Castel Di Decima Grave 359

A step closer to the Museo Nazionale Romano’s new section on the origins of Rome.

Opulent, still unexcavated graves are wrapped away behind the scenes in the Baths of Diocletian, home to the Museo Nazionale Romano. They were brought there from the eighth and seventh century BCE burial grounds of Castel di Decima and Laurentina Acqua Acetosa.

For several years now, a project has been underway to preserve, catalogue, restore, and study this unique slice of the past. The graves provide an insight into the society, economy, and culture of Latium at the time of Rome’s foundation, and in the decades that followed. The most representative graves from these burial grounds will be part of a new exhibition on the upper floor of the Michelangelo Cloister.

Castel di Decima

The Early Iron Age settlement of Castel di Decima, and its burial ground, lie about 18 kilometres south of Rome, along the Via Pontina and the ancient route of the Via Laurentina. The site occupies a strategic position on a tuffaceous hill, with a defensive ditch. The earliest traces of people living there date back to at least the beginning of the eighth century BCE, before the site flourished in the seventh. The area continued to be inhabited into the sixth century and Republican times.

In all, since those first roadworks on the Via Pontina in 1953, four hundred and ten burials have so far come to light. The graves date to between the eighth and seventh century BCE. Most were simply cut into the bare earth, and then covered with a tufa slab. The weight of the lid, and the soil conditions, have often led to both the skeleton, and the objects buried with the deceased, being damaged. In many of the graves, especially the eighth century ones, the deceased had been lain inside a hollowed out tree trunk. This was the case of Grave 359.

Grave 359

The grave was brought here as a single block of earth in 1991. Given the exceptional finds it contained, and the fact that the deceased could be seen lying inside a tree trunk, it was decided to lift it whole. On excavation, twice as many grave goods came to light as had originally been identified, along with a substantial amount of the skeleton. The remains were identified as those of a young female, between 18 and 24 years old.

She had been buried in around 730 BCE, a transitional period between the end of the Iron Age and the Orientalising period. This was a time when an aristocratic society was taking hold in Latium and Etruria. The woman had been buried in a hollowed out tree trunk with a distinct and rich assortment of items. The numerous suspension rings, placed all over her body, were particularly striking.

The position of the woman’s arms, inside her belt (hung with suspension rings), implies that she had been wrapped in a shroud. Her lavish necklace was for the most part made up of square-shaped amber beads. A remarkable array of bronze pendants also hung around her neck, some in the shape of animals, which may be identified with different Latin groups.

The grave goods include two spinner’s distaffs, a reminder of the woman’s role in the household, an elaborate banquet set, with both bronze and ceramic vessels for the consumption of wine, two knives, for animal sacrifice and the preparation of meat, and four skewers.

Grave 359 is one of a small group of exceptionally rich eighth century BCE female burials. The woman had been laid to rest dressed in her ceremonial role as the hostess of the banquet. Meat and alcohol would have been laid on, possibly along with wine. Some of the bronze vessels had been imported from southern Etruria, others produced locally. Their abundance is similar to a limited number of other prominent mid-eighth century BCE female burials found outside Latium Vetus, in southern Etruria and Etruscan Campania. These were a sign of what was to come, with the opulence of the princely orientalising tombs of the seventh century BCE in Latium.