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									The virtual museum invites visitors to a treasure
hunt in tombs that are 2,500 years old

In the tombs of the Etruscans
Only the small buildings scattered around the landscape of central Italy, and partly acting as obstacles
for farmers and their tractors, give any hint of the treasures still slumbering under the fields here. The
huts protect the entrances to burial chambers a few metres below the surface of the ground which the
Etruscans had hewn in stone and decorated with beautiful paintings. Soon these burial chambers will
be on view in a virtual museum.


The Etruscans lived before, alongside and later under the Romans in the area which today is called “Toscana” after
their Latin name, “tusci” (Info 1). Today the Etruscans are still a puzzle to researchers, as their own literature is as
good as lost and their Greek and Roman neighbours and enemies only wrote about them in hardly credible
propaganda, which in some cases was clearly distorted. Archaeologists seeking to research the Etruscan culture
depend primarily on the preserved tombs. Here they find compensation in the form of partly opulent, highly detailed
wall paintings that not only show festive drinking sessions, musicians, dancers, mythological scenes and mythical
creatures, sports contests, fishing and hunting scenes, but also provide information about everyday life and
celebrations, society and trade relations, fashion and luxurious interior design (Fig. 2).

There are about 180 known painted Etruscan tombs, including 150 near the town of Tarquinia, around 100
kilometres to the north of Rome. They date from the period between the 6th and 2nd century B.C. “They are of great
value to us, because the paintings also show the development of the rites, the history of the buried persons, the
vessels used and much more throughout this 400-year period”, explains Dr. Cornelia Weber-Lehmann, head of the
Department of Antiquities of the art collections of the RUB, who has been researching into Etruscan culture for
around 30 years and is considered worldwide to be an expert in this area.

However, the prime items of evidence are at risk: “It will only take an earthquake or an inrush of water following
heavy rainfall, and once again part of the world cultural heritage will be irretrievably destroyed”, Dr. Wever-
Lehmann continues. And even if it never quite comes to that, the tombs are still not safe. As soon as they are
discovered and opened, a threat is posed by tomb raiders who not only steal artefacts but even loosen and remove
parts of the wall paintings, along with fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels. Mass tourism also leaves its
mark: part of the necropolis in Tarquinia is open to the public. Visitors are allowed to go down into the tombs,
although they now have to make do with the view through a glass pane which protects the paintings and keeps
visitors outside the actual burial chambers.

These problems – the endangering of the tombs on the one hand, and on the other the wish to nevertheless make
them accessible to a large public – led to the TARCHNA project funded by the European Union in its CULTURA 2000
programme (Info 2).

The aim of the archaeologists and IT specialists involved in the project is to create a virtual museum which gathers all
the information and documentation about the Etruscan heritage in the form of pictures, texts and films. “This is the
only way to let visitors see the graves from the inside. They can enter the virtual burial chamber, turn around and
also look at the door wall, peer into the alcoves and take a close look at the paintings”, Cornelia Weber-Leh-mann
describes the possibilities.

These comprehensive visualizations are based on hundreds of tracings that have been taken from the Etruscan wall
paintings and stored in Bochum. Over a period of ten years, draughtsmen led by Dr. Weber-Lehmann, and funded by
the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute), the National Geographic Society and the
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), have traced the 2,500 years-old paintings on the
walls of the burial chambers onto foils measuring about one meter in width and, in some cases, several metres in
length (Fig. 3). A complicated procedure reduced these original-sized drawings in size without any distortion and true
to scale, then put them back together again in digital form for TARCHNA, producing an impression of the burial
chambers which is true to the original (Fig. 4).

The permanent documentation is also beneficial for research: while the numerous illustrated books about the
Etruscan tomb paintings always show the same less well preserved tombs and scenes, now for the first time a
complete, reliable and easily legible recording of the material is available, including the highly faded, sintered,
fragmented parts, which even specialists have to study long to discover the original contexts. Furthermore, it also
offers the major advantage of being easily adapted by each individual researcher to his individual questions. For
example, if the researcher is interested in the composition of the paintings in a room or on a wall, he can select a
large format but less detailed view. But if he is particularly interested in the angle in which the handles are fastened
to the bodies of cups or dishes, then he brings exactly this section of perhaps originally only a few square
centimetres onto his screen and can proceed with his specific measurements. “I would go so far as to say that our
tracings even let us draw conclusions about how thick the Etruscan painters’ strokes were and how they wielded
their brushes”, enthuses Weber-Lehmann, while at the same time qualifying this: “But here we will have to wait and
see what the experts say, as up to now questions of this kind have scarcely been examined in Etruscology as there
simply was not enough material available.”

As well as viewing the burial chambers, which open at a mouse click, museum visitors can also click to obtain
additional information about a work which they are currently admiring in, for example Paris, Berlin or Copenhagen,
as part of the rich Etruscan collections put together primarily in the 19th century. What‘s even more important,
TARCHNA also enables museum visitors to view an isolated exhibit from a specific collection against the history and
culture of its region of origin. The so-called “narrations”, short texts about the specific object, have been put
together by specialists, translated into several languages, and combine a general understanding with profound
knowledge.

The technical basis of the virtual museum consists of several decentralized databases filled by the Etruscan
specialists with texts and pictures on Etruscan objects and monuments. The TARCHNA engine, a server configured by
the project‘s IT specialists, offers access to the contents via a clearly organized user interface. Users don‘t even
notice that decentralized data collections are involved. Access is possible via the information terminals in museums
and also using a PDA when visiting those tombs in Tarquinia that have been opened to tourists.

Thanks to Bochum‘s involvement, as from autumn 2007, one of the info terminals will stand in the antique
department of the art collection at the Ruhr-Universität, long before they are available in the Louvre, the Pergamon
Museum or in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek. “We will then see whether the veil surrounding the “Secrets of the
Etruscans” can be raised a little bit higher”, says Dr. Weber-Lehmann summarizing her efforts to make the results of
her highly specialized research activities accessible to the broad public by using modern media. “At any rate, the
fascination of the Etruscans will continue to increase in future, not least given the “pan-European” dimension of
their rediscovery and reception in the 18th and 19th century. Let us not forget the great success of the exhibition
funded by the EU: “The Etruscans and Europe”. Even the Council of Europe and the Commission have obviously
rediscovered the Etruscans as a kind of “Early Europeans” – ironically just at a point in time where modern genetic
research is providing initial evidence that they may not have come from Italy but immigrated originally from Turkey.”

Contact: Dr. Cornelia Weber-Lehmann, Archäologische Wissenschaften, Fakultät für Geschichtswissenschaften,
cornelia.weber-lehmann@rub.de

								
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