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3 Fragile Records The Surviving Sources of Etruscan Language Because the Etruscans took advantage of the organic materials in their environment for the media upon which to record their documents, few long texts have survived for us to study. While it is patently untrue that the Etruscan language is undeciphered, much less is known of it than of Greek or Latin. The original wealth of literature, daily notes, and correspondence recorded on parchment, wooden and wax tablets, and even cloth, are lost; only the more cryptic forms of labels, dedications, and tombstones remain. One rare exception is the famous “Zagreb mummy binding,” a linen book of religious rituals preserved when it was ultimately used in Egypt to wrap the mummy of a young woman sometime during the 3rd–2nd century BC. Other long inscriptions include the “Capua tile,” an early 5th century terracotta tablet from a set recording religious formulae to be invoked on certain holidays; and the Perugia cippus, a stone block recording the settlement of a land dispute in the region of Perugia, and originally placed as a sacred boundary marker during the 3rd–2nd century BC.1 The sacred character of land is further shown in a recent discovery, the Tabula Cortonensis, a bronze tablet commemorating what appears to be the mortgage and sale of a parcel of land by a group of men and women.2 Of the thousands of Etruscan inscriptions known today, most are very short, providing names of men and women as owners, donors, or recipients of objects or tombs; it is this category that is represented in the Museum’s collections. The inscribed objects include a fragment of a 6th century vase recording a woman’s name, sarcophagi and urns of the Hellenistic period, and a lintel block from a 6th century tomb with the proclamation of its owner’s name. There is also a mirror with the engraved names of characters in its mythological scene (250). As further evidence of Etruscan literacy, there are also styli, implements for daily use in inscribing wax tablets. While many actual wax tablets have been found (even fragments in a wrecked merchant ship),3 none yet retain the fragile inscriptions of notes, letters, or invoices that must have formed the majority of Etruscan communications. The convenience and simplicity of using perishable media have fostered inadvertently the campaign of extermination once waged by the Etruscans’ Greek and Roman enemies, although archaeology has begun to restore some of the complexities of their intellectual world. The Etruscan Language Language, as well as costume and customs, set the Etruscans apart from the other ethnic groups of central Italy. The Italic peoples spoke Latin, Oscan (around Pompeii), Umbrian (at Gubbio/Iguvium), and other closely related languages. Greek could be heard among the colonists of southern Italy, and the Semitic languages, Phoenician and Aramaic, came with colonists and traders in the Italian archipelago. The Italic tongues are Indo-European languages, like modern Greek, Italian, and English. But Etruscan belongs neither to the Indo-European nor to the Semitic group. The likeliest explanation is that the Etruscans’ ancestors entered Italy long before the speakers of Indo-European languages, but since writing only arrived in the 8th century BC, hard data are lacking. Social interaction among the groups led to borrowed and loaned words, such as Latin nepos, converted to Etruscan nefts (now English “nephew”). Romans acknowledged their debt to Etruria for certain still-recognizable terms and concepts, such as atrium (Etruscan ay re), taberna, histrio (for an actor, whence our “histrionic”), and even persona, borrowed from the Etruscans’ masked character fersu, which derived from Greek prÒsvpon (“face”). The Etruscan alphabet was adapted from the earliest Greek alphabet brought to Italy by colonists, probably those who settled in the Bay of Naples; their Euboean alphabet was still a novelty in the 8th century, recently borrowed from the Phoenicians, who had invented it shortly before 1000 BC. Etruscans soon dropped letters for which they had no sounds, like “o” and “b,” and had to add or reassign letters for sounds that only occur in Etruscan. As in Phoenician (and other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic), Etruscan was written retrograde, from right to left. After one or two generations, the Greeks would reverse the direction, as would the Romans, the reason that we read left to right today.4 Etruscans retained retrograde writing until near the end of their history; some epitaphs inscribed in Etruscan letters but running left to right are evidence...


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