Etruscan Athens

The last two months have been incredibly busy as I scrambled to get the Italy Before Rome manuscript in before the deadline of 31st March (remind me in future not to set deadlines at the end of term). It feels great to have the manuscript finished and off my desk, at least for a little while, and I’ve been taking some time to reflect on the project. The advantage of writing a source book is that I have discovered texts I would never have found otherwise, or – in some cases – I’ve realised that sources that I’ve seen before are much more complicated than they first appear.

I already knew that Etruria has provided us with vast quantities of Attic pottery. Workshops in Athens made ceramics for the export market, and some event specialised exclusively in this lucrative trade. Examples include vessel types which were not make for the Athenian market at all, like the kyathos on this page. I had not fully appreciated, though, before I read this article by Robin Osborne (from 1996 – I’m not exactly quick off the mark here!) just how targeted the workshops were. Some Athenian craftsmen specialised not just in the export market in general, but in exporting to specific cities, and catering to their changing tastes and fashions.

Attic kyanthos, c. 520-510 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art

So where does language come into this? Well, in the first place, the practicalities of not just importing thousands of ceramics, but also researching the local markets and responding to their whims, are fascinating. We can imagine the specialised agents who travelled the same route over and over again, building up networks of local contacts and relationships at both ends of the journey.

But in some cases – admittedly only a small minority of cases – there is even evidence of Etruscan being written on pots in Athens as part of the design process. Whether a few skilled Etruscan artists were being brought to Athens to work in the export workshops, or whether local Athenian artisans were being trained (even in a limited way) to write in Etruscan, this is an amazing example of language contact which I had not previously considered.

One particular example stands out for me: the signature ‘metru menece’ on a fragment of an Attic kylix, or drinking cup, found in the Etruscan city of Populonia, dating to the fifth century BCE (there is a picture of it in this article by David W.J. Gill). This short sentence – ‘Metru made (me)’ – is a typical way of signing a piece in Etruscan. The name, Metru, appears to be an Etruscan transliteration of the Greek name Metron. So there are two possibilities. Either a Greek artist, Metron, had been taught how to sign his name in Etruscan – in which case, did he know any more Etruscan than this? Had he been to Etruria himself? Or, an Etruscan artist was employed in Athens, and when in Athens used the Greek name Metron. The use of Greek names as artistic pseudonyms by non-Greek artisans is something I’ve written about before, and I think it’s a real possibility here. But in either case, there are bilingual individuals in the mix, facilitating this trade network.

Incidentally, there is another possibility that is sometimes put forward for this signature, and seems to be the default assumption in some newer scholarship – that it shows that Athenian potters set up workshops in Etruria. But apparently (I’m no expert here), the ceramic here is made of Athenian clay, and the idea that Athenian clay was imported to Populonia is unlikely on practical grounds. But even if you subscribe to this point of view, the importance of bilingual individuals in these trade networks does not go away.

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