A Brief History of Poggio Civitate

The 2019 field season marks the 54th successive year of archaeological exploration at Poggio Civitate (Italian for “Hill of the Civilization”) located in central inland Tuscany. Excavation began in 1966 under the direction of Dr. Kyle M. Phillips, Jr. of Bryn Mawr College. Work continued under the direction of his student, Dr. Erik Nielsen, and is currently lead by Dr. Anthony Tuck of UMass Amherst. The excavations have brought to light a large volume of material from distinct phases of Etruscan occupation. A brief summary of this work is provided below.

Orientalizing Phase – Seventh Century BCE


While Poggio Civitate's Piano del Tesoro preserves traces of Iron Age occupation that may extend back into the ninth or tenth centuries BCE, the site emerges in the early seventh century with a well-preserved complex of inter-related monumental buildings. The first building of this Orientalizing Complex (OC1), a Residence, was uncovered in 1970.  This building was elaborately decorated with a sculptural program in terracotta and appears to have served as the residence of a family of regional social prominence. Recovered from the floor of OC1 were cooking equipment, a banquet service of imported Greek and locally produced fine wares, bone, antler and ivory inlays that once decorated furniture, and numerous objects of personal ornament and everyday use. Based on the dating of the Greek pottery from the building indicates that the building’s destruction occurred around the end of the seventh century BCE. Other ceramic evidence, somewhat more controversial, suggests that OC1 may have been constructed some time in the second quarter of the seventh century BCE.

In the early 1980s along the southeast flank of Piano del Tesoro, excavations revealed the presence of another building contemporary with OC1, Orientalizing Complex 2 (OC2), that clearly served as the site's primary area of industrial work during the seventh century BCE. Curiously, this building was also elegantly decorated with terracotta sculpture and was substantially larger than the OC1. OC2 was pavilion in form and housed numerous types of manufacturing activity including bronze casting, bone and antler carving, terracotta manufacture, ceramics production, food processing and textile manufacture. This building is currently the earliest known example of such a multifunctional workshop in Central Italy. Despite the number of products this site produced, virtually nothing manufactured at Poggio Civitate has been found at other sites in the region. Excavators now believe that OC2 was intended primarily to support the community of Poggio Civitate itself and perhaps the surrounding hinterland, with virtually all production being locally consumed rather than exported to other sites.

From 1996 through 1999, excavation immediately to the south of the residence revealed the presence of a third building of this complex - a large tripartite structure now referred to as OC3. Although much of the building was destroyed in the subsequent building of the later phase of the site, enough of the floor plan was preserved to allow excavators to reconstruct a building with a large central cella flanked by two chambers precisely half the dimensions of the central room. Both the building's tripartite form and examples of luxurious inscribed vessels found resting on the floor of the central cella suggest this building may have been an early example of a temple, making it one of the earliest examples of monumental religious architecture in Italy known to date.

All three of the buildings of the Orientalizing Complex were destroyed in a single fire that appears to have been accidental. While there is little certainty on this point, it is remarkable that the day the buildings burned down, workers in OC2 were manufacturing roofing tiles and had placed several on the floor to dry in the shade of the roof. In the panic of the unexpected fire, workers fled and stepped on the drying clay and their footprints were fired into the floor.

Archaic Phase – Sixth Century BC


The aftermath of the conflagration that destroyed the seventh century complex, the survivors appear to have combed through the destruction to salvage anything of value. Then, the debris was scraped to level and flatten the plateau in preparation for the construction of a massive four-winged building enclosing central and southern courtyards. Each wing was sixty meters in length and a western defensive work extended that façade an additional thirty meters. Like the buildings of the earlier complex, this structure was also elaborately decorated with terracotta sculpture that sat along the pitch of the roof. In addition, frieze plaques were nailed to exposed wooden beams, a sculpted lateral sima system ornamented the courtyard while gorgon antefixes decorated the building's perimeter.

This remarkable building, far larger than any known in the Mediterranean for its time period, has been the subject of considerable debate. Speculation as to its function has lead to such theories as a political meeting hall, a religious sanctuary, a palazzo and even an Etruscan version of an agora. Currently, the excavators believe that the building combined the functions of the disparate structures of the earlier phase into a single edifice, dating to the early sixth century BCE.

Perhaps the most enigmatic feature of the building involves its final destruction. Based on the latest pottery from the site, some time shortly after the middle of the sixth century BCE, the building was dismantled. The statuary was removed from the roof and smashed, the fragments separated and then buried in pits around the perimeter of the building. The walls were knocked over and the site was never reoccupied.

Vescovado and the Later Phases


Evidence of occupation around Poggio Civitate has long suggested communities on hills such as Vescovado di Murlo, Lupompesi, Murlo, Castelnuovo Tancredi and Montepescini. Chamber tombs dating from the fourth to third centuries were found in Vescovado di Murlo in 1960 and a ceramic kiln Hellenistic in date was discovered during road construction in 1970. In 2006, excavators were given permission to further explore the area around the Hellenistic kiln. This work revealed traces of domestic architecture contemporary with the kilns as well as sporadic evidence of occupation contemporary with the at least the Archaic phase of occupation of Poggio Civitate.

This evidence suggests that not only did ancient occupation of the region continue after the final destruction of Poggio Civitate, but also that the monumental buildings of the site did not stand in isolation. Rather, they can be considered a nucleus of a broader community, with the elites of Poggio Civitate at the center of a dispersed population clustered around the hill.


Work in 2019

The 2019 field season will continue our exploration of the western edge of the plateau locally known as Piano del Tesoro – the Plateau of the Treasure. Recent excavation in this area revealed traces of the earliest known example of monumental palazzo employing a tiled terracotta roofing system in the region. Further to the west, excavation uncovered traces of a village contemporary with the site’s elite domestic structures. The 2019 field season will explore the relationship between these monumental buildings and the site’s non-aristocratic population.