A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

Stone beds at Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

We didn’t spend out entire holiday just eating and drinking. I made a point of doing a few day trips. One was to the Etruscan necropolis – city of the dead – of Banditaccia, a train ride, a bus ride and a surprisingly pleasant walk from Cerveteri, a town near the coast to the nortwest of Rome.

Banditaccia is such an evocative name. It makes me think of bandits and other unsavoury rural types using the old underground chambers (hypogea) to hide away in the middle ages. It’s quite likely they did too, though I can’t report that as fact.

The necropolis was established at the beginning of the 7th century BC, at least. I love this – you wander round Rome going “Wow, Colosseum…” but that particular monument only dates from the 1st century AD. Etruscan civilisation, which gave its name to Tuscany, was already remarkably sophisticated when Romulus and Remus were still just dirty wolf-boys shouting at each other, mythically, from huts on the adjacent hilltops of the Palatine and Aventine.

Etruscan pot, Cerveteri museum

Cerveteri, called Caere by the Etruscans and located a mile from Banditaccia, has a museum in the castle that dominates the centre of town. Even after all the best finds from excavations were filched by the Vatican, it’s still full of amazing finds, mostly ceramics. They show how closely the Etruscans traded through the Med, notably with the Greeks, as the art style is similar, as are the gods and mythological characters featured.

Multimedia hypogea
Visiting the tombs themselves, and imagining how they would have looked decorated with these urns and other funerary furnishings, is an amazing experience. The place was pretty much deserted when we visited, so a staff member was able to turn on multimedia installations for us in three of the hypogea. I have mixed feelings about all the holes in the tuff volcanic rock drilled so they could install projectors and speakers, but the systems work surprisingly well, lighting up the tombs and giving a sense of how these spaces were used.

What struck me, even centuries later, with the tombs mostly denuded of their decorations, is how homely they are. And this is just the point. The Etruscans created the necropolises as mirror images of the cities of the living. Each hypogeum was a home for several generations of family. The dead were initially body wrapped in cloth, then buried, or burned and put in urns. The hypogea consist of rooms with stone beds, and some even feature incredible decorations. The most famous example is Banditaccia’s Tomb of the Reliefs – amazing 3D designs of tools and utensils, for war and domestic work: those two most important activities of the living.

Tomb of the Reliefs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri (Photo: Fran Hortop)

As Fran pointed out, the notion of the tombs being the mirror image of homes is also expressed by the fact that these spaces, firstly large, rounded tumuli, then later in rows much like terraced housing, were carved out of the tuff. It was a process of creating a living space for the dead by hollowing out spaces in the ground. This contrasts with building a home above ground, creating space by erecting walls and roofs.

Terraced tombs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s interesting too that although the Roman Republic eventually subsumed Etruria, the final three kings of the Roman Kingdom were an Etruscan dynasty (in the 7th-6th centuries BC, though this period isn’t well documented). And as they had so much common culture, the guide we spoke to said the Romans respected the Etruscan funerary arrangements enough to leave the necropolises alone, even after they had effectively quashed their civilisation. Indeed, there were still new tombs being carved in the 3rd century AD. It was only later they were semi-forgotten, becoming overgrown. Although some did provide strange cave-like spaces for shepherds – and bandits? – over the centuries, most were lost and the area resembled a series of lumps and small hills in the 19th century, before Raniero Mengarelli started his systematic excavations in 1909.

Tumulus Etruscan tomb, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s a wonderful place, right up there with Ostia Antica for my favourite ancient sites in Italy: partly because these two are just undersubscribed compared to the better-known Pompey and Herculaneum, but also partly because Banditaccia has a reminded me of its fellow UNESCO site Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Banditaccia – or at least what’s been excavated – is a lot smaller but both have a similar substantialness and sense of mystery. Angkor Wat is a lot more recent (dating from the 11th-15th centuries AD) but I love these places where ancient stones have trees growing through the weathered old stonework, itself carved with sheer manpower.

Etruscan beer
After visiting Banditaccia we went beer shopping and it seemed only right to get a bottle of Birra del Borgo’s Etrusca “archeo birra”.

Borgo Etrusca label

Etrusca is actually the name of three beers, first made during a fascinating project in 2012 by Birra del Borgo (in Lazio, east of Rome), Baladin brewery (in Piedmont, NW Italy) and Dogfish Head (in Delaware, US). The brewmasters of all three worked with Dr Patrick McGovern, an archaeology professor and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who had worked on various other ancient ale projects previously with Dogfish Head.

Together they established a list of ingredients that were consumed by the Etruscans. The Baladin site says, “Under Dr Pat’s supervision, ingredients have been selected on the basis of the findings made at several Italian archaeological sites.” According to a post on the Dogfish Head site, meanwhile, “the team clearly found that the Etruscans had a taste for ale.”

I know the ancient Romans drank beer, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the Etruscans did too true. Although grain-based beer is more associated with northern Europe, grain was of course grown in ancient Italy too, and the Dogfish site continues “The backbone of Birra Etrusca comes from two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat.” This wheat is ‘Senatore Cappelli’, which I saw in several Italian craft beers on this recent visit.

Italian society never underwent the seismic changes experienced in Britain during our comprehensive industrial revolution. Nor did it embrace as fully as Britain or the US the post-war approaches to agriculture based on rejecting ancient practices in favour of plying farmland with tonnes and tonnes and endless tonnes of petrochemical industry derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plus, pockets of mountainous Italy remain isolated to this day. Unlike Britain, where we rejected our heritage grains in favour of modern varieties bred by agri-corporations to thrive with said chemicals, Italy still grows some of the same varieties of grain it has grown for centuries. Cappelli, however, arguably isn’t such a grain: it was selectively bred from Tunisian ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ durum wheat at the start of the 20th century. It’s conjecture, but ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ may have ancient heritage, and may indeed have been related to grain traded or cultivated by the Etruscans. I don’t know; I need to consult an expert more. Or find some funding to bloody well do a PhD!

Weird and wonderful
The beer also contains various other weird and wonderful ingredients, based on, according to the Baladin site, “research carried out on Etruscan habits, as they would [have] spiced fermented drinks with hazelnut flour, pomegranate and pomegranate juice, honeys, sultanas, natural resin and gentian root”. The “natural resin” in question is probably what the Dogfish site refers to as “the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin.” The myrrh and gentian are the bittering agents, though the recipe does also include a “handful of whole-flower hops”.

Recording cultivation of hops in Europe didn’t come until centuries later, though as Humulus lupulus is native to Eurasia and north Africa there’s the chance it was utilised by the Etruscans. Wondering about this, I sent an email to Dr McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”. Though busy on a lecture tour in Australia he kindly replied and said, “There is some evidence of hops being found in association with beverages at Etruscan sites, but not much.” I’ve just ordered his most recent book, ‘Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages’ (Berkeley: University of California, 2009) so perhaps that will tell me more. Check out the article ‘The Brewing of Etrusca Beer’ via Dr Pat’s site here (a PDF download) as it gives more detail of the procedure, while a second article on the same page, ‘Ancient Italic Beer The archaeological finds at Pombia (NO), discusses the evidence of hop usage in this era, though it refers to finds from a “proto-Celtic” population in Piedmont/Piemonte, nortern Italy, that is north of ancient Etruria.

Birra del Borgo's Etrusca

So what does it taste like?
Evaluating the experience of drinking a beer like this is tricky as the story of its genesis is so fascinating it’s potentially distracting. Not only was the recipe created with Dr Pat’s expert input, but the three breweries used different materials for the ferment. Dogfish used some bronze plates in in the vats, Baladin used wooden barrels, and Borgo used specially made terracotta jars. This is appropriate given the importance of terracotta for storing liquids in ancient Italy. We were staying in Testaccio, and drank our bottle of Etrusca there, a mere 100m or so from Monte Testaccio, which is also known as Monte dei cocci – which could be translated as “Hill of the earthenware shards”. Yes, the hill is a massive mound of broken ancient Roman amphorae.

Suitably enough, given our day trip, Fran said the beer, which is a pale, cloudy golden colour, “smells like an old cave somewhere”, with all that nuttiness, fruit and fermentation giving a certain mustiness.

Dammit can't read the label

Fran got more earthy smells from it – mushrooms, humus (leaf litter not chickpea). I got a more sharp, sauerkraut smell, with honey. The taste was sour, honey, balsamic, metallic. Fran thought it tasted like fermented tomato juice: not that she’s ever drunk that, as far as I know, but it did have a certain minerally, Bloody Mary quality.

It’s not a beer to spend a relaxing evening with, perhaps, but it’s unique. I wish I could try the Dogfish Head version, but I’ve never seen any of their ales for sale in Italy or the UK, sadly. The comparison would be interesting, and Dr Pat says that he finds the “pomegranate and myrrh are more pronounced and better integrated” with the Dogfish version.

Either way, I love these historical experiments, like Harveys’ Priory Ale from earlier this year, commemorating a slightly more recent bit of history, the Battle of Lewes 750 years ago. Dogfish Head has produced a series of these experimental brews, with their most recent collaboration with Dr McGovern a prehistoric-style Nordic ale they’re called Kvasir. There’s more about their working process, and why we lost our inclination to make such diverse brews, in an article on The Atlantic’s site here.

So anyway, Etruscan remains, Etrusca archaeological ale recreations: what a great day. And far too long a post. I was planning to mention a few other beers I tried on the trip but that will have to wait.

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5 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion, Italian beer, Misc, Rome

5 responses to “A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

  1. Michael Etherington

    so glad you find the Etruscans fascinating. So do I. When we were all in that curious villa in N Lazio, just near Orvietto I set off to Montefiacone in the minibus but no-one was interested enough to come. Since then I have looked as Etruscan pottery all over Europe. It worth visiting the British Museum they have wonderful gallery. Michael/Pa

    • We did visit some other Etruscan stuff together on that holiday though Pa. Found some old photos recently, will have to scan and show you. Oriveto is of course an Etruscan city too – we did a tour of the Orvieto underground last year too and that was incredible, with old Etruscan wells etc.

  2. Ma

    Am now absolutely desperate to go there – to the tombs especially. I have mentally added it to my bucket list. Your writing makes it totally irresistible.

  3. We’ll have to move back to Rome…

  4. Came across your post while googling the ingredients of Birra Del Borgo’s Etrusca. Had it a while back on draft at a beer festival and did a bit of research back then, but got reminded of it again after a question on Twitter about the accuracy of commercially available prehistoric ales. Your remark about the heritage grains not having that much of a pedigree is very useful!

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