A wooden chair from Verucchio shows a hut upon which are perched humans or birds.Show The so-called throne from Verucchio can be found in P. von Eles (ed.), Guerriero e sacerdote. Autorità e comunità nell’età del ferro a Verucchio. La tomba del trono (2002). These could represent gods, ancestral spirits, or other supernatural entities who were meant to protect the hut in life and the deceased buried within a miniaturised version in death. It is unclear if all huts would have been crowned by these figures, and it is possible that those belonging to persons of a lower social standing may not have been given such protection.
A difficult question to answer is why were the remains of certain individuals buried in hut urns rather than the more common urn? The answer may be found in the structure of Latin and Etruscan society at this time, which was centred around the family.
At the head of these kin structures was a figure typically referred to as the pater familias by modern authors. This is a Roman term known to us from much later literary sources, but the idea is simple and is probably not far from the situation in the Early Iron Age. The pater familias was a male elder who directed the affairs of the family. If their position in later Roman society can be used to measure their power in earlier times, they held considerable sway over the other members of their kin group.Show The importance of familial groups can be seen, for instance, at Osteria dell’Osa; cf. A. M. Bietti Sestieri, The Iron Age community of Osteria dell’Osa (1992).
Although in the Early Iron Age familial groups were very important, it was also a period of dramatic change in settlement patterns across Central Italy. The foundations of the later large cities of the region, such as Tarquinii, Veii, and Vulci, were coalescing into urban centres from groups of independent villages, a process known as synoecism. (See also Matthew Lloyd’s recent article on Andros.)
Thus, conflicting with the importance of familial groups was the rise of the civic group, although at this point the term “civic” may be stretching the strength of this particular identity. The use of hut urns may have been a reaction against this amongst elite families as a means of maintaining their familial identities.
Tension between these two sources of social power, familial and civic, would continue into the early historical period. Even as the cities of Etruria and Latium underwent the processes of urbanisation, kin groups still maintained their importance. This is reflected in burial practices through the continued use of domestic forms, such as urns shaped like later, rectilinear, houses.
This tension is even recorded in the early history of Rome, in which powerful families, most famously the Fabii, were so strong that they could field their own armies. Thus, the hut urns of the Early Iron Age were a symbol of a social organisation that would continue to be used until, perhaps, the fourth century BC. Their importance in our understanding of how familial and civic power and identity interacted in Etruria and Latium should not be underestimated.
I have avoided using the term “Villanovan” as a cultural descriptor for the culture of Etruria in the Iron Age. The so-called Villanovan Culture was identified as the peoples who inhabited Central Italy before the emergence of the historical cultures of the Etruscans, Latins, and, to an extent, Umbrians. It was based on the material culture found in Villanova, a town outside of modern Bologna, in the nineteenth century.
While it is still helpful in some circumstances, I believe it to be a problematic term that leads people to see artificial boundaries in the cultural development of early Italy, especially of the Etruscans.