From The American Scholar, Volume 73, No. 2, Spring 2004.

Copyright c 2004 by the author.

Etruscans, Losing Their Edge


Of Etruscan civilization, we have mostly bronze funerary statuettes. Florida photographer Carol Munder hunts them up. She finds them neglected in Mediterranean villages” glass cases. We do not know, and never did, what manner of folk made them, or why. Munder”s prints seem to wake them. The figures find themselves in a tix. Their gaudy world is gone. Mute, they prayed or pray to gagged gods ofwhom we know nothing.

These paralyzed bronze statuettes, some of them, predate the earliest Greek sculptures. Etruscans made them — always human forms — as grave goods that perpetually spoke unknown messages to unknown gods. Or perhaps in themselves they reminded unnamed powers to recall — to give a thought now and then to — the living, their plight and ours. While the last Etruscans poured or banged these stylized figures in Italy, Greeks were transcribing Plato”s dialogues. Etruscan wall paintings depict Greek symposia. Great Greeks chattered on. We have found their thoughtful texts, some complete, after centuries” loss. Unheard Etruscans left behind tiny metal Etruscans. Their artists cast five-inch votives in the round or hammered them flat. Now only Gumby-like gestures remain of those who addressed the very gods.

In meticulous Munder prints, bodies dissolve into nothing, beginning at edges, as dead people do. They blur into silence.

Say that the crouching man beseeches. He has beseeched, for more or less twenty-four centuries, powers or gods whose names and traits all people we hear his gibberish through his burial, exhumation, and flight. Nor could we hear him through a glass case whose fingerprint-grease collects dust. Munder beckons him from his banishment while bowing to it. She multiplies layers — his cabinet pane, her lens, film, paper — and traps him behind glass again, in a frame. Admire his solitude, his tremendous no-comment. His limbs trail off to Beckett-like nubs. He numbers among the last of his tribe.

Is he as he appears, deader than dead, never alive, and we, by contrast, living? Or will he and his ilk, being bronze and all, outlast our pomps?

The Etruscans, we think, rolled in from Lydia in Asia Minor and built up a culture 2,700 years ago. At that time Greeks were writing down the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Syrians had recently hatched a phonetic alphabet — an infinitely fruitful idea that sprang up only once on earth, to one people, and spread.) The Etruscans settled Tuscany and part of Umbria. They put the unrelated Italian peninsula natives to work collecting and refining iron ore. They scried the future from entrails. We know so little about where they came from and where they went that twentieth-century nutcakes, alien-drop-in fans, used to fuss over them, before new mysteries called. The Etruscan tongue relates to no other, not even Indo-European. Etruscans borrowed a proto-Greek alphabet. We can pronounce their words! We can say what they said, whatever it was. Despite many centuries” study and Endings, we have, sadly, no idea what their words mean. From sarcophagi inscriptions we infer that So-and-So was the corpse”s name. Can you imagine a more meaningless scrap of language, a name? (Not, of course, your name.) The votaries” voiceless tales, if we could hear them, would make no more sense to us than branches scraping roots.

Etruscan statues” feet stand flat, but Etruscan history uncannily speeds. Theirs was a recent Mediterranean empire. We know much more about far older and more distant peoples. The time-lapse film begins when people pop up in Tuscany. They lived in small domed houses. (Were Italian forests already gone?) Enriched by trading iron and copper ores around the Mediterranean, skilled at working metals and navigating, they set out a-conquering. They built city-states right and left, as far as the coast of Spain. Today, archaeologists still find their handiwork in France. They built a town from scratch at Pompeii. You would think a people big on auguries would stop right there. (Pretty soon, as it happened, people called the Samnites, who warred fitfully in the region, took Pompeii from them.) The height of Etruscan power and money came around 550 B.C., when Pythagoras came up with the priceless idea of pure mathematics.

Culturally, like the Egyptians, the Etruscans backed the wrong horse. The dead, the guts, and the ancestors did not make the running. Math and science won, and philosophy”s queries and literature”s stories placed and showed. On the other hand, if merely spreading your genome is all it”s cracked up to be, you could do worse at that time and place than cast your lot with Romans by marrying them.

Rome”s last three kings sprang from the Etruscan ruling dynasty; the mother of the first was a royal Etruscan prophet. Their absolute power in Rome lasted 106 years. They built Rome”s walls. They erected the hilltop shrine we call the Temple ofjupiter. They ordered the construction of Rome”s Cloaca Maxima, the wonderful name of which still, Ihope, brightens schoolchildren”s study of the Romans” deadly tongue.

Romans hated the third Etruscan king, tyrannic Tarquin the Proud. Abruptly in 510 B.C., as if at their wits” end, they declared Rome a republic. Its brand-new senate deposed Tarquin the Proud and banished him north of the Tiber. Then Roman legions set about smashing Etruscan strongholds; they began at Veii, Tarquin”s own city. (Four years later, the Celts retook it anyway.) City by city, Romans conquered Etruscan civilization until it was gone.

In five centuries, it had all collapsed and vanished. By the eighth century B.C. the Etruscans had a singular culture apparently based on their religion, whatever that was. Growing in the seventh, their power peaked in the sixth, and petered out and disappeared in the Hfth and fourth. Film over. They lived fast, died young, and had a good-looking corpse.

It is as though they did all this without uttering a word — not of conquest not of protest. Surely, by contrast, our culture will endure splendidly. Historians guess that the Romans “absorbed” them, as one fetal twin may absorb the other without malice, and retain in its body a loose relic or two like one of the absorbed twin”s femurs, (The living twin grows and becomes an adult; the femur stays fetal.)

The biggest, if derelict, monument the Etruscans left topsides was an enormous bronze sculpture of a liver. This liver perdures, as do some wall paintings, ceramics, two portrait busts so detailed they look modern, and fine gold shoes the Etruscans sold to the Greeks. They read entrails and got lost. They dug and exported iron ore east; in bronze, they hammered and hammered. While they were vanishing, Druids in northern Europe were intoning at trees, and Black Sea Scythians on horseback hunted stags. What should anyone have done?

“They are displaced persons,” Munder says of the statuettes. We forgot where we found them, we keep carrying them about, and we utterly lost their people. If more civilization surrounds us now, still no less silence slips in when we stop. It is as if the figures” dispersal and their people”s extinction struck them all deaf and blind as well as collectively dumb. Shorn of everything, they group together to stand like witness posts. Each poses an isolate ontological puzzle. Motion and stasis gaze at each other in equipoise. They freeze, forever, at the corner where eternity clips time. Like all things motionless, they seem to wait. Their mourning, their solitude, their guilelessness, their bitter destinies, and their uselessness make us wonder why we waste our few days without hammering out a few bronze statuettes of our own.

Annie Dillard”s recent book For the Time Being is the last of a nonfiction trilogy that began in 1974 with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her seven other books, mostly narrative non-fiction, include The Living, a novel. Carol Munder is a fine-art photographer specializing in large-format black-and-white Prints taken with a Diana camera.