About the Etruscan Literacy Project

Developmental Literacy
Etruscan Literacy






















Background to the Project

Central Italy in general, and Etruria in particular, is a key region for the study of literacy in Italy. It was the first region to adopt writing from Greeks and Phoenicians, and to adapt it to local purposes. The early date of the introduction of alphabetic writing poses interesting questions about possible connections between literacy and the social, economic and political changes which resulted in the development of state/urban societies in the region. Whereas Developmental Literacy in early Italy aimed to examine the impact of literacy on societies which adopted writing as a secondary phenomenon, taking it from neighbouring populations which were already literate, the project proposed here aims to look at a key area of primary development, in which writing is adopted from external sources and at an earlier stage of development.  Further to this, analysis of the Developmental Literacy database has demonstrated that there is considerable variation in the adoption, usage and social context of literacy, even between societies at a similar stage of development and in close contact with each other, and sometimes even between individual communities in the same region.  This strongly suggests that further work is needed on other areas, especially those areas which are central to the earliest development of writing in Italy. To enhance the study of variation in the development of early literacy in central Italy, we will study not only Etruria itself but also the neighbouring areas in which Etruscans settled and with which they had close contact (principally Latium, Campania and Umbria).

The Evidence

The evidence for literacy is diverse, comprising inscriptions on durable materials such as metals, stone and terracotta, and a wide variety of artefacts such as pottery, loom weights, metal vessels, tombstones and personal ornaments. In addition, Etruria is one of the few areas of Italy for which there is non-epigraphic evidence for literacy and for the wider culture of writing. Visual representations of reading and writing, and the archaeological survival of writing implements of various types, such as styluses and writing tables, are found in significant quantities, and attest to the importance of literacy in Etruscan society. There is a body of traditional grammatical and philological work on the inscriptions, but these studies rarely take account of the archaeological context, and the wider social background. Since the quantity of written material from the regions is very large, the project will focus on evidence for the period from the earliest development of writing to approximately the early 4th century BC. In addition to keeping the sample size manageable, this will allow us to focus on a specific phase in the development of Etruscan society, which underwent significant social changes and changes from the 4th century onwards. This would create methodological difficulties in drawing comparisons in the uses of literacy between the later and earlier evidence.

Project aims

The primary objective of the project is to develop an understanding of the social context of literacy in Etruria, from its earliest development to approximately the beginning of the 4th century BC. The project will seek to build on the studies mentioned above by undertaking a more comprehensive and fine-tuned chronological and geographical survey of the early inscriptions from Etruria. It will also attempt a more systematic survey of the wider culture of writing, studying items related to writing and other evidence such as visual representations of writing in tomb-paintings, sculpture and locally-produced vase-painting. By comparing different types of evidence for writing and literacy, it should be possible to reach some more secure conclusions about the introduction and diffusion of writing, and its social context.

Our second objective is to contribute to the development of theoretical accounts of ancient literacy and its impact on society, in particular in the context of early Italy. There has recently been considerable interest in the development of literacy in early societies amongst anthropologists, archaeologists and historians working on many early societies, but only relatively recently have scholars attempted to apply this theoretical work to early Italy.

Finally, the project will aim to use the study of literacy as a vehicle for examining cultural differentiation within Etruria. There has been a strong trend in Etruscan studies to regard the region as a cultural unity in Antiquity, but in fact, there are major differences within the region (and especially between north and south Etruria) in culture, in economic development, in contacts with areas beyond Etruria, and in urbanisation. By examining possible differences in the establishment and usage of literacy between various parts of the region, or between major centres, we hope to shed further light both on differentiation within Etruria and also differences between the Etruscans and their central Italian neighbours, such as the Latins or Campanians.

The complexity of the social context of literacy in Etruria is illustrated by the contrasting results obtained by two short but influential studies (Stoddart and Whitley 1988; Cornell 1990) and a recent book (Bagnasco Gianni 1996), which reach very different conclusions about the extent and uses of literacy in central Italy. Stoddart and Whitley argue, on the basis of the epigraphic evidence, for a very restricted culture of writing in early Etruria in which literacy was confined to (and controlled by) a very small elite, while Bagnasco Gianni puts forward a model in which literacy is female-dominated and domestic in its early stage but is rapidly transformed into an elite, male-controlled, activity. Cornell, in contrast, argues for more a widespread – but still elite-based – literacy on the basis of visual and literary evidence. In particular, he argues for a different methodology, moving away from a purely epigraphic approach and taking into account a wider range of literary, visual and artistic sources. This project aims to explore these hypotheses and to expand upon them. In particular, it aims to develop methodologies to examine Cornell’s hypothesis more systematically and at greater length. On a wider level, we will address some key questions about the nature of Etruscan culture and identity in the archaic period. The distinctive language of the Etruscans has had the effect of conferring an impression of cultural unity on communities throughout Etruria, which is in serious need of revision. We hope to use this project to examine the connections between patterns of literacy and the formation of state-societies in central Italy, including the variations in these patterns within Etruria. This will allow us to examine the significance of such variations for our understanding of ethnic/cultural identity of the region. We also wish to examine any differences between Etruria itself and areas of Etruscan contact or expansion such as Bologna/Marzabotto, Latium, and Campania, in order to understand better the role played by writing and literacy in culture-contact and diffusion at this date.  Specific (inter-related) research questions to be addressed include:

  • How widespread was literacy in archaic central Italy and  was it restricted according to class, occupation or gender?

  • For what purposes was literacy used (both those we can document and those we may perhaps infer from the evidence available) and how can we characterise literacy in our case study? Who were the writers? Who were the readers? What outcomes were expected from the act of writing?

  • Can regional, local or site-specific patterns of literacy be recognised and can these be correlated with other patterns documented archaeologically, to suggest associations with either developments in socio-cultural complexity (e.g. state formation) or ethnic/cultural identity?

  • What was the nature and role of contact with areas of other literacies within Italy (e.g. Greeks, Phoenicians and other Italic peoples), and what was the nature and role of contact with areas without independent literacy within Italy, especially as related to the Developmental Literacy project?