By Lauren Arcangeli, Trinity University and Umbra Rep Spring ’20
Many classes at the Umbra Institute have a field trip component that allows students to visit places they are studying. In Archaeological Discoveries: A Passion for Classical Antiquity, we study the Etruscan civilization whose society lived and died in BCE. Unfortunately, their hilltop towns have been sieged, sacked, and rebuilt so that little remains besides the modern cities that have taken their places. Yet, there is still plenty to see if you know where to look. To help us gain further insight about the Etruscans, Umbra organized a field trip to Orvieto and Chiusi, two cities located in the Umbria region, this past weekend.
Our first stop was Orvieto, a city built on top of a large rock outcrop. Our interests began at what lays at the bottom of this steep hill. On a bright and sunny Friday morning, we went to the Crocifisso del Tufo, the name for the Etruscan necropolis, or cemetery, located near Orvieto. Now maybe visiting a cemetery is not your idea of a fun field trip. However, this is not the creepy tombstone-filled cemetery you might be imagining. The tombs built by the Etruscans are modeled like small houses. The archaeological material has been excavated and moved to museums, but walking around and inside these structures is truly awesome. Some modern restoration work had to be done, but the fact that any of these structures from the centuries BCE even survive today is astounding. Just be careful when entering any of the tombs. I definitely almost bumped my head on one of the shorter doorways, as I was descending the steps!
After departing the necropolis, we drove up to the main town. At the end of the city is a beautiful park built of what remains of a medieval castle. The view is gorgeous, and the remnants of an Etruscan temple are nearby as well. The foundation of the temple is all that exists now. The modern road even eclipses the far corner, but you can still get a sense of the structure from being there in person versus just reading a textbook. One of the most exciting things about visiting these sites is that you are allowed to really experience the structures. We were allowed to enter the tombs and to walk up the stairs into the temple. Obviously, the experience is different since the tombs are now bare and the temple is not in its complete original form, but being able to get up close to these archaeological sites is something I never would have thought I would do.
After a break for lunch, we headed to the archaeological museums. We visited two museums in the afternoon. Again, this might sound like one of those less than exciting field trips from high school, but when you have a professor versed in the material, learning becomes more of a conversation than a forced session of note taking. The field trip was technically class time, but it never felt like we were in class. The material interested me in a way that a classroom setting can only attempt to emulate because I could see the physical objects and sites in person as the significance of them was being explained to me.
This field trip was an overnight one, which meant that once our museum visits were over around 4:30pm, we had plenty of time left in the day to explore the city and enjoy dinner. In addition to seeing the Duomo and taking in more views, we ended up eating dinner at a restaurant that was built on top of a cave from 600 BCE. It seems that wherever you go in Italy there is always an unexpected historical finding to see.
The next morning we drove to Chiusi. We of course visited the Etruscan Museum there. Chiusi, despite its small size, was a very important city in the Etruscan world, and the museum is surprising well curated for such a small town. The number of artifacts is astounding, and again, having a professor to walk us through the exhibits was helpful. After breezing through the five main historical periods of the Etruscan timeline, we went to see the Tomba della Scimmia or the Tomb of the Monkey.
I know, I know, you are asking yourself “why would I ever want to visit so many tombs?” but trust me, you will want to see this one. It takes a bit of imagination since the drawings have faded due to the humidity and their age, but it is a beautiful scene. The Etruscans, like many ancient societies, portrayed life even in the midst of death, so their funerary art is filled with images of horse races and banquets. In this tomb, you can also see the famous image of the monkey, from which the tomb gets its name.
After ascending the stairs back out of the tomb, we were on our way home to Perugia. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Castiglione de Lago. This city is on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. In addition to the gorgeous views, some of us even found the time to explore the medieval fortress there before heading back home.
Every Umbra field trip is a bit different depending on the class. Overall, I had a great time on my class field trip. It was a blend of learning, exploring, and (like all of Italy) great food.
Learn more about Archaeological Discoveries: A Passion for Classical Antiquity here.