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Dig Like a Surgeon February 22, 1999
by Anna Maria Esposito
Photographs by Giovanni Lattanzi

[image] Etruscan warrior's burial from the necropolis of Casa Nocera is dissected in a lab at the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany in Florence, Italy. [LARGER IMAGE (left)] [LARGER IMAGE (right)] [image]

White-coated, we lean over the grave of an Etruscan warrior, dental picks and paintbrushes in hand, carefully freeing a bronze bracelet from the cracked dirt. Numbered paper tags mark each find--scraps of corroded bronze, potsherds, human teeth. A small placard identifies the burial as burial G at Casa Nocera, an ancient necropolis west of Florence, Italy. But harsh fluorescent bulbs illuminate the scene, not the hot Tuscan sun, for we have removed burial G from the site, intact in a block of earth, and taken it to our lab in Florence. There we have the luxury of excavating it at our own pace, protected from the threat of looting and construction that speeds so many digs along.

Lying less than two feet underground in soil without rocks, burial G was ideal for this deluxe treatment. In the field, we first cleared dirt from around the burial, leaving a seven-by-four-foot area standing around the skeleton; then then we slid boards beneath the burial and built a crate to enclose it; finally the 4,000 pounds of dirt and artifacts were lifted by crane onto a truck for the drive to Florence.

[image] Intact cremation burial in a bronze urn from a tomb at Casa Nocera (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Seventh-century B.C. bronze chalice from Casa Nocera (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Burial G was one of a small group, probably belonging to members of a single family, atop the hill of Casa Nocera, outside the modern town of Casale Marittimo. In the center we found the earliest sepulchre, dating from the eighth century B.C., that of the clan's progenitor, who was cremated and buried in a chest made of stone slabs. Within the chest was a large terra-cotta vessel known as a dolium, covered with an embossed bronze shield. Inside the dolium was a bronze cinerary urn containing the burnt bones wrapped in a linen cloth; silver items including a bowl and dragon fibula (garment pin); and small objects of ivory and amber. Outside the dolium were a banquet service consisting of a small bronze and iron table, ribbed bronze phialai (libation bowls), and other vessels; an ax, lance, helmet, and scepter; and the iron fittings of a two-wheeled chariot.

[image] Circular bronze shield about three feet in diameter covered the terra-cotta dolium containing the progenitor's burial. [LARGER IMAGE]

[image] Small bronze and iron table was part of a banquet service found in the eighth-century B.C. burial of the Casa Nocera clan's progenitor (left). [LARGER IMAGE] Bronze ax with wooden shaft decorated with parading bronze birds (right). [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Around 630 B.C. a large tholos tomb was constructed in the middle of the cemetery, destroying parts of adjacent burials. Looted in the 1950s, the tomb has yielded only a few ceramics: an imported Corinthian alabastron (unguent container), several Etrusco-Corinthian alabastra (local copies of Greek vessels), and fragments of pithoi, large storage jars used for the ashes of the deceased. Like tomb G, many of these fragile finds were removed still embedded in earth and taken to our lab in Florence for conservation.

[image] Imported Corinthian alabastron (unguent jar) was found in a late seventh-century B.C. tholos tomb at Casa Nocera. (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Bronze canteen with small pendants from Casa Nocera dates from the first half of the seventh century B.C. (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Burial G was one of the earliest in the cemetery, perhaps dating to only one generation after that of the progenitor. It contained the bones, buried rather than cremated, of a young warrior, along with his weapons: a bronze lance, an iron dagger with an ivory hilt, and an iron ax. A series of leech-shaped bronze fibulae running down the left side of his body indicate where his shroud was pinned closed; a dragon-shaped silver fibula and an another pin of bronze and silver were also found. A bronze lebes, a vessel for mixing wine and water, and a phiale found in the burial would have been used in banquets. 

[image] Seventh-century B.C. gold fibula from Casa Nocera (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Archaeologist holds iron dagger from Casa Nocera burial G in front of its own X ray. (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Anna Maria Esposito is an archaeologist with the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany in Florence, Italy.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America