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Popular Archaeology: First Ever Etruscan Pyramids Found in Italy

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Archaeologists are scratching their heads about an underground pyramid-shaped structure they have been excavating beneath the historic medieval town of Orvieto in Italy.

“We discovered it three summers ago and still have no idea what it is,” writes Prof. David B. George of St. Anselm College and co-director Claudio Bizzarri of PAAO and colleagues about the site. “We do know what it is not. It is not a quarry; it’s walls are too well dressed. It is not a well or cistern; its walls have no evidence of hydraulic treatments.
Overview of cavità, showing Etruscan tunnel and a locus with large quantities of pottery. Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.
Overview of cavità, showing Etruscan tunnel and a locus with large quantities of pottery. Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.

Calling it the “cavitá” (‘hole’ or ‘hollow’ in Italian), or hypogeum, the archaeologists have thus far excavated about 15 meters down. They marked their third year at the site in 2014. By then they had uncovered significant amounts of what they classify as Gray and Black bucchero, commonware, and Red and Black Figure pottery remains. They have dated deposits to the middle to the end of the 6th century BCE.

“We know that the site was sealed toward the end of the 5th century BCE,” George, et al. continue. “It appears to have been a single event. Of great significance is the number of Etruscan language inscriptions that we have recovered – over a hundred and fifty. We are also finding an interesting array of architectural/decorative terra cotta.”

Excavation on the west wall of the hypogeum near the Etruscan tunnel that connects this pyramidal hypogeum (Room A) with an adjacent one (Room B).

Orvieto has long been known for its scenic medieval architecture. Located in southwestern Umbria, Italy, it is situated on the summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff, commanding a view of the surrounding countryside, and surrounded by defensive walls built of the same volcanic tuff.

Beneath it and in the surrounding areas of the medieval town, however, lie ancient Etruscan and Roman remains, a focus of archaeological investigations and excavations by various teams for decades. George’s excavations have centered on four different sites in the area, two (Coriglia and the Orvieto underground structures) of which will be further excavated in 2015. The Coriglia excavations have resulted in a wealth of finds, including monumental structures such as Etruscan and Roman walls, Etruscan and imported Greek ceramic materials, three large basins dated to the Roman Imperial period, and apsidal structures with associated features related to the management of water for baths or other purposes.

“We are still trying to determine how the structure was ‘killed’ [filled in and then abandoned] – in a short period of time confined over the course of a few months or over a much longer period,” says George, referring to the cavitá.

The subterranean pyramids in Orvieto could offer a unique insight into this civilization as the structures appear to be unique.
The caves have a shape unknown elsewhere in Etruria
According to Bizzarri, there are at least five Etruscan pyramids under the city. Three of these structures have yet to be excavated.
They are not quarries or cisterns.
The underground pyramids could represent some sort of a religious structure or a tomb.
The city of Orvieto has long kept the secret of its labyrinth of caves and tunnels that lie beneath the surface. Dug deep into the tuff, a volcanic rock, these secret hidden tunnels are now only open to view through guided tours. Their spectacular nature has also yielded many historical and archeological finds.
Most likely, the answer waits at the bottom. The problem is we don’t really know how much we have to dig to get down there,” Bizzarri said.

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