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HomeSpecial EventsSecond Shanghai Archaeology Forum 2015
Gravisca Emporion - the Port of the Etruscan City of Tarquinia
From:Chinese Archaeology  Writer:Lucio Fiorini  Date:2015-12-22
Gravisca is one of the most important ports of antiquity. It was a crossroad of goods, ideas and people between the East and the West of the Mediterranean between the end of the 7th century BC and the Roman period. The harbor was situated about ten kilometers from Tarquinia (the ancient Tarkna), one of the most important Etruscan metropolises which dominated the Marta river valley, an effluent of Lake Bolsena, and for centuries was the center of prominent political power. Gravisca’s location remained unclear until 1969 when Mario Torelli and the Soprintendenza Archeologica dell'Etruria Meridionale began systematic excavations, first discovering some remarkable remains of the Roman colony founded in 181 BC then, after one year, the Greek sanctuary.

This discovery constitutes extraordinary evidence of an emporic sanctuary, similar to Naukratis in Egypt, which is famous for its artifacts and for a series of literary sources. The opening of the emporion of Gravisca, as well as one that occurred a century before Naukratis, created a protected area in which Greek merchants from the far shores of the eastern Mediterranean could exchange their products in Etruscan land, under the protection of divinities who were their guarantors. The foundation of a Greek port was, in fact, designed for this purpose: on the one hand it was useful to carry out commercial activities under safe conditions; on the other hand it was considered a place for the offering of gifts which, carried over time by its visitors, created a collective treasure used by the Etruscan principes.

The Northen Sanctuary

As demonstrated by archaeological investigations, there is a correspondence between the evolution of the building phases, which occurred during the 6th century BC, and the great changes remarked at the same time in merchant flows. The creation of the emporion of Gravisca and the construction of the first shrine dedicated to Aphrodite by Greek merchants from the city of Phocaea (now in northern Turkey) is dated back to 580 BC. Phocieans, as the first act of foundation, devoted rich gifts to the goddess, with a unique modality which never occurred again in the sanctuary during ceremonial practices. They included three high-valued objects dating back to the late 7th and the early 6th centuries BC: a luxurious Wild Goat Style dinos of the so-called “eolic” production, presumably made in Phocaea, a valuable bronze cauldron with a beautiful griffin protome and a bronze statuette of Aphrodite armed with a spear and a shield, probably made in Laconia, interpreted as a cult statue.

Around this naiskos, the new archaeological excavations found more than 20 small furnaces to smelt bronze and iron. This important discovery is the key for understanding the nature of the deal made in the sanctuary, the exchange of Etruscan iron with Greek luxury goods, and the reason why the Greeks chose Aphrodite for the cult of the emporion. According to the Greek mentality, Aphrodite, who not by chance was imagined to be the spouse of Hephaistos, patronized the mixis, a word meaning at the same time sexual union and fusion of an alloy.

550 BC marks the arrival of merchants from Samos, a Greek island of the eastern Aegean. Simultaneous to the reconstruction of a larger shrine of Aphrodite, the archaeological excavations show the building of a new structure for the celebration of the cult of Hera. This is the period of increased vitality for the emporion - a copious amount of materials from various centers of the Mediterranean arrived here and were sold under the protection of the deities to reach then Tarquinia and its territory. These included refined products of Corinthian manufacture, precious objects decorated by skilled craftsmen of the Nile delta, laconic ceramics but especially Eastern-Greek pottery and Ionian cups. This trade volume grew exponentially during the mid-6th century BC with the arrival of Attic products in unmatched quantities, even in comparison to other contexts of Etruria. Intermediaries of this trade were Etruscan serfs, sent by the rich principes of Tarquinia, and Greek agents - mainly slaves - of the richest families of Eastern Greece and, towards the end of the 6th century BC, of rich merchants of the island of Aegina. Between the numerous Greek and Etruscan dedications (more than 60 Greek dedications are known), one preserves the name of Paktyes, the Croisos’ treasurer well known from Herodotus, and a second mentions the Aeginetan Sostratos, dedicator of an inscribed marble anchor to Apollo of Aegina, recalled again by Herodotus as the richest of the Greek merchants known to him.

The sacred area of Gravisca
The presence of the emporion very soon became an attraction for the local population, and in the archaic period their aggregation formed the Etruscan city of Gravisca, placed to the north of the harbor. Around 520 BC, a little further north of the more ancient sacred area, a new monumental sanctuary was constructed and dedicated to two chthonic Etruscan deities, Caṿatha and Śuri.

This is the area of the new archaeological excavations of the Perugia University and of the Soprintendenza dell’Etruria Meridionale e del Lazio. It was originally paved with thick slabs of macco stone and divided in two temene, inside of which were two altars: the bigger of the two (δ), only three ashlars of which remain in situ, had to measure about 7.10 x 5.90 m with a rectangular form; the second, smaller altar (ε), measuring 2.26 x 3.26 m, is also characterized by a rectangular base oriented to the south as well. The presence of two escharai, built next to the altars but in the phase previous to their monumental arrangement, supports hypothesizing the preexistence of these sacred spaces dating back at least to the middle of the 6th century BC. The absence of a dedication limited the potential to identify the deities that were worshipped here. However, the analysis of materials and exvoto found in the votive storage between 1994 and 1995 on the northern border of the new sanctuary provides some indication. The examination of donations confirmed the existence of two different deities and suggested distinguishing between a male divinity, recipient of metal offers, and a female divinity, easily identifiable by terracotta objects. The comparison with the Southern Sanctuary of Pyrgi has yielded many similarities. In Pyrgi, numerous dedication inscriptions were found, referring to a couple of deities, namely Śuri, related to the Greek divinity Apollo, and Caṿatha, identified as Persephone. If this comparison applies, the Northern Sanctuary of Gravisca may also be interpreted as a place of worship devoted to these two different local deities, Caṿatha and her male paredros Śuri. They would have been worshipped both by Etruscans and Greek merchants, the first recognizing the deity Persephone, the latter the Greek Apollo in his chthonic form. These two deities were put in charge of foreigners’ integration into the local society.

The end of the Gravisca emporion has to be dated after 480/470 BC, probably as a consequence both of the naval defeat inflicted to the Etruscans in 474 BC in the sea in front of Cuma and of the concentration of commercial activity inside the city of Tarquinia. An important contraction of Greek imports which impacted Etruscan society and gave rise to the application of some restrictions on imported works in Archaic and late-Archaic times, preventing Greeks from residing there, even in a temporarily. At Gravisca, in parallel with the end of the emporion, it seems that there is also an interruption of interactions between beliefs of different faiths, which was one of the peculiar elements of the fluidity that characterized their relationships.

From after 480/470 BC to the last twenty years of the 5th century BC was a period of inactivity as far as the buildings are concerned. It was only in 420 BC that a phase of transformation began that involved the whole sacred area of Gravisca, modifying entirely the appearance of the place. The landscape, which had been previously marshy and uninhabitable, was now organized with a principal road that connected the port to the built-up area and divided the sanctuary into blocks that were occupied by different sacred constructions. To the east, were buildings Gamma (seat of the Heraion and the Aphrodision) and Delta (dedicated to Adonis), and to the west, buildings Beta (devoted to Demetra-Vea), Alfa (related to Apollo-Śuri) and the so-called Northern Sanctuary dedicated to Cavatha. This renovation was preceded by a complete and systematic dismantling of the macco blocks that constituted the altars, and of the slabs that composed the floor of the Archaic Northern sanctuary (its plan has been hypothesized only due to the presence of looting trenches). The new sacred area, rebuilt on the early emporion sanctuary, is now frequented only by Etruscan people, as with other Etruscan and Italic sanctuaries linked to the sanatio and to fertility.

Two further reconstructions of the sanctuary are dated back to the 4th century BC, when a system of drainage canals was built, probably because of a persistent tendency to flooding, with one additional reconstruction at the end of 4th century BC, shortly before the whole sacred area of Gravisca was destroyed when Romans conquered Tarquinia and its land in 281 BC.

This is, in short, the history of Gravisca. The new excavations carried out in the last few years have shed a new light on it. The archeological research also allows us to better comprehend the economic and social modifications that occurred in the Etruscan world during the life of the sanctuary. Before and during the new investigations, geophysical prospecting and up to date techniques, such as UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), and aerial photography, both traditional and near infrared through sensors (RGB) to obtain a NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) were used with the aim of studying the topography of this wide area. A meticulous archaeological approach to the excavation was fundamental to the reconstruction of the original late-6th century BC planimetry and the successive phases of the Northern sacred area, in spite of the poor preservation of walls resulting from the total destruction of this monumental sanctuary.
Lucio Fiorini

Lucio Fiorini is an Italian archaeologist and assistant professor of Archaeological Research Methodology of the Perugia University. His scientific activities, carried out in the last few years and published in national and international publications, are focused in several areas. Since 2006 he has been the scientific director of the archaeological exploration of the Gravisca sanctuary (Tarquinia). This research is focused on the topography of the site and on the study of both the materials, and of cultural, social, religious and economic features. During the last few years, Dr. Fiorini was the head of the excavations in other important Etruscan and Roman sites such as Cerveteri (2003-2004); Gubbio (2003-2005); Collazzone (a roman site near Perugia: 2012-2013), where he developed archaeological projects using the most modern technology for the identification of archaeological remains. He is interested in archaeological field techniques, ancient metallurgical production andits relation to ideology, and in ancient iconography and iconology in relation to Attic figured vase production and Etruscan painting. He took part to the organization of several exhibitions as scientific editor, as the author of papers, and through the cataloguing of archaeological finds.

 (Lucio Fiorini     Perugia University)

(Source: Research Center for World Archaeology, Shanghai Academy)

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