In 2012, a group of archaeologists were excavating at a site in Italy in hopes of rediscovering a lost Etruscan tomb, known as the Tomb of the Sun and Moon, which had once been a popular tourist destination in the 18e and 19e century. Unfortunately, they weren’t successful, but their failure led them to discover something else – the Tomb of the Scissorhands. So what is this tomb and how did it get this unusual name?
Discovering the mysterious tomb
If you were someone at the end of the 18e or early 19e century, you made the Grand Tour of Europe. And by “anyone” we mean the young, the upper class, the wealthy and the men. But that aside, the Grand Tour was a coming-of-age ritual for many young elites who traveled across Europe to bask in the cultural heritage of classical antiquity and the Renaissance.
On this horizon-broadening journey, budding tourists would visit a range of sites across Europe, but would inevitably end up in Italy where they would visit a popular site at Vulci, about 75 miles northwest of Rome.
Here, at the end of the 18e century, an excavation uncovered numerous burials in what was known as the Necropoli dell’Osteria (Necropolis of the Pub), which dated from the 7th to 4th centuries BCE and belonged to the enigmatic Etruscan culture that lived in the area in the time.
The necropolis contained a range of spectacular and richly decorated tombs which were given bombastic names to attract tourists, such as the Tomb of the Sun and Moon, the Tomb of the Inlaid Ceiling and others. But despite their popularity, the exact location of this site fell into oblivion when the antiquity craze waned in the middle of the century and tourists abandoned it.
It was therefore a remarkable turn of events when the team led by Carlo Casi, archaeologist at the Archaeological Park of Vulci, discovered the new site, which contained more than 20 tombs, tombs and large funerary complexes. The Scissorhands Tomb takes its name from two silverhands found in the central chamber. The hands were remarkably well preserved, especially the left hand which showed little damage – a testament to the craftsmanship that created them. They are finely detailed, showing open palms with traces of gold on the fingers as well as gold-plated fingernails.
Given the location of this find within the complex and the quantities of grave goods accompanying it, the team concluded that the tomb likely belonged to a wealthy Etruscan family.
A window on Etruscan culture
The Etruscan civilization lived in Italy and reached its peak in the 6th century BC. They were known to be a skilled and advanced culture, renowned throughout the classical world for their bronze work and craftsmanship. Although their origins are still debated among scholars, they were eventually absorbed by the rising Roman culture that became the dominant civilization of the Italian peninsula. The archaeological tombs of Vulci are today one of the richest sources of artifacts from this lost civilization.
But while silver needles may seem unusual at first glance, they’re actually representative of a fascinating funerary rite that has its origins in ancient Greece. As such, they provide insight into the burial practices of the Etruscan people.
The silver hands are believed to belong to a sphyrelaton, a wooden funerary sculpture or dummy that was made to protect the soul of the deceased after cremation or burial. These effigies were often accompanied by bronze or silver hands, like those found in tombs.
A sphyrelaton could take various forms: sometimes it was a supernatural being, sometimes a warrior or even a representation of the dead being buried. In this case, the effigy was that of a woman and is considered a symbol of the woman resting in the tomb.
The team also discovered threads of purple cloth which they believe were used to attach gold studs to clothing worn by the sphyrelaton. They also recovered small balls of gold, pieces of earthenware, amber and bone beads that may have belonged to several necklaces.
Although we don’t know who this person was, the items that were discovered with the Scissorhands suggest that it was an average person, to say the least. Other examples of sphyrelaton hands found at Vulci and elsewhere were bronze and generally lacked the fine detail of their silver counterparts. As such, the finds in the Tomb of the Scissorhands offer an exceptional view into the life (and death) of a people long lost to history.