ETRUSCAN ENGINEERING & AGRICULTURAL ACHIEVEMENTS


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Introduction

All Etruscan Engineering knowledge was inextricably entwined with the disciplina etrusca and the core of Etruscan religion. When I said that to a modern day engineer, he laughed and said, "What do you mean- They built something, then prayed that it would work ?"

Like many peoples of the time, including the Celtic druids for example, rituals passed down from the dark and distant past formed an intrinsic and essential part of the knowledge base for all walks of life. If it is accepted that the Etruscans origined in Asia Minor, then their forefathers would have come in contact with numerous ancient civilisations going back as far as the dawn of civilisation itself in Mesopotamia.

The rituals of Etruscan religion have much in common with the ancient Sumerian and later Akkadian civilisations. The examination of livers, and the assigning of sectors of the liver to sectors of the cosmos was one such common theme.

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Land Improvement

The Etruscans had a deep knowledge of Hydrology and hydraulics, a knowledge which they put to good use in their many land drainage schemes. The lower lying portions of Rome such as the area between the Capitol and Velia was formerly marshland. Settlement of the low-lying ground would never have been a possibility without the hydraulic engineering skills of the Etruscans.This took place around 625 BCE when, according to archaeological evidence a network of drainage channels was dug through the marshy ground, and at the same time, the stream that separated the two hills of the Capitoline and Palatine was regulated, its embankments were strengthened, and it was finally covered over.

That remarkable structure, the Cloacha Maxima, which is still functioning today is the outlet of an underground canal which runs for some six hundred yards from the Forum and keeps it dry by collecting the water that flows down the Quirinal and Viminal. Pliny the Elder in his "Natural History" talks of "the public sewers, a work more stupendous that any; as mountains had to be pierced for their construction……Navigation had to be carried out beneath Rome….It is said that Tarquinius made these sewers of dimensions sufficiently large to admit of a wagon laden with hay passing along them"

Nowadays, the sewer systems of Rome are taken for granted.

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Knowledge of Geology

At Viterbo, where the remains of Etruscan Surina lie, the underlying rock is perforated by innumerable channels, devised to drain the ground. Their construction shows that the builders had an incredibly detailed knowledge of the local geology. Below the topsoil lie volcanic formations of tufa, and beneath that again, a deeply fissured layer. A modern report reads " The deep layer is saturated with moisture from the subterranean outflow of the crater lakes. The topsoil absorbs all the rainwater. The surplus from the two layers passes into the middle layer from which it cannot evaporate and which remains permanently wet. The land was only dry and healthy as long as water was removed from this absorbent layer of Tufa". Investigation has shown that it was precisely through this layer that the Etruscans drove their cuniculi, as the drainage tunnels are called.

This knowledge of hydraulic engineering was also put to good use in regulating river flows, in preventing the silting up of harbours, and in providing a complex system of reticulated water for public use. This has long since fallen into disuse, although traces of the pressurised water systems have been found in recent times.

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The Ancient City of Spina



Over the centuries the belief lingered on that here had been a great, wealthy, powerful commercial city that dominated the mouth of the Po and the shores of the Adriatic, a city of luxury and splendor, a kind of ancestor and predecessor of Venice, founded more than a thousand years later.

Classical scholars also knew about Spina, for ancient literary sources indicated that there must once have existed a thriving maritime trading settlement of great economic importance, until the Celtic invasion of the Po valley destroyed it. Pliny the Elder refers to Spina in his Natural History. Strabo, the Greek geographer who lived in Rome at the beginning of the Christian era and wrote the seventeen books of his Geography, had seen with his own eyes the "village" which in his time was all that remained of the "anciently celebrated" city.

In the Renaissance, Flavio Biondo, the archaeologist and historian from Forli, was the first to look for the lost city, and since then the question of its history and whereabouts has more than once intrigued scholars and whetted their scientific curiosity. They knew, in a general way, where to search. Somewhere in the region where the Po over the centuries has pushed its deposits of sediment farther and farther into the shallow sea, in the desolate, strange wilderness of lagoons that stretches along the coast as far as Ravenna, somewhere under the sand and mud, under the brackish water or the barren marshes, Spina must lie. But the great question remained—Where exactly along this extensive stretch of coast should the search begin?

It was only in this century, in the quite recent past, that an unusual clue was found. At the beginning of the twenties, museum officials and antique dealers were driven to a surprising
deduction. They realized that there must be people who had some how managed to tap a rich source in ancient Spina, because other wise it was impossible to explain how Greek vases and Etruscan bronzes kept turning up on the black market for antiques. An army of snoopers was set in motion, the police and customs officials were roped in to help. But the result was nil; nothing was discovered about the source. Nobody suspected how the illegal diggers pursued their clandestine and highly profitable trade within range of numbers of official observers, and under the eyes of the police. As it later turned out, the diggers were in fact fishermen. They lived at Comacchio, an ancient little town on a wide lagoon, some nineteen miles north of Ravenna. The shallow waters of the famous vault with their marshes and seabirds, which stretch far and wide all round the little fishing town, provided a bountiful "hunting ground." Eels are the principal catch, and the fishermen quite openly and officially went out to fish for eels in the traditional way. In their shallow-draft flat boats they glided slowly over the wide waters, armed with their traditional harpoonlike lance. This, they discovered, could be used to fish up not only eels, but also the much more lucrative, indeed highly valuable painted vases. Just one of these would bring in more than months of laborious fishing of the ordinary sort. Thus, in complete secrecy, a profitable vase fishing industry went on, and no outsider noticed anything. After all, why should anyone see anything unusual in eel fishers going out at night?

It was by chance, as the result of an administrative measure for quite different purposes, that one day the authorities got on the track of the Comacchio fisher folk. The government had decided
on the draining and reclamation of the troublesome flooded areas. No sooner had the work begun in I922 than there was a surprise discovery in the Valle Trebba, about four miles west of Comacchio. The workmen came upon a vast necropolis, and what they dug out—the first legal archaeological finds—revealed the site of ancient Spina.


Under the supervision of Enrico Arias, director of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Ferrara, the contents of the first graves were dug out. When scores upon scores of magnificent vases were found, it suddenly became clear why the people of Comacchio had so vigorously opposed the land reclamation scheme. They feared that it would rob them of their main source of income, the vase fishing grounds which had proved so profitable.

Soon Professor Arias's assistant, the young archaeologist N. Alfieri, was put in charge of the excavations, and he quickly recognized that these burials differed from those in Tuscany. He found no imposing tomb chambers, no sarcophagi or stone funerary urns. And instead of grave stelae, the sand yielded only smooth slabs of rock.

For all that, the grave goods were rich and splendid. The votive gifts of 1,213 graves were recovered before the campaign was interrupted in I935. They included Etruscan bronzes and gold jewellery—and imported Attic vases dating from the sixth to |fourth century BCE The glass cases of the Ferrara archaeological museum rapidly filled up with the unexpected treasures from the Valle Trebba. It seemed that the great goal, Spina itself, could not be far away. So large a necropolis, with such richly furnished graves, could not be all that distant from the city whose inhabitants had been buried there for centuries. But this assumption was not confirmed until work on the and reclamation scheme was resumed after an interval of eighteen years. In an area hitherto submerged under the waters of the Valle Pega, a second and equally large necropolis was discovered in I954. A further 1,810 graves yielded up their treasures of pottery and bronze, all the various articles of luxury and daily use which reflect the life o f the Etruscans. It seemed certain that Spina must lie somewhere between the two cemeteries. The final key to its ultimate discovery came from aerial photography. Some The photographs taken for the purposes of land cultivation schemes solved the centuries-old puzzle. This bird's-eye view of the northeastern edge of the Valli di Comacchio showed something unusual. Underneath the white lines of the modern drainage channels of the reclaimed area appeared a ghostly network of dark lines and light rectangles. Alfieri realized at a glance that the spectral dark lines indicated vegetation growing taller on the site of ancient canals and thus revealed the layout of the buried city. Not only the precise topographical situation was clear; even before the soil was touched by a spade, the town plan could be studied. The Insulae, the blocks of the individual houses could be resolved in the aerial photograph. And thus was discovered the ancient city of Spina, but it was no longer on the Adriatic coast.


Remeains of a palisade at Spina

Deposits of silt and sand from the Po over half a millennium had pushed the coast forward, and Spina, like Ravenna to the south, was far inland. When Strabo wrote his Geography in the first century CE, Spina was already "ninety stadia," some ten miles, distant from the coast. From the main channel of the Po the ramifications of a system of waterways spread out over the countryside. Pliny, who, as the commander of a fleet, may be presumed knowledgeable on such matters, says that this system was "first made by the Tuscans, thus discharging the flow of the river across the marshes of the Atriani called the Seven Seas, with the famous harbor of the Tuscan town of Atria which formerly gave the name of Atriatic to the sea now called the Adriatic." The "Seven Seas" mentioned by Pliny were lagoons, separated from the open sea by sandbanks.        Amid this chain of lagoons the Etruscans made new canals to act as auxiliary branches of the P o. They constructed cross-connections between the individual lagoons, and then further connections between the former. The most northerly of these canals, the "Philistma,' led to Atria. Thus an extensive system of inland waterways was constructed along the coast. As late as the time of the emperor Vespasian, says Pliny, galleys could still travel from Ravenna to Etruria.
        
Etruscan hydraulic experts contrived to do what seemed impossible, namely, to confine the wide river at Spina to its continually rising bed. They did this by means of the artificially constructed branches of the river and the canals. Even when "the melting of the snows at the rising of the Dogstar causes it to swell in volume," as Pliny puts it, this system carried the annual floods away into the lagoons and the sea. By this means they mastered the terrible inundations, with their dangers to land and people, which even now still occur in the region. "The masterpiece of their hydraulic know-how," says Mario Lopes Pegna, "was their abolition of the periodic scourge of floods in the lower reaches of the Po. This was a gigantic undertaking. Accomplished by digging a whole network of coordinated canals, and at the same time damming the river with caissons or brushwood. much further afield.

As well as Hydraulic engineering, the Etruscans were masters of a number of other branches of knowledge, including metallurgy and dentistry to give two examples. The Island of Elba was the source of much of the Iron and copper ores which contributed to the wealth of Etruria. The Island of Giglio also had copper mines, and the tools of the ancient miners were found when the mines was briefly re-opened early in the 20
th Century.

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Agriculture




Soon after about 700 BCE, the Etruscans commenced large scale land improvement schemes, including drainage, land reclamation and irrigation of drier areas. With this treatment the land flourished. Mario Lopes Pegna, the Italian Etruscologist says: "The Etruscans were the first to tackle and solve the problem of land improvement, and did so by a series of technical operations so ingenious as to arouse admiration even in our days. A complicated skillfully constructed network of canals collected surplus and stagnant water throughout Etruria and Latium. These waters were then channeled to wherever they were needed for farming purposes, and any excess still remaining was carried in big drains down to the sea....... The Etruscans first developed the technique of dry farming and applied it to the arid soils of the Maremma hills"

From about 700 BCE onwards, fruitful groves, fields and gardens began to replace tracts of forest, swamps and impenetrable thickets which transformed the region.

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