Etruscan women

Ostentatious display and social power

I hope to write a number of pieces for Ancient World Magazine about women in pre-Roman Italy over the next year, so consider this the first of a much more ambitious project.

Joshua R. Hall

This article deals with the evidence for the social power, or perhaps social presence, of women in Etruria. Chronologically, it is limited in focus to between the end of the eighth century and the middle of the sixth century BC. This era is often referred to as the “Orientalizing” period, due to the ever-increasing number of imported goods from the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean.

It was a period of change in central Italy, especially in the area that would become Etruria in later vocabulary. The great Etruscan cities began growing out of the slowly synoecizing settlements of the preceding centuries. Burials dating to this period have provided evidence for an increasingly complex social system and provide some of the most striking artefacts (see in general, Riva 2010).

This article explores how women, essentially elite women, may have expressed their social power, or, in more common terms, their social standing.

Evidence from tombs

Within the milieu of Orientalizing Etruria emerge a number of burials that underline the importance of women within this society. High-status females were often interred with similar items to their male counterparts, such as banqueting equipment and sacrificial or ceremonial knives.

Alongside these items, though, were elaborate and, subjectively, beautiful jewellery. Of all surviving elements of day-to-day Etruscan life, this may be the most spectacular, and may have been the most telling marker of status for women (De Puma 1987; Martelli and Gilotta 2000, pp. 462-472; Gaultier 2013).

Jewellery is an easily displayed social-marker. It can be worn on the body, the hair, or the clothes (especially in the case of fibulae) and seen by anyone at anytime when the wearer is out-and-about.

Dental appliances

Perhaps to be classed as a type of jewellery are the dental appliances which have been found in Etruscan burials (cf. Becker 2013). Whether or not they belonged to buried women is difficult to say, because, unfortunately, most of these were discovered before the advent of modern archaeological practices and were removed from their original contexts entirely.

The earliest of these devices that has been securely dated came from Tumuls C, tomb XVIII at Satricum, roughly 630 BC. It consists of a simple band of gold, meant to be attached to the adjacent teeth, and a fake gold tooth cold-welded into place where the original was missing. Many of the examples of Etruscan gold dental appliances were meant to replace teeth which were missing. The example from Satricum is the only one with a replacement tooth made of gold, though, with others, such as the two examples to be found in Liverpool Museum, have carved replacement teeth.

Some of these devices were not intended to make up for lost teeth, but to reduce the effects of malocclusion. An example of this comes from the skull of a teenage girl, discovered in Perugia, which held a gold band, with no replacement teeth, but seems to have been meant to keep the existing teeth in place. Occlusal problems may have been common in Etruscan society, although from my understanding further analysis (and perhaps simply more examples of Etruscan jaws) is needed (Corruccini and Pacciani 1991).

Those devices used to replace missing teeth were often made to replace those removed purposely. The ritual process of removing teeth, for either religious or social reasons, is called by modern authors “evulsion”. This practice is not uncommon in pre-historic cultures worldwide, and has a precedent as far back as the Neolithic Period in Italy (Robb 2007; Skeates 2005, pp. 87-119; Broodbank 2013, 219, 616 n. 69). Tooth evulsion in Orientalizing Etruria played right into the hands of an elite that loved to display its position and wealth.

Copy of an Etruscan denture (source).

When teeth were removed in Etruria, they were typically the central or the lateral incisors. They were then replaced by fabricated teeth attached using an ornate gold bridge. This position at the front of the mouth is quite important, as it allowed those who were close to the wearer to see the intricate and ostentatious qualities of the device. The development of these dental pontics must have been driven by elite desires, and considerable effort was put into designing them perhaps even spurring on a technological leap in terms of gold purification.

The Bracciano device

The Bracciano appliance, now housed in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, has been analyzed for its gold content using X-ray fluorescence (XRF). This process involves directing a stream of short-wavelength X-rays at an object which causes the target atoms to ionize, ejecting a near-nucleus orbital electron, and giving off a characteristic wave of radiation. Recorded and analyzed, this radiation allows us to describe in exacting detail the elemental composition of an artefact.

The limitations of XRF analysis are quite apparent, however, in that it is unable to penetrate the surface of an object. Results from XRF analyses only reflect the elemental content of 0.01mm–0.1mm into the depth of the surface (Becker 2003 has lamented the limitations of this type of analysis). If the analysis of the Bracciano device is correct, though, it shows that Etruscans were putting considerable effort into refining gold to be used in these dental pontics. The median gold content fell between 97.2 and 97.6%, with median silver content falling between 2.1 and 2.2%, while median copper content was between 0.6 and 0.7% (cf. Becker 2003).

Natural electrum, the alloy of gold and silver found in natural deposits, typically contain between 20 and 40% silver, although the lower range can drop down as far as 5% (cf. Vaûte 1995; Ramage and Craddock 2000). Analysis of Etruscan jewellery samples has shown they usually have a gold content around 70% and silver just below 30% (27-28%; cf. von Hasse 1976; Parrini et al. 1982).

If the Bracciano device can be taken as a norm, though that is problematic (Menconi and Fornaciari 1985, p. 94; Becker 2003, p. 20), then it shows the considerable investment in resources and, especially, labour that went into their creation. It is also evidence for a technique of purifying gold that was thought to have developed in Lydia during the reign of Croesus, and only afterward filtered throughout the rest of the Mediterranean (Ramage and Craddock 2000).

Ostentatious display

All of this was done in the creation of a piece of ostentatious display that would have rarely been visible. The principle times of visibility would have been when the wearer was either speaking or eating. Thus, the setting in which these dental pontics would have been most effective as a marker of wealth was in the well attested elite banquet. The banquet was an important aspect of Etruscan elite social life. (On Etruscan banquets generally, see Rathje 2013.)

The earliest evidence for this type of behaviour is the scene depicted on top of the Montescudaio Urn. Dated between 650 and 625 BC (based on stylistic elements), it was found near Volterra, near the modern town of Montescudaior, in the early twentieth century (Magi 1969). On top of this biconical urn is sculpted decoration showing a seated figure, a standing figure, a large mixing vessel, and a table covered in what is typically interpreted as foodstuffs (Tuck 1994, pp. 617-618). A slightly later representation of a seated banquet, similar to this one, can be found in the Tomb of the Five Chairs, at Cerveteri (Tuck 1994, p. 618).

Eventually, the seated banquet of Italian origin was replaced by the Orientalizing and Hellenizing banquets which took place on reclining couches, often mislabelled as an Etruscan symposion (Delpino 2000). The practice of dining on couches became a typical motif in art throughout the Etruscan world. Banqueting scenes such as this are depicted on a wide range of objects, from decorative terracotta plaques ordaining buildings to paintings on the interior walls of tombs. This was a social ritual in which elites were able to gather with peers and display their wealth through a number of means. This display is a reflection of the well-being of this group.

The consumption of wine, most likely not exclusive to the banquet, was one of the most visible elements of this during the Orientalizing period. The popularity of drinking at Etruscan banquets was enough that the Greek game kottabos made its way into their practice. Consumption of meat was a similar means of expressing the social standing of the host, or perhaps participants, in these feasts. This is a common form of a “war of wealth”, which in some societies forced elites to serve particular dishes or types of food at banquets to maintain their status (cf. van Wees 1998; 2011).

Etruscan women and social power

And this brings us back to our original discussion, the expression of social power amongst Etruscan women in the Orientalizing Period. If hosting and attending banquets was a requirement for being considered within the “elite”, then it provided an ideal realm in which they could compete to express their wealth and social power.

Two of the most dramatic ways of doing this have been discussed above, and were used by women. The wearing of ornate jewellery is a means of expressing social position which is still used today. Etruscan women wore earrings, necklaces, braelets, and other items which were no less carefully crafted, nor mesmerizingly beautiful, than that worn by modern movie stars or singers. More interestingly, though, were the gold dental implants which were worn by women in place of forcibly removed teeth. Unlike jewellery, which would have also served its purpose in wider social settings, these oral appliances would have been most effective in the most intimate of settings.

Both of these types of display are evidence that Etruscan women during the Orientalizing Period were active outside of the house and had a social presence of their own. And it is with the dental devices that we are able to draw a parallel with another highly competitive society, that of the Classical Maya, who also practiced a form of cosmetic dentistry (cf. Demarest 2004, p. 295). Using obsidian tools, they drilled into the enamel, but not into the dentine, and inserted jade or gems.

These two practices should likely be seen as similar to the modern “art” of “grills”, popular in certain pop-culture groups in the Western world. These displays of wealth are used today for the same purpose, to show the owner’s extreme, and perhaps obscene, wealth. In our age of cameras and instantaneous transmission via television and the internet, “grills” can have an effect in almost any setting. But with these technologies not being available to an ancient Etruscan woman, the purpose of their dental implants must have been in more intimate social settings.


I would like to add that the burial equipment of Etruscan women is not entirely reflective of a “social life”. Items which emphasize the stereotypical domestic role are common, such as loom weights. Spectacular amongst these are the ornate and expensive distaffs made from precious metals found in Etruscan and Italic female burials. They probably did not see regular use, but were used as elements of elite display (Gleba 2008; 2011).

While these could have been carried day-to-day, they may well have been manufactured specifically for the grave, or perhaps for display in the home, and show that we cannot overestimate how detached Etruscan women were from their more oppressed Roman and Hellenic neighbours.

Finally, I would like to thank the audience at the 2014 UWICAH colloquium at Gregynog who heard and commented on some of these ideas which were expressed in a larger paper. I also need to thank, again, Dr Guy Bradley, Cardiff University, who delivered this in my absence, as I was speaking at another conference.