Orientation and Etruscan Ritual

By Aveni, A.; Romano, G. | Antiquity, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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Orientation and Etruscan Ritual

Aveni, A., Romano, G., Antiquity

The cosmology of the Etruscans, like so much else Etruscan, hovers on the edge of historical visibility. By exploring Etruscan temple alignments measured in situ and with the helpful context of the Disciplina Etrusca, factors are found that might affect temple orientation, and connections with the Greek and Roman record are explored.

Orientation studies

Even if the surveyor of a prehistoric structure should be of the opinion that there is 'nothing in' Orientation, still the direction in which the structure is laid out on the ground should be accurately reproduced in the resulting plans, if only in the interests of scientific completeness. Until this is done, the matter will never be settled as to whether, in fact, there is, or is not Orientation in these structures of antiquity; and if there is, wherein it is expressed.


So wrote Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville in volume 1 of ANTIQUITY. Two-thirds of a century later there is as much controversy about the degree of deliberateness involved in the act of orienting ancient structures. This situation is due in no small measure to the unwillingness and/or inability of those who generally pursue these investigations to articulate the relationship between the data they collect and theories of culture. As one archaeologist bluntly put it: these people are 'answering questions, from a social stand point, no one is asking' (Kintigh 1992: 1). 'These people' are the engineers, astronomers and laypersons who have come to dominate and in many instances overtly to popularize the interdiscipline of archaeoastronomy, which pays special attention to the orientation question. Archaeologists often perceive these investigators as a horde of inspired Saturday morning fieldworkers -- who are rediscovering for themselves the sun's daily and annual path across the sky (Judge 1987: 7) and foisting their naive revelations upon the backs and brains of cardboard ancestors of themselves.

To appreciate the outlook of archaeologist and historian on the question of orientation one need go no further than two critical commentaries (Atkinson 1966; Hawkes 1967) written in this journal a generation ago on the scientific intent of the builders who laid out and oriented Stonehenge. Today the issue, though less vituperatively debated, yet seethes. The polarity of views in the archaeological community is expressed either by tacitly going along with it (the minority) or totally ignoring it (the majority). In between, a handful of culture historians have made some attempts to work toward shared goals, asking questions and forming hypotheses about whether orienting buildings might have related to social structure.

In this paper we suggest that orientation is the business of everyone who studies ancient remains; the quantitative scientists' domination of its study might have caused us to forget that astronomical alignment is but one among a constellation of factors (cf. Aveni & Hartung 1986) that served as its underlying motive. We employ the case of the Etruscan temple to illustrate one instance in which both written and archaeological evidence suggest there surely was 'something in it'. And in exploring the richness of possible underlying causes, we attempt to raise (if not fully to answer) some questions that might be asked from a social standpoint, about why our ancient predecessors arranged their architecture as we find it.

Etruscan Greek and Roman architectural planning

The present study is concerned specifically with trying to determine the orientation of the scant remains of Etruscan temples, and to connect these data with what we know about the rules that governed temple rites. Why did the Etruscans place the temples where they did? What motivated their choice of orientation? Was it connected with the deities to whom the temples were dedicated? And what does all of this reflect about Etruscan religious ideology? Only by couching orientation studies in the framework of broad social questions can our studies have any historical meaning.

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