Tuesday, 23 November 2004  
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Scientific treasure hunters

Archaeologists may have found what was once the biggest city in Italy

Real archaeology bears about as much resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie as real spying bears to James Bond. Excavation - at least if it is to be meaningfully different from grave robbing - is a matter of painstaking trowel work, not gung-ho gold-grabbing. But there is still a glimmer of the grave robber in many archaeologists, and the search for a juicy royal tomb can stimulate more than just rational, scientific instincts.

Few tombs would be juicier than that of Lars Porsena, an Etruscan king who ruled in central Italy around 500BC. Porsena's tomb has been sought for centuries in the rubble under the Tuscan city of Chiusi, which is believed by most authorities to stand on the site of Porsena's capital, Clusium. No sign of it, however, has ever been found. And that, according to Giuseppe Centauro, of the University of Florence, is because everybody is looking in the wrong place.

Lars Porsena's place in history was ensured by his interference in the revolution that made Rome a republic. The last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius, nicknamed "Superbus" because of his arrogance, was Etruscan. When he was deposed by the revolutionaries, he appealed to Porsena for help.

There are conflicting accounts of whether Porsena succeeded in capturing and ruling Rome, or was forced to make peace with the revolutionaries. Either way, most of those accounts agree that he was eventually buried in a fabulous tomb near his home city of Camars, or Clusium as the Romans called it.

The Etruscans were big on tombs - constructing entire cities for the dead to inhabit - but Porsena's was supposedly the biggest of the lot. It was, according to one ancient source, a monument of rectangular masonry with a square base whose sides were 90 metres (about 300 feet) long and 15 metres high.

On this base stood five pyramids, four at the corners and one in the centre, and the points of these pyramids supported a ring from which hung bells whose sound reached for miles when stirred by the wind. From this level rose five more pyramids, and from these another five.

Chiusi was clearly once an Etruscan city, but the evidence that it was actually Clusium boils down to the fact that the two names mean the same thing ("closed"). Such nominative determinism is hardly conclusive. Dr. Centauro prefers his evidence to be wrought in stone, and he thinks the most persuasive pile of masonry around is actually on a mountainside near Flowrence.

At the moment he is awaiting permission from the authorities to start digging there. But the above-ground remains convince him that he has found the real site of Clusium. He believes he has identified two concentric walls 17 km (about ten miles) in circumference - certainly big enough to qualify as the biggest city in Italy before the rise of Rome, which is the reputation, that Clusium had.

The outer walls of the main site are three metres thick, several metres high, un-cemented and regular in construction. From the style of the masonry, Dr. Centauro is convinced the remains are Etruscan. At corners where they have collapsed, small rooms are visible. These, he thinks, would have accommodated the sentries who manned the watchtowers.

So where is the tomb? And is it un-looted? Sadly for goldbugs, its riches are probably gone. In 89BC Cornelius Sulla, a Roman general, sacked Clusium and razed it to the ground. But if the ancient descriptions of the tomb are even a pale reflection of the truth, that amount of masonry is unlikely to have wandered far. So if Dr. Centauro's hunch is right, and this is Clusium the old king's secret may soon be dug up.


Making up the past

The Romans, too, had sophisticated cosmetics

Vanity is hardly a modern vice. But a paper in this week's Nature suggests that the technology for indulging in it has not changed much over the years, either. Richard Evershed, of Bristol University, in England, and his colleagues, have just published a chemical analysis of what turned out to be a cosmetic foundation cream from Roman London.

Even the pot the cream was found in has a modern appearance, being a cylindrical metal canister with a push-on lid. The metal in question is tin, and an oxide of that metal was one of the main ingredients of the cosmetic.

Tin oxide is white, and would thus provide the basis for the fair complexion which other evidence suggests was fashionable in London in the second century AD. Tin would also have been reasonably cheap in Britain. The mines in the south-west of the province were one of the ancient world's main sources of the metal. And, as a bonus, tin oxide is harmless. The usual whitening agent in cosmetics of the period, lead acetate, is not.

The creaminess of the cosmetic was provided by animal fats - specially, body fats boiled from the carcasses of cattle or sheep. The most likely alternatives, butter and pig fat, were ruled out using a technique called isotope-ratio mass spectrometry, which measures the molecular weights of the chemicals in a sample. The third ingredient of the make-up was starch - used to this day in cosmetics to create a powdery feel when a cream is rubbed into the skin.

To test their analysis, the team mixed a modern version of the cream, using the ingredients they had identified. The result was a substance that did, indeed, leave the desired powdery effect on the skin. Roman Londoners, it seems, were just as keen to keep up appearances as their modern descendants are.

(Courtesy: The Economist)


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