Tomb outside the "La Banditaccia" archaeological area; it brings to mind tombs along Via Appia (although the latter were built with another construction technique)
The hillocks, which rise here and there on the wide downs,
are so many sepulchres of princes and heroes of old, coeval, it may be,
with those on the plains of Troy; and if not, like them, the standing records of traditional events, at least the mysterious memorials of a prior age.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days Near Rome - 1875
One must descend the path which turns to the right outside the town, leading immediately under the walls over
some waste ground covered with the Virgin's thistle, and
down a steep path into a ravine (..). Mounting the opposite hill, we find ourselves on
high breezy downs overgrown with sweet basil and violets,
and with a delightful view towards the sea, as well as to
the medieval city rising on its orange crags, half-buried
in bay and ilex. Hare
Then outside (their town) they liked to have a sharp dip or ravine, with a parallel hill opposite. And on the parallel hill opposite they liked to have their city of the dead, the necropolis. So they could stand on their ramparts and look over the hollow where the stream flowed among its bushes, across from the city of life, gay with its painted houses and temples, to the near-at-hand city of their dear dead, pleasant with its smooth walks and stone symbols, and painted fronts. (..) A flat, white road with a rather noble avenue of umbrella-pines for the first few hundred yards.
David Herbert Lawrence - Etruscan Places - Published in 1932, but based on a visit made in April 1927.
Rock-cut tombs and in the background Monti della Tolfa
Many of the tombs were hollowed in the cliffs as in Northern
Etruria, but the largest and most remarkable are burrowed
out of the tufa beneath the upland turf, and are often quite
unmarked externally, but in other cases indicated by a
We pass a door cut in the rock-face. I peep in to the damp, dark cell of what was apparently once a tomb. But this must have been for unimportant people, a little room in a cliff-face, now all deserted. The great tombs in the Banditaccia are covered with mounds, tumuli. No one looks at these damp little rooms in the low cliff-face, among the bushes. So I scramble on hastily, after the others. Lawrence
We must enter the town to engage the "custode" of
the tombs and insist upon his accompanying us, which,
with true Italian love of "far niente", he is not always very
willing to do. Lights must also be taken. Hare
So to the tombs we must go: or to the museums containing the things that have been rifled from the tombs. (..) On a sunny April morning we set out for the tombs. (..) The guide: a youth with red eyes and a bandaged hand. He lost a finger on the railway a month ago. He is shy, and muttering, and neither prepossessing nor cheerful, but he turns out quite decent. He brings keys and an acetylene lamp, and we go through the wire gate into the place of tombs. Lawrence
British Museum: detail of a VIth century BC painted terracotta plaque depicting (left to right) Paris, Hermes, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite; it was found in 1874 inside a tomb at "La Banditaccia"
The first tombs were excavated in the 1830s and some six necropolises were found in the environs of Cerveteri. It was not until 1911 that the Italian State took on itself the responsibility of systematic excavations. In the meantime many tombs had been deprived of their contents by privates who sold them in the flourishing antiquarian market (together with a remarkable number of forgeries). La Banditaccia, the main necropolis opposite the ancient town is now a fenced archaeological area. In 1967 a museum was inaugurated in the castle of Cerveteri to house works of art found in the area.
When we come near we see the mounds have bases of stone masonry, great girdles of carved and bevelled stone, running round touching the earth in flexible, uneven lines, like the girdles on big, uneasy buoys half sunk in the sea. And they are sunk a bit in the ground. And there is an avenue of mounds, with a sunken path between, parallel to the ravine. This was evidently the grand avenue of the necropolis. Lawrence
Eventually the area around the tombs along the main street was excavated in order to reach its original level and where necessary the stone masonry of the tombs was repaired.
Tomba della Casetta (Small House): (left) external view; (right) interior
We went down the few steps, and into the chambers of rock, within the tumulus. There is nothing left. It is like a house that has been swept bare: the inmates have left: now it waits for the next comer. But whoever it is that has departed, they have left a pleasant feeling behind them, warm to the heart, and kindly to the bowels.
They are surprisingly big and handsome, these homes of the dead. Cut out of the living rock, they are just like houses. The roof has a beam cut to imitate the roof-beam of the house. It is a house, a home. Lawrence
In some instances the sepulchral chambers are almost at the same level as the street which increases the impression of visiting houses rather than tombs.
Many of the tombs are worth visiting, but that which is far the most striking is the furthest in the line, the Grotta dei Bassi-Relievi which is often filled with water, and difficult of access. When we first visited Cerveteri, we considered this vast sepulchral chamber, adorned with huge shields and other weapons, sculptured in the boldest relief out of the solid rock, and casting long shadows in the glare of the torchlight, one of the most striking sights we ever looked upon. But during our last visit the tomb was quite inaccessible from the water with which it was filled. Hare
Tomba dei Rilievi: (left) steps leading to the sepulchral chamber; (right) details of the decoration
The deep in the ground location of the sepulchral chamber and the lack of an external round mound makes of Tomba dei Rilievi an exception to the general structure of the La Banditaccia tombs. It is rather similar to those found at Tarquinia. The rich stucco decoration is another element of distinction. From inscriptions we know that nine members belonging to three generations of the Matuna family had their cinerary urns placed in the sepulchral chamber. The Matuna were a wealthy family of Caere in the IVth/IIIrd century BC. The tomb was discovered in 1847 and it became (and still is) the "must see" of the necropolis.
Today it can be seen through a glass, but Lawrence could enter it and listed all its decorative elements:
The tomb called the Grotta Bella is interesting because of the low-relief carvings and stucco reliefs on the pillars and the walls round the burial niches and above the stone death-bed that goes round the tomb. The things represented are mostly warriors' arms and insignia: shields, helmets, corselets, greaves for the legs, swords, spears, shoes, belts, the necklace of the noble: and then the sacred drinking bowl, the sceptre, the dog who is man's guardian even on the death journey, the two lions that stand by the gateway of life or death, the triton, or merman, and the goose, the bird that swims on the waters and thrusts its head deep into the flood of the Beginning and the End. All these are represented on the walls.
Tomba dei Capitelli: (left) entrance (an enlargement showing its corbels can be seen in the image used as background for this page); (right) sepulchral chamber with a pillar decorated with a Corinthian capital
The Romans are said to have learnt the use of arches from the Etruscans who employed them for gates, e.g. at Perugia, but not for the entrances to their tombs. These were closed by corbels similar to the Tombs of the Kings at Mycenae which also had a circular shape. See ancient tumuli, mound-like tombs at Vergina in Greece and in Eastern Turkey.
Tomba della Cornice (Frame): (left) interior; (right) stone "chair"
The central chamber is large; perhaps there is a great square column of rock left in the centre, apparently supporting the solid roof as a roof-tree supports the roof of a house. And all round the chamber goes the broad bed of rock, sometimes a double tier, on which the dead were laid (..). Here lay the family, the great chiefs and their wives, and their sons and daughters, many in one tomb. Beyond again is a rock doorway, rather narrow, and narrowing upwards, like Egypt. The whole thing suggests Egypt: but on the whole, here all is plain, simple, usually with no decoration, and with those easy natural proportions whose beauty one hardly notices, they come so naturally, physically. Lawrence
When we remember the great store of treasure that every notable tomb must have contained: and that every large tumulus covered several tombs: and that in the necropolis of Cerveteri we can still discover hundreds of tombs: and that other tombs exist in great numbers on the other side of the old city, towards the sea; we can have an idea of the vast mass of wealth this city could afford to bury with its dead, in days when Rome had very little gold, and even bronze was precious. Lawrence
Tomba dei Vasi Aretini: interior
This tomb is one of the last to be made at La Banditaccia. It was meant for a large number of dead and therefore it catered for families who could not afford to have their own private tomb. The fact that the pottery found in the tomb came from other Etruscan towns, rather than from Greece and the lack of architectural decorative elements indicate the decline of Caere.
Not far away as the crow flies you can visit the Roman Necropolis of Porto where collective tombs at one point replaced the family ones.
Tomba del Colonnello, one of the oldest tumuli (VIIth century BC); it contains four tombs; it is so named because when it was discovered the mouldings decorating the drum resembled the military grades of a colonel of the Papal Army
There are many tombs, though not many of the great mounds are left. (..) Some tumuli have been levelled, yet the whole landscape is lumpy with them. But the tombs remain, here all more or less alike, though some are big and some are small, and some are noble and some are rather mean. But most of them seem to have several chambers, beyond the antechambers. And all these tombs along the dead highway would seem to have been topped, once, by the beautiful roundness of tumuli, the great mounds of fruition, for the dead. Lawrence
The overall layout of the necropolis with its round tombs is thought to reflect that of the first Etruscan villages with their huts (maybe they resembled Harran in northern Mesopotamia).
Tombs near Tomba del Colonnello
There is a stillness and a softness in these great grassy mounds with their ancient stone girdles, and down the central walk there lingers still a kind of homeliness and happiness. True, it was a still and sunny afternoon in April, and larks rose from the soft grass of the tombs. But there was a stillness and a soothingness in all the air, in that sunken place, and a feeling that it was good for one's soul to be there. Lawrence
By and large the tombs were faced with a local yellowish volcanic stone, but in that shown above the facing was more elaborate because also peperino, a dark volcanic stone and macco, a whitish sedimentary rock formed of calcareous particles, were employed to obtain a decorative effect. Their use can be noticed also in the tombs along Via dei Monti Ceriti which are shown at the end of the page.
Tumulo Policromo: interior
Through the inner doorway is the last chamber, small and dark and culminative. Facing the door goes the stone bed on which were laid the sacred treasures of the dead, the little bronze ship of death that should bear him over to the other world, the vases of jewels for his arraying, the vases of small dishes, the little bronze statuettes and tools, the weapons, the armour: all the amazing impedimenta of the important dead. Or sometimes in this inner room lay the woman, the great lady, in all her robes, with the mirror in her hand, and her treasures, her jewels (see those found at Tarquinia) and combs and silver boxes of cosmetics, in urns or vases ranged alongside. Splendid was the array they went with, into death. Lawrence
See some of the terracotta sarcophagi and of the Greek vases which were found in the tombs.
"Terraced" tombs along Via dei Monti Ceriti
One goes out again into the April sunshine, into the sunken road between the soft, grassy-mounded tombs, and as one passes one glances down the steps at the doorless doorways of tombs. It is so still and pleasant and cheerful. The place is so soothing. Lawrence