Site History

Vulci (Viterbo, Italy, fl. 10th cent. BCE- 5th cent. CE) was one of the largest and most important cities of ancient Etruria and one of the biggest pre-Roman cities in the 1st millennium BCE in the Italian peninsula. The habitation site is an urban context, uniquely stratified and mostly untouched, that includes Iron Age, Etruscan, Roman and Medieval settlements in the same general area. It covered ~126 hectares and had an estimated population of thousands of inhabitants in the Classical period (6th–5th cent. BCE). It was part of the Etruscan dodecapolis (twelve cities), the Etruscan federation of the most important cities of Etruria.

The only historical information available reports that it was conquered by the Romans in 280 BCE, but only archaeological data can reveal urban features, extension and architectural settings of the pre-Roman and Roman city. Moreover, archaeological excavations in Vulci in the last 60 years were mainly focused on necropoleis and tombs and not on the urban area. This gap in knowledge prevents a correct understanding and interpretation of the city, its social and political life, economy, organization and production.

The concentration of archaeological investigations in funeral areas shows the power of elite classes and their impressive capacity to trade with the Attic region (in Greece), but such investigations misinterpret the social, political and economic aspects of the city. In other words, the entire social body of the city cannot be represented just by aristocratic tombs, funerary art and ritual monuments. Less than 5% of the ancient urban area is known and excavated; no stratigraphic excavation in the city has been published in the last decades. Tourists and park visitors can actually see very few Roman monuments: the East gate, the main E-W road, the great temple (earlier Etruscan and then Roman), the Domus of Cryptoporticus, and the so-called “House of Fisherman” (fig.1). There are no visible and/or excavated Etruscan buildings in the urban area. In short, the production of artifacts, objects, tools, construction materials, and architectural items for the city remains to be studied and analyzed correctly.

Archaeological History: The first modern-age excavations at Vulci began in 1825 by the Candelori brothers, and quickly followed by wider scale excavations by Luciano Bonaparte, the Prince of Canino (Murray 1872; Dennis 1985). These early excavations uncovered dozens of richly decorated tombs, such as the Tomb of the Sun and Moon, in 1830 (Dennis 1985; Riva 2010). Thousands of artifacts were removed from various tombs and sold off to European collectors, enriching families including the Feoli, Candelori, Campanari, and Fossati (Scullard 1967; Dennis 1985). This contributed to a large-scale dispersion of objects and artifacts in public and private collections (for example, in the United States in the Field Museum of Chicago and at the UPenn Museum). In 1857, Alessandro Francois discovered an extensive late-fourth century, elaborately painted tomb. The frescos removed from the tomb were pinnacle contributions to the construction of Etruscan history and identity (Scullard 1967; Torelli 2008). The burial became known as the Francois tomb and remains one of the few tombs from this century whose location did not become lost and which is still open to the public today (Riva 2010). The large burial mound Cuccumella was excavated by Marcelliani between 1879 and 1883 (Scullard 1967; Dennis 1985). While further excavations of necropoleis continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the lack of controlled and systematic excavation in this century and the early 20th century has made the study and contextualization of the uncovered tombs and materials impossible (Dennis 1985; Riva 2010).

Fieldwork during the early 20th century at Vulci, such as Mengarelli’s excavation in 1929, continued with a strong focus on the necropoleis (Mengarelli 1929; Amorelli and Teresa 1987). Excavation continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, ceasing during World War II, but recommencing during the 1950s after Italy stabilized. Bartoccini carried out three years of excavation between 1956 and 1958 to completely uncover the Great Temple, the first and only large excavation inside the city (Bartoccini 1961; Bartoccini 1963; Scullard 1967). Although Bartoccini’s notes are more complete than previous excavations, his unsystematic approach provides only a partial, deficient record. Further unsystematic excavations were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, such as excavation during the early 1980s by German archaeologist Raddatz, focusing on burial grounds and identifying the area of Pozzatella, in the southern part of the Park (Dennis 1985). During the late 20th century, there were numerous topographical and aerial studies of Vulci, including those of Sgubini Moretti and Giorgio Pocobelli (Pocobelli 2004, 2007; Sgubini Moretti 1993, 1997, 2001, 2003). The foundation of a triumphal arch was discovered on the west side of the Roman forum in 2003 and was reconstructed by the Park. Most recent excavations at Vulci have focused by necessity on areas that were either partially looted or damaged by natural forces (tombs and necropoleis). As rescue and largely unplanned excavations, the contexts were disturbed and damaged, which prevented any systematic excavation. In 2011, Carlo Casi, the director of the Vulci Archaeological Park, uncovered more than twenty small graves and tombs and two larger funerary complexes, one of which was called the Tomb of Silver Hands due to the exquisite set of hands made of silver found in the tomb (Regoli 2014). The tomb collapsed a year after excavation due to unstable soil, but thanks to laser scans carried out by the Vulci 3000 team, it was digitally recorded for future generations (McCusker, Forte, 2016).

Throughout the history of excavations at Vulci, attention has been focused on the extensive, and impressive, tombs in the various necropoleis outside the city walls. Despite several series of older excavations within the city uncovering buildings including the Great Temple and the House of Cryptoporticus, there has yet to be a systematic excavation within Vulci’s urban context. By using the extensive excavations of Vulci’s tombs and “cities of the dead” to build a picture of the urban context of the city, a distorted interpretation is created.