Posted By Zoey T. Posted On

Unlocking Secrets: Archaeologists Unearth Significance in Etruscan-Roman Cemetery with Peculiar Burials in Corsica.

In southern Aléria, on the island of Corsica, a homeowner planning to build a new house discovered that dozens of people already resided there — in a massive ancient cemetery dating to Etruscan and Roman times.

Archaeologists Laurent Vidal and Catherine Rigeade with INRAP (Institut National de Recherches Archéologique Préventives) have headed the Aléria project since June 2018, uncovering a remarkable number of well-preserved skeletons from Corsica’s ancient history. The excavation has so far covered 2.5 acres of land just east of the ancient city, called Alalia by the Romans.

Located on the easternmost part of Corsica, modern Aléria has just 2,000 occupants, but was a key coastal town with habitation dating back to the Neolithic period. It was, at different times in history, colonized by the Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, and Romans. After Alalia was sacked by the Vandals in 465 AD, it did not fully recover as a city until the mid-20th century when malaria was eradicated.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, archaeological work at Aléria has revealed vestiges of the ancient Roman town as well as quite a lot of earlier evidence of Etruscan occupation and maritime trading networks. An Etruscan necropolis in Casabianda dating from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC was discovered, which boasted hundreds of burials with grave goods of jewelery, weapons, bronze, and ceramics. A later Roman cemetery was found in these early archaeological investigations as well.

Today, work by INRAP is ongoing in Corsica in order to “allow us to shed light on our understanding of the ancient occupation of Corsica, and more precisely the diverse exchanges with the Mediterranean world that highlight their extraordinary wealth,” project personnel announced in a press release put out this week.

The recently uncovered cemetery is somewhat unique: there is a significant density of well-preserved tombs that were used over the course of several centuries, from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Many tombs are complex, with brick walls, roofs, and numerous grave goods.

Aléria archaeological site. Stairs to the hypogeum can be seen in the middle of the excavated area. © R. Haurillon, Inrap

Archaeologists were in for a surprise, however. In the deepest layers of the cemetery, they found a hypogeum. This underground tomb structure consists of a staircase that leads down into, presumably, a massive chamber underneath the earth. The hypogeum has actually not yet been excavated, with the earthen stairs tantalizing the archaeologists.

“These graves are likely to accommodate several dead,” archaeologist Laurent Vidal told the Corsican news outlet Corse Matin, and “because of the expense that was required, they were reserved for people of high social standing in the local society – not necessarily a member of the elite, but perhaps a prosperous merchant.”

The structure may date to the 5th-4th centuries BC because of ceramics found in the area, Vidal said. It was a key time period, when the Corsican coast was fought over by the Etruscans and the Greeks. The presence of an Etruscan-style hypogeum is therefore of great importance to understanding this culturally complex time. Further, a discovery of this nature hasn’t been found on Corsica in half a century and “its importance is considered exceptional within the western Mediterranean,” the INRAP press release notes.

Skeletons discovered at the site may also help shed light on Corsica’s past. Bioarchaeologist Catherine Rigeade, who is in charge of the human remains, told Corse Matin that “the techniques we use have obviously evolved significantly from those used in the 1960s.” From osteological identification of biological sex to DNA analysis and disease identification, Rigeade plans to employ 21st century techniques to the human skeletal elements.

The bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletons will be very welcome, as several of the burials appear to be anomalous or what European archaeologists sometimes call deviant. One INRAP photo depicts a possible double burial in which the people are positioned head-to-foot and one of them is face-down. Another photograph reveals a stone-lined tomb that appears to have been too small for its occupant — whose legs are missing below the top of the thigh bones. Osteological analysis seems to be ongoing at this time.

Elena Varotto, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Catania in Sicily not involved in this project, agrees that the burials and the hypogeum are important. “Through the implementation of a full set of anthropological analyses, it may shed light onto the biological history of this population, particularly during an important time of historical transition for the island,” Varotto told me by email. She also also speculates that “the good state of preservation of the skeletal remains could help anthropologists decipher ancient lifestyles and health conditions.”

Excavation and research in Aléria are ongoing by INRAP, which carries out hundreds of archaeological projects each year in France and abroad, making it the largest organization in the field of European archaeology. Results of the Aléria project will be disseminated to the public following analysis and interpretation by INRAP archaeologists.