The banquet is over, the dining equipment is stowed, and the warriors sleep on in this Etruscan dining room, yet the evocative signs of a lively scene draw the viewer into the ancient world. These evocations of an Etruscan banquet—from the cushions to the drinking equipment to the armor hung on pegs on the walls—are situated firmly in the funereal sphere, one that is replete with reminders not only of life but also of death. In tomb interiors we find some of our most important and compelling evidence for an understanding of the first millennium B.C.E. world of the Etruscans.
The Tomb of the Reliefs (Italian: Tomba dei Rilievi) is a late fourth or early third century B.C.E. rock-cut tomb (hypogeum) located in the Banditaccia necropolis of the ancient Etruscan city-state of Caere (now Cerveteri) in Italy (a necropolis is a large, ancient cemetery). The tomb takes its name from a series of painted stucco reliefs that cover the walls and piers of the tomb chamber itself. Unlike some of its neighbors that are covered mounds of earth (tumulus-type tombs), the Tomb of the Reliefs is of the rock-cut type and was excavated at a considerable depth in the bedrock, approached by a steep dromos (entranceway). This elite tomb once accommodated several dozen burials and is located, likely not by accident, close to an important tumulus-type tomb from the earlier Orientalizing period.
The plan of the tomb is roughly quadrangular. The entire tomb and all of its features have been carved from the bedrock (a type of volcanic mudstone known as tufo). The central block of the room, supported by two piers, is flanked by a series of niches for burials that have been styled to resemble the dining couches (klinai) of the ancient world. Decorative pilasters with volute (scroll-shaped) capitals separate the niches one from the other (see image below).
The tomb’s bas relief (low relief) decoration consists of carved bedrock features that have been stuccoed and painted. The decorative schema evokes the interior of an aristocratic house that is prepared to host a banquet / drinking party. The provisions for banqueters include cups and strainers hanging from pegs. The soldiers’ armor—shields, helmets, greaves (protective armor for the lower leg)—has been stowed by hanging it from pegs. The pilasters are also decorated, with the items depicted including a range of tools and implements as well as the depiction of a small carnivore, perhaps a weasel.
Beneath the central niche of the rear wall we find an allusion to the afterlife. There, under the side table we find, in relief, the hellhound Cerberus and an anguiped (serpents for legs) demon—perhaps the Etruscan god Charun who conducted the souls of the departed to the afterlife? This central niche, equipped with footstool, may have been intended for the male and female heads of the family.
The Matunas family is identified as the owner by way of an inscribed cippus (a small pillar). The inscription reads “Vel Metunas, (son) of Laris, who this tomb built.” A locked strongbox included in the relief may be meant to represent the container for storing the records of the family’s deeds (res gestae).
The Tomb of the Reliefs is unusual in the corpus of Etruscan tombs, both for its richness and for its decorative scheme. The Matunas family, among the elite of Caere, make a fairly strong statement, by means of funerary display, about their familial status and accomplishments, even at a time when the cultural autonomy of the Etruscans—and of Caere itself—had already begun to wane. The funeral banquet remains an important and vibrant theme for Etruscan funerary art throughout the course of the Etruscan civilization. This convivial and festive rendering demonstrates to us that the funeral banquet not only sent the deceased off to the afterlife but also reinforced ties and status reminders among the community of the living.
Essay by Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker
H. Blanck and G. Proietti, La Tomba dei Rilievi di Cerveteri (Rome: De Luca, 1986).
O. J. Brendel, Etruscan Art. 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)
M. Cristofani, “Le iscrizioni della tomba dei Rilievi di Cerveteri,” Studi etruschi 2 (1966), vol. 34, 221-238.
M. Cristofani, “I leoni funerari della tomba dei rilievi di Cerveteri,” Archeologia classica 20 (1968) 321-323.
S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization: a Cultural History (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2000).
F. Prayon, Frühetruskische Grab- und Hausarchitektur (Heidelberg : F.H. Kerle, 1975).
S. Steingräber, Abundance of Life: Etruscan Wall Painting (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2006).
J. M. Turfa, ed. The Etruscan World (London: Routledge, 2013).
Want to join the conversation?
- What is the best way to cite this page as an MLA source?(8 votes)
- The MLA formatting would be as follows:
Becker, Jeffrey A. "Tomb of the Reliefs." Khan Academy. SmartHistory, n.d. Web. 08 July 2015.(15 votes)
- There is something endearing about the way Etruscans link tombs to the most cheerful of activities--a banquet. Thanks so much for showing us this.
I am wondering if the deceased were laid out on the stone "couches" or if the area below was the actual sarcophagus. I would seem strange (to the modern mind at least) to have the family traipsing down into the tomb, at intervals, to put a recently dead loved one among the others, out in plain sight in varying states of decomposition.(4 votes)
- The deceased were indeed laid upon the carved funeral beds. In some cases the remains of long-dead ancestors might have been collected in order to make space for new depositions.(4 votes)
- How do you pronounce "greaves"?(2 votes)
- It more or less rhymes with "leave", or for a homophone, "grieve."
...more or less. Your accent may differ.(3 votes)
- What are the dimensions of this space? And how deep is it under the ground?(3 votes)
- The main tomb chamber measures ca. 7.66 x 6.50 x 2.65 meters. The hypogeum has been cut into the bedrock to a considerable depth.(3 votes)
- Who excavated it?(2 votes)
- I was just wondering, Why are the numbers or years such as 750-500 B.C.E .
Why is 750 first and not the small number 500(1 vote)
- In our calendar system, years run in the following order:
3 B.C.E., 2 B.C.E., 1 B.C.E. 1 C.E. 2 C.E. 3 C.E...all the up to this year...2015 C.E. For more on our quirky system see our short essay: Common questions about dates, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history-basics/beginners-art-history/a/common-questions-about-dates(3 votes)