and that the development of their material culture was not just a natural evolution. This book makes clear the active selection the Etruscans made in creating their material culture.

One of the possible shortcomings of the book is that internal citations, though common in social sciences, are still not the mainstream citation method for classical archaeology. Some readers at the introductory and advanced levels may find that additional background information would have been useful. A variety of theoretical information is presented and while, more often than not, Izzet introduces these concepts carefully, some aspects could have been explicated more clearly. If theoretical approaches are one of the ways forward for Etruscology, these concepts should be introduced for an audience that is less familiar with them.5

Izzet's bibliography is extensive and her thorough research methodology is evident at every point in the book; each chapter includes discussion of recent scholarship and the index is thorough. Izzet's illustrations are ample and from her descriptive manner the reader can visualize the material under discussion very well. Figure 3.2 (a "chronological scheme of tomb plans from Cerveteri") could have been enlarged a bit for greater legibility, as it is an important figure for Izzet's discussion. A few spelling inconsistencies, particularly for place names, were present;6 it might also be noted that cappellaccio is not present beyond Rome and its immediate environs, and thus it is better to use the general term tufo to describe the many different kinds of volcanic stone present in central southern Etruria (193).


1.   P. Lemonnier. 1986. "The study of material culture today: toward an anthropology of technical systems." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 5:147-86; C. Karlin and M. Julien. 1994. "Prehistoric technology: a cognitive science." In The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology, edited by C. Renfrew and E. B. Zubrow, 152-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.   Izzet only mentions in passing an Etruscan middle class and common people when dealing with funerary architecture (87-88, 92; see also 22).
3.   N. T. de Grummond. 2009. "On Mutilated Mirrors." In Votives, Places and Rituals in Etruscan Religion. Studies in Honor of Jean MacIntosh Turfa, edited by M. Gleba and H. Becker, 171-82. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
4.   The sarcophagus, that of Ramtha Visnai (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), is used to support Izzet's theory that the adorned female has been sublimated to a status symbol for the male, stating that the central scene on the front frieze shows the embrace of a couple, wherein "the woman's body is itself decorating that of her husband, hanging from his neck like a piece of jewellery...she has become part of his insignia "(72). This seems a strong reading for a classic dextrarum iunctio pose, especially since this couple is surrounded by attendants, who bear symbols reflecting the status of both members (symbols of public office for the male, and for the woman a parasol, a fan, a lyre, and boxes). Such imagery seems to show some level of parity between the spouses, and the lid, which shows the couple embracing in bed, enhances this reading.
5.   For example: "In the following analysis emphasis will be placed on the process by which ontological differences and categories were mapped onto the human material world. Whether we see this in terms of Tilley's 'metaphor', Shore's 'analogical schematisation', or Bourdieu's 'scheme transfers', it is important to acknowledge the central role of cognitive structures in the binding together of Etruscan culture" (5). Other examples exist wherein non-Classical theories or ethnographic examples are not explained clearly and a ready familiarity is presumed (e.g. 28, 214, 215).
6.   Misspellings include: "Mulro"(152) for "Murlo", "Ghacciaforte" (192), "Ghiaccaforte" (201), "Ghiacciaforte" (313), all of which should be properly spelled "Ghiaccioforte (202 and 256), "Bifferno" instead of "Biferno" (225), "Vastogiardi" for "Vastogirardi" (225), "Greek" when the text should read "Greeks," and "Jupiter Maximus" instead of "Jupiter Optimus Maximus" (229). There are also misspelled Italian words in the bibliography, e.g. Pacciarelli 1991a: with two misspelled words and a missing apostrophe.

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