The tumulus of the Regolini-Galassi tomb

22 Aug

Most of this blog up till now has been devoted to the inside of the Regolini-Galassi tomb? The tomb however was located under a burial mound or tumulus, which we want to show also in the 3D interactive visualisation in Amsterdam and Leiden.  So we need to think about the probable form and looks of this tumulus.


Entrance to the Regolini-Galassi tomb (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

Today, there is very little that remains of the Regolini-Galassi tumulus (see image above). In the 19th century however, there must have been remains of the tumulus still to be seen.  Mrs. Hamilton-Gray describes in her book Tour to the sepulchres of Etruria in 1839 on pg. 330-332 “…and were told that this field had once heen a tumulus like those at Monterone, but that the top was now beaten down, whilst the bottom was raised up. It had been broken to pieces, in order to search in all directions for graves, and its pristine form was gone. I do not know its real name, and therefore I shall call it Monte Regulini. By its side stood several other hillocks, which had once been regular tumuli, but which are now all more or less destroyed.”  She continues the description of her visit to the tomb: “As we descended, we came upon a wall, probably about three feet high, and similar to what we had seen at Monterone, only more finished.” and “The wall had a coping-stone, very neatly worked, and the basement row of stones were much higher and wider than the other rows.”  In other words, it looks like much of the surrounding wall of the tumulus was still present in 1838.

She describes the discovery of the tomb as follows: “The ArciPrete had ideas of his own upon the subject, gained by experience. and by following out which, he came upon one of the most extraordinary discoveries of modern times. He excavated from the top until he arrived at a slope, which by steps had led down to a massive stone door towards the centre of the hillock; this he broke, and behold he had gained the wished-for prize!”  This description already gives us some elements that are useful in the virtual reconstruction of the tumulus.  She describes and sketches also the entrance to the tomb as she had seen it during her field visit in 1838.

Canina and Grifi must also have seen this wall around the tomb and came up with the following reconstruction and ground plan of the RG tumulus. Surprisingly, they don’t indicate the door.  Maybe the complete absence of of remains of the wall at the entrance (as sketched by Mrs. Hamilton-Gray) brought them to not depicting it.  Seen the above information, we can consider the horizontal dimensions of this reconstruction and the position of the tomb within the walls to be fairly accurate.

RG tumulus Canina

Proposed reconstruction of the Regolini-Galassi tumulus by Canina (1846)

plan of RG tumulus by Canina

Ground plan of the Regolini-Galassi tumulus by Canina (1846)

The RG tumulus was covered by a larger tumulus that allowed more burials (presumably from the same family) and was part of a larger necropolis at Sorbo, Cerveteri.  A reconstruction of this necropolis was made by Canina.  In the image below, we see a series of tumuli (that were described by Mrs. Hamilton-Gray) at Sorbo, but also the more known necropolis of Banditaccia (uttermost left) and the Etruscan city of Caere (now Cerveteri).

An evocation of the Sorbo necropolis at Cerveteri by Canina (1846)

Canina made several other reconstructions of Etruscan tumuli, all very similar (see for example the reconstructions of tumuli in Tarquinia). These reconstructions however raise several issues.   First of all, many of these tumuli are highly decorated, although there is only a limited amount of evidence for that. However, Canina depicted the RG tumulus as undecorated, which is probably the safest bet for an early tomb like the RG one.

Secondly, the steepness of the tumulus (51 % at the RG tumulus above) is too high for most soil types to remain stable.  A more conservative estimate is 35-40 %, depending on the soil type and on the presence of grass and vegetation.


Reconstruction drawings of tumuli at Tarquinia by Canina (1840)

Thirdly, it is quite unsure if the form of the tumulus was a nearly pure cone, over 2000 years of erosion has altered every Etruscan tumulus we know today. Maybe the form of the tumuli was much more hemispherical and closer to what we see today (see images below)?


Tumuli at the necropolis of Cerveteri

One reason to believe so can be found at the necropolis of Monterozzi at Tarquinia, where older cinerary urns from the Villanovan culture already have a hemispherical form (see image below) that could have been copied into the later Etruscan tumuli.


Cinerary urns at the necropolis of Monterozzi at Tarquinia (1000-750 BC)

Another possibility is a truncated cone.  Although Silbury hill in Avebury, England is much older (2400 BC), much bigger and comes from a quite different context, it gives us an idea how such a tumulus could have looked like.

Silbury hill

Silbury hill (England)

Above, we already raised the issue that we have no information on the door of the RG tomb (except for the description of Mrs. Hamilton-Gray above).  Nevertheless, it was quite possible that the RG tomb had a door, like nearly every other Etruscan tomb (see image below).  The alternative is that the the entrance was closed by a continuation of the wall  around the tumulus, so that in fact no entrance was visible after the funeral.  This would not only make it much more difficult for looters to find the entrance to the grave, but also resembles the Egyptian approach where no entrances where visible to a pyramid.


Tumulus wall and prominent tomb entrance at the necropolis of San Cerbone in Populonia

Recent research by CNR-ITABC has shown that it is currently very difficult to find out on site how the entrance looked like, more detailed archaeological research is needed. From this research, it looks also like the original floor was more or less level, probably with a few steps when entering.  This is consistent with the eyewitness report from Mrs. Hamilton-Gray (see above) who noted from Regolini “…which by steps had led down to a massive stone door…” but also that no steps were visible anymore when she visited the tomb (which is consistent with this CNR investigation that at the entrance there is currently one meter of deposit of earth, as the floor of the tomb is lower than the terrain).

Many Etruscan tombs today show stairs that seem to go up the mound (see image below).  Probably some rites or sacrifices were performed on top of the mound.  Therefore, the idea of a tumulus in the form of a truncated cone could make sense.


Tumulus B at Cerveteri

Many of those stairs however seem to lead to a platform first and then probably go up the mound.  This is the case in most tumuli that have such a structure attached (see images below).


Tumulus at Cerveteri


Tumulus (7th century BC) at Cerveteri

At the Mellone II tomb in Sodo, Cortona, such a separate platform was found intact in 1990, connected to the tumulus.


Stairs and terraced altar at the Melone II tomb and tumulus at Cortona (6th century BC)


Reconstruction drawing of the Melone II tumulus in Cortona (drawing: Cortona museum)

As the cremation of the princeps most probably happened next to the Regolini-Galassi tomb, it is conceivable that this happened on a special place at the tumulus, such as on the top or on a connected platform.  So it is conceivable that such stairs and/or platform need to be added to the 3D model of the tumulus.

This blog is part of the Etruscanning project, that is been funded with support from the European Commission. This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


2 Responses to “The tumulus of the Regolini-Galassi tomb”

  1. Augusto August 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Hi everybody, just a test.

  2. C. van Eykelen October 13, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    Wonderful, all this is so interesting, now even more thanks to digital techniques. I recently moved to Tarquinia and live at a few minute’s walk from a necropolis and several tumuli. I hope to visit the exhibitions when I go to the Netherlands in November.

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