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Women of Etruria

Through March 2017

Carnelian scarab with a scene from Greek myth, the Suicide of Ajax. One of a set of five, each with a different image. Fourth to third century BC. Kelsey Museum 93459

A new display at the Kelsey highlights the lives of Etruscan women. Etruscan women had a distinct status in the ancient Mediterranean world. The richly furnished tombs of upper class Etruscans indicate that women and men were treated as equals, in contrast to their Greek and Roman contemporaries.  Etruscan women also enjoyed liberties that were denied women elsewhere.  Paintings in Etruscan tombs frequently feature well-dressed women eating, drinking, and dancing in the company of men. Through marriage alliances women secured their family’s wealth and power, and by bearing children they guaranteed the continuity of their clan. Women also took part in religious cults both as priestesses and worshippers. They especially patronized cults of goddesses of fertility, love, death, and rebirth. The objects on display relate to three aspects of an Etruscan woman’s daily life: personal adornment, banqueting, and religious practices.

This exhibit was prepared by students in Professor Elaine Gazda’s class on Etruscan Art and Archaeology (Fall 2016) who selected the theme, did research on the objects, and participated in designing components of the display: Leah Bernardo-Ciddio (skyphos), Sheira Cohen (bucchero kantharos), Alexandra Creola (scarabs and installation design), Zoe Jenkins (installation design and text panel), Ariel Regner (miniatures), Ellen Seidell (fibula  and text panel design), and Emily Lime (kylix). 

Adornment

Ancient writers claimed that Etruscan women were renowned for their beauty and, along with Etruscan men, a taste for luxury.  Both women and men were buried with multiple pieces of jewelry, some of extraordinary lavishness. A common form of jewelry was the fibula, used to fasten cloaks and other garments. While fibulae were made by specialists in metalworking, garments were made in the home from cloth produced by women.

Another item of personal adornment in this exhibit is made of scarabs. Small stones in the shape of scarab beetles were popular in Ancient Egypt. They were used as magical amulets, personal seal stones, and jewelry. Scarabs have also been found in Etruria, probably introduced there through trade. The carnelian scarabs shown here are carved with scenes from Greek myth and other subjects that their Etruscan owner probably knew well. 

Banqueting

Etruscan women dined and drank wine with their husbands, a practice that was regarded as scandalous by the Greeks and Romans. In addition to paintings with scenes of banqueting, tombs of Etruscan women and men were often furnished with equipment for dining and drinking. Etruscans envisioned the afterlife as an eternal banquet in the company of the ancestors of their clan. Three of the pottery vessels on display here were used for serving or drinking wine. They were probably found in tombs.  A skyphos used for mixing wine and water, was made by a Faliscan craftsman. The Faliscans were controlled a region adjacent to Etruria and had close cultural ties with the Etruscans. 

Religious Practices

The Etruscans were known in antiquity as exceedingly devoted to religion. Both men and women practiced various forms of divination to determine will of the gods. Statuettes of men and women holding offerings are common and show that women participated in religious cults along with men. Worshippers dedicated votive offerings at temples to ask or to thank the gods for divine favors. Offerings of gifts were also given to deceased family members who, upon death, gained divine status.  Miniature sets for dining, drinking and pouring libations are among the offerings found at temples and in tombs. 

Etruscan Timeline

Villanovan Iron Age, 900-720 BC

Orientalizing Period, 720-575 BC

Archaic Period, 575-480 BC

Classical Period, 480-300 BC

Hellenistic Period, 300-100 BC