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Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time Newsletter: The Etruscan Civilisation

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:30, Friday, 30 September 2011

Etruscan image

Ed's note: We're running the In Our Time newsletter weekly on the Radio 4 blog. You can hear this episode (and the huge archive of previous episodes) on the In Our Time website - PM.

Immediately the programme finished, David Ridgway pressed into my hand a pamphlet for a lecture which will be given at the British Museum on Friday 14 October.

There you have it. Advertising in the newsletter!

But it is germane. It's about the Etruscan book of omens, and called Foretold by Thunder. This book of thunder omens, translated into English, reveals the dynamic and perilous world that was ancient Etruria, from famine to slave revolts. The lecture touches on a supernatural prophet, Mesopotamian astrology, Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, cosmic rays, epidemics, serpents, snide remarks by Cicero and more.

Clearly there's another programme in Etruria. David also unlocked the key to this business of thunder. If it thunders today there will be a drought. If you predict thunder tomorrow things will change for the better. Seems to me, in present circumstances, a very sound bet.

They discussed Herodotus (I'm trying to dictate this while on a stationary train in Euston and the man is repeating instructions for the third time) and Herodotus's now discredited observation that the Etruscans came from Turkey. David said that recently a five hundred page book with about two million footnotes has emerged justifying the statements of Herodotus. This is a territory where there is great knowledge through archaeology and artworks, but huge gaps because of the lack of books.

We failed to get to the matter of cheese-grating. The Etruscans did so into their wine. It turns out that the cheese was Parmesan, and the grater used was the same as graters used today. David had tried this, or rather had tried on him by certain students, each one of whom (there were quite a lot) grated cheese on to wine and asked him to quaff. He didn't like it one bit.

Corinna Riva was worried that we had not dwelt enough on the viticulture, nor on the development of the olive oil industry with the special dates grown in Etruria.

Of course we discussed where the manuscripts or documents might have gone. One of the contributors said that we only have Linear B (Minoan) documents because of an accident. They were written on unbaked clay. The house burned down. The clay baked. The words remained.

And the best we have from the Etruscans is again an accident. It comes from words on a cloth which was wrapped around a mummy.

Back to the language. There's some talk that the Etruscan language is the remains of a Neolithic language, maybe the first European language.

I asked them what they thought of DH Lawrence and his observations and there was much shaking of heads, and then there was quite a lot of agreement that he had got to the quick, as he might say, of the matter. Although David could not refrain from saying that one of his students had written that DH Lawrence's Etruscan writings are as reliable a guide to Etruscan life as Lady Chatterley is to gamekeeping (I haven't read it recently but the gamekeeper, as I remember, was quite convincing and Lawrence in a few sentences could certainly sketch in what a gamekeeper did outside the house).

The thing they liked most about Lawrence was the photographs which he put in his book. These were provided him by his wife Frieda, who was friends with German archaeologists who had got to key places before everyone else, and so it seems these photographs are amazingly useful and resonant. David, though, also had the good nature to say that his late Sardinian father-in-law had read DH Lawrence on Sardinia and found that he had been absolutely right about that place.

I might say that once when I was rather marooned in a remote place in Mexico, I thought that his description of Mexicans and the intensity of the Mexican-Indian culture was all around me.

And so out into the boiling sunshine, carrying two cases on my way this evening to Cumbria, hence on this train in Euston, by way of the office and the studios (the train DJ has started up again), by way of Dean Street where I made a guest appearance for Listen Against, on to lunch to discuss a book on the history of television news, and then to see a rough cut of the first part of the class and culture documentaries I'm doing for BBC Two.

And now to Carlisle, listening with delight to every station along the way and the precise time we're supposed to arrive there, but remembering the other night, back on this same train, I was four hours late.

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time


  • Comment number 1.

    Now how about Tartessos & Rio Tinto?
    The 1st W European civilisation, a 5,000 yr old mine, & a river of red water that gave its name to a modern multinational.

  • Comment number 2.

    Lawrence was a great travel writer and his series of books on Italy,Sea and Sardinia,
    Twilight in Italy and Etruscan Places,show he had a canny knack for getting this people right.The Etruscans spring to life in his pages,he bemoans their tragic fate to
    be subsumed beneath the machine of Imperial Rome.They had been attacked by both the Celts to the north and the Romans to the south.Funny enough I trust his recreation of this colourful,mysterious people.There was an ancestral symbolism in the descent of the collier’s son into these underground places(tombs) on the stuccoed walls in reds,blacks and yellows-dancers,hunters,bulls and lions.Lawrence loved the Etruscans who were both a ‘dark’ people and a sun people.To him they had no false literary culture and lived in the phallic consciousness,knowing the ‘everlasting wonder of things’.But the Romans with their money-lust and their worship of great sewers,had ruined the Etruscans,turning them into ‘fat and inert Romans’.It’s a shame that such modern writers like Richard Miles devote only 1 line of a 289 page book on ‘Ancient Worlds’ to this magnificent people.Its strange no one has translated their non-Indo European language.Some of the Etruscans may have sailed from Western Turkey as refugees,but the Villanovans themselves were blessed with vast mineral wealth and encouraged by the Greek and Phoenician merchants themselves,acquired the trappings of oriental civilization through trade. The tombs best show the Etruscan genius and wealth.The finest are mounds covering a burial vault as in the cemeteries of Tarquinia and Cerveteri.The vaults may be elaborately frescoed with scenes from life,mythology or the rites associated with death.We find feasts,dancers,wrestlers or the soul being carried off bydemons. A more remarkable tomb at Cerveteri shows walls covered with stucco reliefs of everyday objects.This was a well treated subject.


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