An Etruscan puzzle: Investigating the monumental tomb of Grotte Scalina

4 mins read

This highly unusual Etruscan tomb is linked to the Macedonian court of Alexander the Great and, a millennium later, proved a magnet for medieval pilgrims. But does it have one last secret to reveal? Vincent Jolivet and Edwige Lovergne investigate.

A drone’s view of the enigmatic Etruscan tomb at Grotte Scalina in northern Lazio.

Tarquinia, about 100km north of Rome in the Lazio region of Italy, was one of the most powerful of the 12 Etruscan city-states that made up the Dodecapolis of Iron Age Etruria. It was also the fiercest defender of Etruscan freedom against the Romans during the 4th century BC, before its decisive defeat in about 280 BC. Though the city lies near the sea, it controlled the large and fertile region that stretched across to the River Tiber in the east. During the 6th century BC, small fortified settlements – satellites of the controlling city-state – began to appear, a pattern that was repeated in the 4th century BC, when the Etruscan city-states were forced to defend their territory against the Roman aggressors. One such settlement is Musarna, close to the Etruscan town of Viterbo, about 40km from Tarquinia.

Recent excavations at Musarna reveal it was established in about 320 BC, and followed a regular town plan with private and public buildings. However, it also enjoyed truly impressive defences that were bang up to date with the latest Greek innovations in city-siege techniques: any Roman invader foolhardy enough to attack would have been confronted first by a huge moat within a wall, and then by the main city wall, reinforced by an earthen embankment.

The satellite-cities of Tarquinia were founded in the huge agrarian estates owned by the Tarquinian elite, who took pride in funding the construction of the town’s defences as a statement of their wealth and status. Their inhabitants were farmers in peacetime, but soldiers during times of war. It therefore seems probable that the huge, lonely tomb that lies 1.55km north of Musarna at Grotte Scalina was built by the family who founded Musarna, and at the same time.

The lonely tomb

The monumental rock-cut tomb of Grotte Scalina was sketched at the beginning of the 20th century by Luigi Rossi Danielli (1870-1909), an archaeologist from Viterbo. The drawing shows a single-storey structure with a false central door, a pilaster on the right, and a huge stairway on the left. Below ground level is a small burial chamber. Strangely, in a region overrun by official and unofficial archaeologists – and countless tomb-robbers – the location of this impressive grave was lost for nearly a century. Then, in 1998, it was rediscovered during archaeological survey of the area, though it was not until 2009 that the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS, Paris) in collaboration with the Soprintendenza archeologica per l’Etruria meridionale (Rome), finally began a thorough investigation.

Stairs carved from the rock lead to the top of the monumental tomb.

Archaeological excavation revealed that most of the façade of the 14m-wide monument had collapsed. It also showed that the tomb possessed a second – previously unknown – storey, giving the monument a total height of 12m.

The ground storey, which stands 6m high, is framed by two pilasters. Towards the middle of the façade were two huge, fluted columns (probably Tuscanic, a simplified Doric style) sitting on massive round moulded bases nearly 2m in diameter. In front of the pilasters, are two low rectangular bases on which animal statues would once have been placed, either real (lions, perhaps) or imaginary (such as a sphinx or a chimera). These animal guardians were to protect the tomb from robbers.

On the left, a monumental stairway carved from the rock led to the upper floor, and was probably once enclosed by a row of columns, maybe of Corinthian order. From this upper level, which stands about 4m high, two smaller staircases, one on either side of the terrace, lead to the top of the monument, where there is a double sloping roof with false beams. There was probably a pediment here, either carved or painted, but now gone.

Rock-cut tombs of this size and style are rare in Etruria: only the Lattanzi tomb in Norchia, about 10km away, has similar dimensions and architectural features.

Such a tomb, specifically designed to impress and serving as a symbol of the family’s power and status, had to have at least two doors: one that leads into the underground burial chamber and, directly above it, a false one carved into the rock to sympoblise the passage from life to death, two clearly separate domains. Tombs often resembled a house or a palace, such as the Tomba Grande in Castel d’Asso; others, including the Tomba Ildebranda in Sovana, were made to look like temples.  But the Grotte Scalina tomb, with its two storeys crowned by a pediment, is neither. Instead, we have to look across the Adriatic to Macedonia, 1,000km to the south-east, during the reigns of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. Recent reconstructions show that their palace, built in Vergina e Pella towards the end of the 4th century BC, had a huge façade with a central double-storey portico and a monumental doorway, features that directly influenced the design of our Etruscan tomb.

We can therefore assume that the tombs of Grotte Scalina and Norchia belonged to Tarquinian elites who travelled to Macedonia and, impressed by the magnificence of the Macedonian palaces, decided to design their own family tombs in the same style. And why did they travel so far? Probably to enlist the help of Macedonian mercenaries in their struggle against overwhelming Roman forces at home, an invitation that would have appealed to Alexander the Great, who was keen to conquer the Mediterranean world for himself.

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 80.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

The Grotte Scalina tomb, showing the false door to the land of the dead, above the excavated entrance to the burial chamber below ground.

Images: V Jolivet


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