Altars

Pre-Roman and Early Roman Altars

Development of Altars

We can learn about these places by looking at evidence from Eturia.

The oldest Etruscan altar known is made of soil and turf, creating a raised and circular platform. The top of this platform is covered in a sandstone slab, creating a type of table. Similar altars are depicted on Attic red-figured vases. The upper surface of the stone slabs can bear an inscription with the name of the divinity honored and of the donor. Tacitus and Varro describe these sod altars being used well into the imperial age for solemn occasions. Varro traced this tradition back to religion before Numa when for the Romans there existed neither temples nor divine images. In that remote age, they would have had recourse to only temporaria de caespite altaria (‘‘temporary sod altars’’) for cult activity, as well as humble ‘‘Samian’’ or clay pots for the clods, if one substitutes rocks.

Relief from Etruscan sarcophagus showing Achilles standing with a foot on a rustic altar. 550s BCE.

A subtype of this earliest altar exists simply has a stone slab placed directly on the ground and not raised. If it is raised, it is only elevated on a single layer of simple stones. These are ”ground altars,’’ with the sacrifices that took place on them to a chthonic deity. Some of these ground altars have this stone slab covering a pit. These pits are, on average, 6 to 7 meters deep and called a mundus in Latin. The city of Rome had such a mundus throughout its ancient history. These pits are often sacred to Dis Pater. 

We also see altars of rough stones or ‘‘unworked rubble altar”. These are lens-shaped mounds of broken rocks, of small to medium size, drawn from river beds that are not nearby. The piles are no more than 30 cm high and elliptical, with the greatest diameter surpassing in one case 2 meters, however, they are often around 1 meter in diameter. Directly around these altars animal bones and votive offerings are found.

Another type of altar is composed of one large contiguous block of local volcanic stone. In these altars, a channel is occasionally carved in the top and leading to the soil upon which the altar is placed. This may have been a place where liquid offerings were to be conducted to the earth. Such channels are likely associated with chthonic deities or to dead ancestors. Such channels continue to be seen in later, more sophisticated altars.

The larger of these moreintricate early altars occasionally contain ramps to facilitate sacrificial animals approaching the altar.  

All of these early altars mentioned date from before the 600 BCE.

A slightly less ancient early altar from Eturua dating from the mid-500’s BCE demonstrates a square platform composed of stone bricks with a top capped with a stone slab. In this top platform a bowel shaped divot is carved in the flat top. This altar was placed in the center of small circular stone building. The ceiling above the altar was open to the sky. This reflects the fact that altars, in the traditional sense, are ubiquitously open to the sky, even if within a building.  

In Eturua, starting in the 480’s BCE altars carved from a single piece of stone are increasingly  found. The earlier rustic style if altars become less common, but are still constructed. From this period, more elaborate altars composed of large blocks of stone, often richly carved with images and inscriptions are seen. These altars are square and circular in shape. Occasionally they are placed upon large dirt or brick platforms accessible by ramps or stairs. Some of these platforms contain multiple separate altars of similar design.  

Offerings at early altars in Eturia

Evidence has shown innumerable ash from burnt offerings, animal bones, mostly of sheep, cattle, goats, and pig. Clay votive offerings are also widespread. These are often in the form of full human figures, human body parts, or animals. Bronze sheets shaped like leaves, and stamped with words and linked together on a bronze ring has been found. It is thought that is may be used for casting lots and taking oracular readings. Jewelry in the form of necklaces and rings, along with glass and clay wares and lamps are the most common evidence of offerings found in the vicinity of early alters after evidence of organic matter. 

Many of these early Etruscan altars have evidence of continuous use even well into the Republican period in the 1st century BCE. It is also suspected that Emperor Augustus was responsible for restoring and updating many of these early sites after nearly a century of neglect due to civil war and social unrest. 

Sources

  1. Rupp, D. W. 1991a. ‘‘Blazing Altars: The Depiction of Altars in Attic Vase Painting.’’ In Étienne and Le Dinahet 1991, 56–60.
  2. G. Colonna, ed., Santuari d’Etruria. Catalogue of exhibition in Arezzo. Milan. 1985
  3. G. Colonna, ed.. ‘‘Altari e sacelli: L’area Sud di Pyrgi dopo otto anni di ricerche.’’ RendPontAcc 64, 1992, 63–115.
  4. G. Colonna, ‘Le vicende e l’interpretazione dello scavo.’’ In Il San tuario di Portonaccio a Veio, 1. Gli scavi di Massimo Pallottino nella zona dell’altare (1939–1940) (MonAntLinc, ser. misc. 6.3). 2002, 133–159.
  5. G. Colonna, ”Il santuario di Pyrgi dalle origini mitistoriche agli altorilievi frontonali dei Sette e di Leucotea.’’ Scienze dell’Antichità 10, 2000, 251–336.
  6. Pliny, NH 35.152
  7. Etym. 14.6.31 and 20.4.3
  8. G. Colonna, ‘‘Strutture teatriformi in Etruria.’’ In Spectacles sportifs et scéniques dans le monde étrusco-italique. Actes de la table ronde de Rome 1991. Rome. 321–347.
  9. Vitali, D., A. M. Brizzolara, and E. Lippolis. 2001. L’acropoli della città etrusca di Marzabotto. Imola.
  10. Bonamici, M., ‘‘Santuario dell’acropoli: Testimonianze sulle pratiche di culto.’’ In Laboratorio universitario volterrano: Quaderno, 1999, 2. 29– 41.
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