Cerveteri was once a major Etruscan metropolis in the Mediterranean area, located about 10 km from the Tyrrhenian Coast of Italy.
The compact and trapezoidal form of the plateau on which the city lay implied a distinction between the urban area, the burial areas below and the surrounding countryside. The remains of the ancient city itself are still largely buried.
However, the city of the dead, its layout and architecture and even the furnishings of the tombs are a powerful reflection of the city of the living, telling us its story.
The main necropolises, or cemeteries, are Banditaccia, to the north, Sorbo, to the west, and Monte Abatone, to the south.
They feature tombs of various kinds, the most common being the tumulus: a burial monument consisting of a cylindrical body of tuff stone, where the burial chamber was carved, covered with a mound of earth.
These tumuli ranged from around 10 metres in diameter, or even less, to 50 or 60 metres.
The Banditaccia necropolis is a World Heritage Site since 2004.
Monte Abatone, Cerveteri’s second urban necropolis in terms of size, is concealed.
It is buried every year by the archaeologists, on completion of their excavation campaigns, in order to preserve it.
The Campana Tumulus, the most monumental, is the only one visible.
The first researches were begun between 1956 and 1961 by the Lerici Foundation of Milan.
Without excavation, underground voids corresponding to over 600 tombs were identified.
In recent times, more modern survey techniques and aerial photograph analysis permitted the identification of an even denser network of tumuli.
From 2018 to the present, excavations have been conducted by the Luigi Vanvitelli Universi-ty of Campania and the University of Tuscia, as well as the Universities of Urbino and Bonn.
The surveyed area measures 1600 sq.m, in the south-western section of the plain, and includes a complex of various tumuli, preserved almost as mere imprints due to deep plough-ing.
What surprises those who walk these ancient paths is the ‘excavated’ architecture, relating not merely to the tombs and their furnishings but to the necropolises’ entire urban layout as well.
In the most anciently occupied areas, the access to the tombs has a consistent north-western orientation, due to religious reasons.
The tombs are arranged chronologically and according to the hierarchies of group members.
The smaller and less important tumuli were positioned around the larger ones belonging to the aristocratic families, similarly to the city dwellings.
In the areas dating from later periods, however, the tombs are very similar to one another and arranged uniformly in straight lines.
This urban model suggests a land plot organization managed by a central authority.
It marks a radical change in Cerveteri’s society, dominated first by the aristocratic farming and warrior elites prospered on production and trade.
Through the indication of their burial customs, we can learn about many aspects of the Etruscans’ everyday lives.
Indeed, it has emerged that, from the Orientalising Period (between 720 and 580 BC), the Etruscans began building chamber tombs modelled on real dwellings.
They believed the dead still had, at least for a time, feelings, physiological needs and the necessity to be surrounded by their own things. Therefore the graves were designed to be their eternal homes.
They initially took the form of huts, going on to replicate the appearance of the aristocratic houses and palaces of the living, with a clear distinction between the entrance hall and the burial chambers.
Over time, the Hellenistic Greek model prevailed, and the tombs became a single, richly-decorated room with niches opened on all sides.
Monte Abatone features all the tomb types tracing the evolution of the house tomb.
In the beginning, these consisted of small, single chambers with the lower part carved out of the tuff and a block roof, almost all of which are now lost.
They resembled huts. Reproduction of interior furnishings was still very modest.
Later, they were entirely underground, larger and higher, with greater architectural detail.
The burial beds had legs and cushions and were reminiscent of banquet beds.
Ramps were often built leading to the top of the tumulus, where religious rituals were performed.
Around the tumuli, there are graves or sarcophagus tombs, probably for people of humble means or children.
In more recent times, we find larger tombs, with two central chambers and two lateral ones facing the entrance hall. These were inspired by aristocratic houses.
The largest chamber was probably the most important room, with beds created for the married couple.
The man’s bed is shaped as a banquet bed, while the woman is crowned by a triangular tympanum.
The Campana Tomb, from around 650 BC, imitates an opulent aristocratic residence with three large rooms.
The ceiling reproduces the timber framework characteristic of real dwellings at the time.
The altar in the central chamber is probably connected to ancestor worship.
The three grooved cylinders in the left-hand chamber are a reproduction of wicker baskets for foodstuffs, a display of wealth also deriving from agricultural estates.
Over time, thanks to trade in the Mediterranean area, Etruscan society was deeply influenced by Near-Eastern and, particularly, Greek cultures.
This, too, is reflected in the furnishings. Those of the Campana Tomb were lost, but would undoubtedly have been similar to those of the richest contemporary tombs, with fine vases made in Corinth, Greek amphorae for wine, precious metal objects, and numerous local vases made from refined clay and bucchero, a kind of glossy, black pottery.