An archaeological excavation at Poggio Colla, the site of a 2,700-year-old Etruscan settlement in Italy's Mugello Valley, has turned up a surprising and unique find: two images of a woman giving birth to a child.
Researchers from the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which oversees the Poggio Colla excavation site some 20 miles northeast of Florence, discovered the images on a small fragment from a ceramic vessel that is more than 2,600 years old.
The images show the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother represented with her knees raised and her face shown in profile, one arm raised, and a long ponytail running down her back.
The excavation is a project of Southern Methodist University, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in collaboration with The Open University in Milton Keynes, England.
The identification of the scene was made by Phil Perkins, an authority on Etruscan bucchero and professor of archaeology at The Open University.
"We were astounded to see this intimate scene; it must be the earliest representation of childbirth in Western art," said Perkins. "Etruscan women are usually represented feasting or participating in rituals, or they are goddesses. Now we have to solve the mystery of who she is and who her child is."
The Etruscans were the first settlers of Italy, long before the Roman Empire. They built the first cities, were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture to the Romans, and were known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce. They occupied Italy for the first millennium B.C., but were conquered by the Romans and eventually became absorbed into their empire.
Image on elite pottery has implications for Poggio Colla sanctuary worship
"The birth scene is extraordinary, but what is also fascinating is what this image might mean on elite pottery at a sanctuary," said Greg Warden, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU and a director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.
"Might it have some connection to the cult," Warden said, "to the kind of worship that went on at the hilltop sanctuary of Poggio Colla?"