January 2019. In the Footsteps of the Tombaroli.

In the Footsteps of the Tombaroli.

To welcome in the new-year I propose a little discourse on tombs. I admit for no other reason than that I’m feeling a little sombre given the state of exogenous depression round the world, and I’m a born cynic. So perhaps it’s appropriate, even if in the manner of a morbid Byron, I have not stood upon the tomb of Achilles. Those of a nervous disposition, at this point, should look the other way, though I promise not to summon up a ghoul or two.

I’m starting from a point of personal interest as our little hamlet is parked in an Etruscan necropolis. Necropoli are scattered over an extremely large region, in out of the way places, all over Tuscany. They may appear as holes in the ground, or fairly large apertures burrowed into the side of hills, though generally they are as visible as cigarette smoke in a fog. And no, we don’t have any ghosts.

The Etruscans, excavators of these tombs, were great exponents in the art of melancholic farewells, creating them in a noteworthy and durable manner befitting a somewhat sophisticated, and very mysterious people. They also seem to have been very tidy. Mostly they cremated their dead before internment, not leaving their mummified remains supine in some arcane Golgotha, but this seems to have been a condition of their location, and of little interest to estate agents who had no chance of shifting a bijou tomb with umpteen sitting tenants. As will soon become apparent, if you needed to pack them in, then space is at a premium. Before venturing forth into these dark and sometimes dangerous places, it is best to consider the critical point of location. If one is going to dig a hole anywhere it is almost obligatory to know the nature of the terrain – Topography to us modern vox pop’s.

Geologically, Italy is a new country, and its present structure, that which lies beneath your feet, took place by the massive movement of plates that pushed against each other, and thrust Italy out of the ocean forming the impressive Apennine chain that runs like a spine down the length of the country. In doing so it left behind layers of sand, clay and gravel, along with volcanic tufts and limestone. That should give you some idea of what ancient undertakers had to deal with. Picks and spades were obligatory. Road drills would have been handy. I make this point because terra firma determines the type of last resting place a citizen’s family might provide for the newly deceased, and they vary from the downright plain to the extravagant, if not everywhere grandiose. The extremes in such things seem to have been better left to Popes and tyrants of a later age.

For burial chambers sand might appear soft, but isn’t; rock being just as you’d expect. The former is very unstable, the latter not. Both provided a last, and lasting, resting place for Etruscan citizens. But if they were thinking of having a good nap, it was probably not for long! Having a penchant for adding precious items to the memorial box they were soon emptied out by others more interested in loot than respect for the oft, very long ago, departed. It’s probably the reason why, unlike the Greek and Romans, the Etruscans, on the whole, tended to hide their dead, rather than display them. Though I read somewhere that the ancient Greeks had a habit of burying their dead under the kitchen floor! It may have been to keep an eye on them, because in the case of the the Etruscans you can bet a bob or two if some later – say a couple of millennia later - acquisitive local, when the chance occurred, would still follow in their forebear’s footsteps, tip out the superfluous chaff, and pinch the lot. There’s a pretty penny to be made from a ‘used’ two thousand year or so sarcophagus, I can tell you.

But returning to the subject of subterranean accommodation with more than one, not so careful, owner. The absence of windows is more or less mandatory in the design, but they all have, or at least had, if not exactly one on hinges, a door of some sort, and if so you’ll notice there’s no bolt on the inside, which gives the game straight away. This was just as likely to keep that old hooligan Hades inside, who was always hanging about sizing up the living inhabitants, having turned out to be almost as bad as his pater Cronus, who swallowed all the young lad’s siblings. Is it any wonder that they all managed to turn out to be nasty pieces of work. I suspect they’re not the type of family you’d like moving in next door. Sorry for this diversion, but we’re not quite finished with doors. Before Italy became an entity its ocean deep surface was covered with volcanoes, not a few that followed it out of the water, and still manage to cause trouble. The hot, molten, semi fluid material thrown high into the air, as it fell back formed globules that on hitting the cold water of the ocean solidified into cannon ball size lava. Fast-forward to Etruscan times where being handy with chisels they perhaps thought to carve these scattered lava spheres up a little. A nice bust of the head of Hermes for the mantelpiece, for example! After all, hadn’t they chipped just about everything else into some sort of shape? Not cannon ball rocks they hadn’t! Some archaeologists consider they thus came to have some spiritual significance, only the gods being capable of carving them into such perfect spheres, and a tomb, when at full capacity, could be closed in by using them as a robust door to block up the entrance. Unhappily, a quantity of these lying around was a sure sign to the tombaroli, or grave robbers, that a tomb was close by. Modern Tuscan builders when working on, or restoring, old buildings very often leave a hallmark round ball inserted into the stonework - conjuring up the Etruscan spirits as an insurance against the wall falling down no doubt!




Things were better managed, in the sense of security, about 900BC, when the earliest tombs were mere individual holes in the ground, with loose box-like stone sides, and a nice heavy lid. Inside this small ‘room’ was a biconical urn covered with a bowl or a helmet according to the sex of the deceased. A practice these days that would have the ‘Me Too’s’ asking for a High Court injunction. Anyway, replace the turf, and given a year or two, even the resident wouldn’t know where they were. A little later, perhaps when the colonists had managed to get their feet under the table, and depending on the terrain available, their sepulchres switched from the individual to the familial. If they started off conservatively they soon became a tad ostentatious and might take on the manner of Egyptian and Assyrian tombs in that the configuration might be fashioned like a real house containing a series of rooms, with ceiling joists, and furniture, even the bedroom slippers, hewn out of the bare rock.


The best examples of this type lie along the SS Aurelia hugging the coast, and approaching Rome, at Cerveteri and Tarquinia. They often give the game away by employing carved splayed door surrounds in the Egyptian manner. Such tombs often feature ornate funeral couches, and painted walls using a simple fresco technique. George Dennis relates of one such tomb being opened through the roof to reveal in shafts of sunlight a warrior dressed completely in light body armour, fully visible for a second before it disintegrated in a shower of golden dust into a dry skeleton. You’ll gather that gold was originally the solitary reason for taking a peep. Later, more altruistic reasons drove men to knock the place about, and the examples of jewellery housed in Italy’s museums provide a catalogue of artist’s skills that defy modern man. Strange then, that they couldn’t even design a decent combination lock to keep themselves safe. Just as well. Having failed to understand their writing, we’d have absolutely no chance with a pin number.

Where the ground was loose they were restricted to a much simpler architectural form though in itself more mysterious and spooky being a wonderful place for bats to hang about. Sand when compact and damp remains fairly dense and firm, enabling the excavator to burrow it out into a mushroom form, leaving a central supporting pillar, and a wide ledge running round the inside to carry the familial sarcophagi of the dead.

  PéILLAR TOMB 2.jpg   


Benches Tomb.jpg

 More like a sepulchral crypt, these extended types of tomb are where any modern finds are likely to take place, as thousands must still exist buried under olive groves and the natural debris of ages, whereas those carved out of the solid rock, often with monumental doors and epitaph inscription, stuck out like sore thumbs. Needless to say, anything inside that was portable, has long since disappeared.

In northern Tuscany, the reduced size of the old city of Volterra, shrunk from its original circumference of just over four and a half miles of massive Cyclopean walls, due to a preponderance of clay and sand of an unstable nature, today can only provide a few tombs open to the public. Unquestionably the largest Etruscan city of their federation with a substantial population of over twenty thousand souls, all who at sometime had to be committed to the good earth, made it necessary to provide a large public cemetery outside the city walls, What happened to the equally large number of servants and hangers on no one has seen fit to mention. There is a fourteenth century drawing of the cemetery, though one senses it is somewhat fantastic in conception. Though little can be seen now of its remains, due to earlier massive landslides and earthquakes, the city museum has managed to amass the largest collection of sarcophagi in Italy, even if Florence and the Vatican have purloined the very best examples. However, the accessible tombs are not to be found in the largest of these burial grounds due to the dangerous nature of the subsoil. Luckily, on the south east side of the city, which is more stable, two examples open to the public provide a good representation of the type of tomb found in this area.

Tombs have a stable temperature of c.13°C which provides a sort of heating and air condition system all in one. You perceive that when 3°C outside it’s cosy inside, while when 30°C outside it’s almost like walking into a refrigerator. The principle was put into practice during the eighteenth century when every country estate featured an icehouse, very often buried into a bank like the Etruscan tombs. You probably got your ticket if you left the door open. Which is also true of tombs built in sandy soil. If left open it’s possible for the damp sand to dry out and start to peel away from the walls with the worst-case scenario, a collapse of the roof. Not a few have been uncovered with the remains of unlucky tombaroli, prematurely interred!

How many of Etruscan tombs remain open to the public I cannot say, but certainly all the Twelve City States of Etruria have examples, which you can still visit, but more generally, such sepulchres are all that remain of where a metropolis once stood. A good example of this is Vetulonia, completely lost for hundreds of years, yet copiously detailed in classical documents and finally discovered under the name of the small village of Colonna di Buriano. Now that name has disappeared by a legal sleigh of hand, and returned to its original title. The tombs Tomba dalla Pietrera, dalla Fibula d’Oro and del Diavolino are a good walk away from the village, demonstrating how the mighty are fallen, given it was only second in size to Volterra. Mussolini took Vetulonia’s emblem of the fasces, a bundle of wooden rods with an axe in the middle, for the Italian Fascists. He wasn’t the first, as Roman emperors had previously purloined the emblem.


Tuscany is a large region and if you intend following in the footsteps of the tombaroli, albeit with good intentions, you will need your own transport as these monuments, for the most part, are off the beaten track. Visually the contemporary tombs in southern Etruria are the most interesting, but the museums will give you a better picture of the historical importance of others. For example, Florence, which was not an Etruscan city at all, has a fascinating collection of artefacts; this includes a full size example of a local tomb with original tomb sarcophagi.

‘The Twelve’ important cities of the Etruscan Federation. (Or those considered to be.)

Names in block capitals indicate the nearest modern city/town. Those in italics indicate the Etruscan city in question. The names of Etruscan cities are sometimes disputed, and some carry the Roman name instead.



ORVIETO – Volsinii

VOLTERRA – Velathri

GROSSETO – Roselle


AREZZO – Arretium

GROSSETO – Vetulonia

CORTONA – Corythus/Cortona

PERUGIA – Perusia

ROME – Veii


 There are also tombs scattered all over Greater Etruria – that is the whole of Tuscany and northern Campania. For example:

BOLSENA - Sorano


ORVIETO – Orvieto


POPULONIA – Populonia etc.


If you find yourself in Greater Etruria you’ll have little time to spare, but taking ‘time out’ from the ‘Renaissance’ to visit a tomb or two, won’t be such a ‘ghostly’ experience!