Inside an Etruscan hypogeum on Corsica
Discovering a previously unsuspected Roman cemetery would normally rank as the archaeological highlight of a building project. Recent work on Corsica, though, revealed an even greater surprise, as Marina Biron, Jean Demerliac, Vincent Dumenil, Catherine Rigeade, and Laurent Vidal explain.
In June 2018, a team of archaeologists led by Laurent Vidal from Inrap set about excavating a hitherto unknown Roman necropolis on Corsica. This burial ground lay at Lamajone, to the south of the ancient and modern town at Aléria, and also several hundred metres from the important Etruscan cemetery at Casabianda, a listed Historical Monument. Inrap’s involvement began with an archaeological evaluation the previous year, carried out ahead of a new development project. These initial soundings encountered several burials in various states of preservation. Their distribution, though, suggested there might be as many as 500-1,200 graves, suggesting a site of some significance. Having pursued a heritage preservation policy for many years, the Regional Archaeology Service of Corsica (SRA) decided the findings merited excavation. Plans were duly put in place for fieldwork over an area of roughly 1ha, matching the footprint of the proposed development.
It was while working in the Roman cemetery that Laurent Vidal and his team noticed an enigmatic square discoloration beneath a group of tombs. What they had spotted was no more than a stain in the soil, where a former void had been filled with earth of a reddish hue. Limited investigation of this unprepossessing feature revealed something more enticing: the first steps of a staircase descending into the earth. It led to the greatest archaeological discovery in Corsica for 40 years.
The steps themselves presented a clue concerning what had been discovered. More than four decades earlier, the archaeologist Jean Jehasse had also found steps while working at the nearby Casabianda cemetery. These proved to be the entrance to a hypogeum: a subterranean burial chamber popular among wealthy Etruscans. Now all the signs pointed to the Inrap team having made an equally momentous discovery. Alerted to this development, the SRA decided to upgrade the status of the excavation to one of exceptional importance, bringing both more time to investigate the site and greater resources with which to do it. In collaboration with the SRA, Hervé Petitot – deputy scientific and technical director of Inrap for Corsica – and his team drew up specific research objectives for the discovery. After all, advances in archaeological techniques over the last 40 years meant that the Inrap team could address questions that were barely touched on during the earlier work at Casabianda. Although post-excavation work is currently still under way, fresh insights into Etruscan burial customs are already repaying this care.
The Etruscan presence
Today, the Etruscans are probably best known from surviving ancient Greek and Roman texts, which do not always cast them in the most favourable light. Etruscan civilisation was focused on a collection of city-states, situated mostly in Tuscany (central and northern Italy) and at its height spread over a good chunk of Italy. At least some Etruscans proved to be great warriors and talented merchants, growing rich on trade with the Greeks to the east and the peoples often labelled Celts to the north and west. Elements of Greek culture seem to have been eagerly embraced, with the Etruscans adopting and adapting the Greek alphabet for their inscriptions, while also borrowing liberally from their mythology. But while there is ample evidence for Etruscan towns and cemeteries in their northern Italian heartlands, such centres are rarer overseas.
On mainland France, evidence for an Etruscan presence first emerges around the middle of the 7th century BC, and is concentrated along the Mediterranean coast. Buildings that can be directly associated with Etruscan activity are scarce, with the only known examples occurring at the city of Lattara (modern Lattes). These probably belong to an Etruscan emporium established at the end of the 6th century BC and then destroyed during the first quarter of the 5th century. Elsewhere, evidence for Etruscan influence in regions such as Provence and Languedoc is limited to their merchandise. These goods suggest a somewhat unequal trading relationship, based on a local taste for imported wine. The appetite for this beverage can be gauged from both the remains of the amphorae it was transported in and the fine pottery cups – known as black bucchero – it was drunk from.
An ability to cultivate new markets was not restricted to longstanding local groups living in France, as Etruscan merchandise is also found at Marseille in the years after it was founded by the Phocaeans, who were Greek settlers from what is now Turkey. But despite initially making promising inroads, the Phocaeans went on to turn the tables. From the middle of the 6th century onwards, their goods entered into direct competition with Etruscan suppliers, eventually squeezing them out. As a consequence, towards the beginning of the 4th century BC, Etruscan amphorae simply disappear from the archaeological record in southern Gaul.
Traces of Etruscan settlement are more prominent on the island of Corsica, reflecting its location opposite the Etruscan heartlands in Italy. Aléria itself lies about 140km from the Italian coast and was already an important town in antiquity, when it spread over 13ha across the summits of two low hills. This setting dominated the plain where the Tavignano river enters the Mediterranean. Herodotus knew the settlement as Alalia, and reported it was founded by the Phocaeans in 566 BC. He describes a naval battle in 540 BC, which pitted the Phocaeans against an alliance of Etruscans and Carthaginians. The result was something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Phocaeans, as they emerged triumphant, but so weakened they were obliged to abandon their settlement. So it was that the Etruscans were free to occupy Alalia. They were not the last Italian power to control it, though, and in subsequent centuries a Roman town flourished on the site.
One of the more remarkable relics of the region’s Etruscan heritage emerged in 1960, when ditch-digging during construction work at the Casabianda prison revealed pre-Roman artefacts. Jean Jehasse, who was then working in the ancient city, was informed of this discovery. Together with his wife Laurence, he excavated and studied the rich pre-Roman necropolis of Casabianda until 1983. This research led to the publication of two monographs examining Etruscan culture beyond Etruria. The work of the Jehasses resulted in numerous tombs being unearthed, most of which dated to the Etruscan era. All of them display a comparable configuration, namely a corridor leading to an underground chamber, which was often equipped with benches, forming what was essentially a subterranean triclinium (dining room). Rich grave goods were frequently deposited in this space. Appropriately enough for a chamber mimicking a banqueting place, the deceased was often accompanied by fine cups to sup beverages from, such as Attic ceramic cups or figured Etruscan oinochoai (wine jugs). On occasion, jewellery and toiletries were also present, including bronze mirrors, multicoloured glass perfume containers, and various examples of the silversmith’s art. A different note is sounded by the weapons and armour – including helmets, spears, and swords – sometimes deposited with the dead, reflecting the social status enjoyed by warriors.
Preservation and enhancement
The Etruscan complex at Casabianda is currently unique outside Etruria, and the Collectivity of Corsica, which owns the site, has undertaken research to conserve the archaeology and boost knowledge of it. Findings from the cemetery are on display to the public in the Archaeological Museum of Aléria, founded in 1969.
For many years, the regional archaeology of Corsica service (DRAC, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication) has been pursuing a policy of preserving and studying the archaeological heritage presented by both the city and its necropolis. Because of their status as historic monuments, the wider hinterland of these two sites is monitored in line with procedures to prevent any loss of important archaeological deposits.
The Inrap work at Lamajone was triggered by this regulatory framework. After the initial evaluation in 2017, more extensive excavation revealed part of the Roman necropolis, which covered about 1.3ha. This had developed beyond the ancient town, on a hillside where Roman tile tombs – a triangular construction of flat tiles (tegulae) joined by gutter-tiles (imbrices) running along the ridge – were sandwiched between two roads serving the settlement. As acidic soils that gradually make buried bone disintegrate cover much of Corsica, skeletons are rarely recovered in a good state of preservation. The occupants of the Lamajone tombs provided an exception to this rule, presenting archaeologists with a rare opportunity to study ancient human remains.
It was not only in terms of the soil that the Inrap team were fortunate. During the 1970s and 1980s, the site had been turned over to wine production and transformed into a vineyard, with the beds for the vines cutting into ancient remains concealed within the earth. Stripping away the topsoil, though, revealed an irregular sliver of land up to 20m wide, where the archaeology was buried at a greater depth and so better protected. This seems to be thanks to a former sunken path intersecting with a small watercourse, where a considerable depth of sediment built up over the centuries, leaving an area of about 160m² lying roughly 2m below the modern ground surface. Its archaeological value is well illustrated by over 100 funerary structures being detected within the former shallow depression, against a total of 143 from the site as a whole. Unsurprisingly, given the volume of tombs in such a small area, many were superimposed on top of each other. This is also true of our Etruscan hypogeum, which was covered by a succession of burials dating from the 3rd to 1st centuries BC through to the 3rd century AD.
Luckily, the entrance to the tomb was located in an area where both the depth of the soil and the lower concentration of graves meant that it had not been entirely obscured. The staircase leading to the corridor was detected and examined towards the start of the excavation, although at that point neither the corridor nor the burial chamber were apparent. As we have seen, it was a discoloration in the soil that first drew attention to the entranceway. The nature of this discoloration, though, had some intriguing parallels with the tombs at Casabianda. There, the excavators often found that the upper fill of collapsed underground chambers was marked by stones and/or red earth that were foreign to the local geology. In Lamajone, the stairway was also filled with a stony reddish sediment that stood out from the lighter, sandier soil characteristic of the cemetery in general. The initial excavation brought to light the first five steps, while a fragment of charcoal mixed in with the fill returned a radiocarbon date of the mid-4th to mid-2nd century BC.
Given that the Etruscan cemetery at Casabianda lay 700m to the south, a hypogeum at Lamajone was entirely unexpected. Once its presence became apparent, the team took measures to ensure the opportunity to gain fresh information about these burials was seized. Naturally, trained archaeologists are a staple of field teams, but both a specialist conservator and an Etruscan specialist were added to the roster. Additional recording methods included creating a daily film record as work progressed and, as we will see, every bit as much attention is being paid to the post-excavation work.
This is an extract of an article featured in issue 105 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.