Team led by MCLS professor makes significant discoveries at an archaeological excavation in central Italy

Important discoveries were made at an archaeological excavation of an Etrusco-Umbrian necropolis in central Italy this July.  Sarah Harvey, Ph.D., a professor of Classics in the MCLS Department at Kent State University, is currently co-directing the project with Prof. Gian Luca Grassigli of the University of Perugia, with the support of archaeologists Stefano Spiganti and Francesco Pacelli and a team of university students.  

The excavation site is located close to the modern town of Montecchio (Terni province).  Originally discovered by Domenico Golini in 1855, the necropolis of the Vallone di San Lorenzo is extensive, with over fifty chamber tombs discovered since the nineteenth century.  The tombs date between the late seventh/early sixth centuries B.C. to fourth centuries B.C., at which time the necropolis seems to have gone out of use.  Excavations by the archaeological superintendency took place in the last half of the twentieth century. 

The current project began in 2017 with the excavation of a typical chamber tomb, discovered in a field adjacent to the main nucleus of chamber tombs.  Further excavation has taken place from 2019 onward, with a two-year hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

In 2019 a remarkable tomb designated as Tomb R2 was discovered. It was a different type of tomb, built with large, dry-laid travertine blocks, and, although robbed in antiquity of its most precious artifacts and damaged by flooding, it nevertheless contained extensive grave goods which attest to a family of high social rank, with political and religious power.

In 2022 several other tombs were discovered, including two tombs just to the East of Tomb R2.  One consisted of a chamber containing the skeleton of a horse lying on its left side, which is the first horse burial discovered at the site.  Directly south was an equally unique stone “cassone” (chest) tomb, which contained painted whole vessels and female ornaments, but was likely robbed in antiquity of metal artifacts. 

Sarah Harvey & Colleague excavating an iron sword

                                          Photo Details: excavating an iron sword found within a chamber tomb in 2022 (photo credit: S. Spiganti)

The excavation this year revealed yet another type of tomb, two fossa (trench) tombs.  Both of these tombs are to the east of the aforementioned tombs, and may, judging from the somewhat earlier preliminary dating of the ceramics, represent a more ancient section of the necropolis. 

The tombs both contained human bone and a remarkably large quantity of artifacts, in particular ceramic vessels, but also iron and bronze items, worked bone, and cut stone.  Painted vessels (miniature incense stands) as well as a special vessel with a hole in the bottom used for libations were discovered. 

The significance of these two new tombs provides more insight into the identity of the population, which is undetermined due to the lack of written sources.  Fossa tombs are more often a characteristic of the pre-Roman central Italic people groups such as the Umbri, with chamber tombs more characteristic of the ancient Etruscans. 

The diversity of tomb types in this border zone between ancient Etruria and Umbria is in itself a very exciting discovery, tying into the opinion of many scholars that the Tiber River Valley was a highly interactive zone, as the Tiber River was an essential trade and supply route across the Apennine Mountains to both the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas. 

Harvey has been creating three dimensional models of the excavation site and some of the restored artifacts using a method known as photogrammetry.  Linked is a model of Tomb R2 during the course of excavation, as well as a model of a ceramic artifact found within Tomb R2.  The latter is a reconstructed Attic Greek Black Figure “eye cup” decorated with painted scenes featuring the ancient Greek god Dionysus.    

Tomb R2 during the course of excavation in 2019

                                                                                                                           Photo Details: Tomb R2 during the course of excavation in 2019 (credit: S. Harvey)



The archaeological superintendent for the region and municipality of Montecchio are very enthusiastic about the most recent excavations and the plans to continue work in this area of the necropolis, which has a great potential for significant discoveries, and which works to enhance Montecchio’s cultural heritage and increase their touristic potential.  The project is very grateful for their support, as well as the support of the University of Perugia and Kent State University.

Harvey recently presented the results of the excavations at the Archaeological Institute of America annual conference in January, as well as at an event on July 30 “La strutturazione del silenzio” in the local museum at Tenaglie (a hamlet of Montecchio).  Publications on the excavations and artifacts include articles in Etruscan News, as well as The Journal of Fasti Online, and a forthcoming article in the Bollettino di archeologia online.     

POSTED: Wednesday, October 4, 2023 11:41 AM
Updated: Thursday, November 30, 2023 12:17 PM