Etruscan ossuaries and Roman burials

The Etruscans were the first victims of Roman expansion, in the first half of the 4th Century B.C. Not much seems to be known about the Etruscan culture the Roman vanquished, but from what they left behind it is obvious they had a lively and elaborate conception of the afterlife.

An Etruscan ossuary

A 4th-Century Etruscan ossuary

I cannot help but be fascinated by Etruscan funeral rites. The body of the deceased was cremated, then the remaining bones (and ashes?) put into a clay ossuary (urns appear to have been common, chest-like contraptions more rare) and buried. It left archeologists with many large, buried clay ossuaries that can still be bought on the market. Unfortunately, it appears that Etruscan pottery was clearly inferior to Greek one. Some (richer families?) had a tomb arranged to look like the deceased’s home, complete with household objects. It’s not only similar to what the Egyptians were doing, but also matched the beliefs of the nearby Celts.

The Romans, although culturally close to the Etruscans, appear to have abandoned the concept of the buried ossuary early on, if they ever practiced it. Instead, ashes from the cremated body were stored in an urn one was expected to keep at home – which is precisely what some families choose to do today. A coin was put in the mouth of the deceased, a toll for Charon, the boatman of the river Stix.

Etruscan culture continued to develop under Roman rule for about two centuries after the conquest, after which it disappear under the cultural weight of a Roman Empire in its prime.

The image of the Etruscan ossuary comes from an auction site.

Further reading on the Etruscans:


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