Archaeologists Investigate Underground Pyramidal Structure Beneath Orvieto, Italy

Site yields artifacts, architectural materials from the Etruscan period.

Archaeologists are scratching their heads about an underground pyramid-shaped structure they have been excavating beneath the historic medieval town of Orvieto in Italy. But it may not be a mystery forever. They hope to find answers as they continue to tease artifacts and architectural materials from the soil.

“We discovered it three summers ago and still have no idea what it is,” write Prof. David B. George of St. Anselm College and co-director Claudio Bizzarri of PAAO and colleagues about the site. “We do know what it is not.  It is not a quarry; it’s walls are too well dressed. It is not a well or cistern; its walls have no evidence of hydraulic treatments.”*

Calling it the “cavitá” (‘hole’ or ‘hollow’ in Italian), or hypogeum, the archaeologists have thus far excavated about 15 meters down. They marked their third year at the site in 2014. By then they had uncovered significant amounts of what they classify as Gray and Black bucchero, commonware, and Red and Black Figure pottery remains. They have dated deposits to the middle to the end of the 6th century BCE.

“We know that the site was sealed toward the end of the 5th century BCE,” George, et al. continue. “It appears to have been a single event. Of great significance is the number of Etruscan language inscriptions that we have recovered – over a hundred and fifty. We are also finding an interesting array of architectural/decorative terra cotta.”*


cavitaimage6134Overview of cavità, showing Etruscan tunnel and a locus with large quantities of pottery. Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.


cavitaimage3139Excavation on the west wall of the hypogeum near the Etruscan tunnel that connects this pyramidal hypogeum (Room A) with an adjacent one (Room B). Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.


cavitaimage6103Looking from Room B through the Etruscan tunnel into Room A. Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.


cavitaimage6106Above and below: The medieval columbarium – a place for raising pigeons – in the cavità used as a lab to sort bucchero. Courtesy Daniel George, Jr.



Orvieto has long been known for its scenic medieval architecture. Located in southwestern Umbria, Italy, it is situated on the summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff, commanding a view of the surrounding countryside, and surrounded by defensive walls built of the same volcanic tuff.  Beneath it and in the surrounding areas of the medieval town, however, lie ancient Etruscan and Roman remains, a focus of archaeological investigations and excavations by various teams for decades. George’s excavations have centered on four different sites in the area, two (Coriglia and the Orvieto underground structures) of which will be further excavated in 2015. The Coriglia excavations have resulted in a wealth of finds, including monumental structures such as Etruscan and Roman walls, Etruscan and imported Greek ceramic materials, three large basins dated to the Roman Imperial period, and apsidal structures with associated features related to the management of water for baths or other purposes. “We have uncovered evidence for occupation of the site dating from the 10th century BCE all the way to the 16th century CE, as well as random realia from World War II,” write George, et al.**


orvietordesaiView of Orvieto. RDesai, Wikimedia Commons


coriglia07290At Coriglia: Trench F showing a viscera with hydraulic cement and flooring with a collapsed vault to the right (Likely 2nd century CE).  On the left a medieval industrial reuse of the structure. Courtesy David B. George


cavita07117‘Trench C’ showing the recently discovered caldarium of a Roman bath (Imperial period) at Coriglia. Courtesy David B. George


Overall, excavations under George and Bizzarri’s direction in the area have recovered monumental structures, sculptures, mosaics, coinage, inscriptions, ceramics, frescoes, and numerous other artifacts. Looking forward, he anticipates new finds that will shed additional light and answer more questions about what the sites at Orvieto and Coriglia are all about. “We are still trying to determine how the structure was ‘killed’ [filled in and then abandoned] – in a short period of time confined over the course of a few months or over a much longer period,” says George, referring to the cavitá. “The tight dating of the Attic pottery seems to indicate a short period but the enormous quantity gives one pause. At Coriglia, our current hypothesis is that it is a sanctuary. We wish to test this by excavating in areas that should yield architectural and ceramic evidence that would be associated with such use. We are still working on the phasing of our walls and getting a handle on three periods of expansion, at least one of which followed a mudslide.”

Even more important, however, may be what their findings will ultimately say about the lives of people in the region so long ago. Write George, Bizzarri and colleagues, “based on what is known from similar sites in the region, the members of our archaeological expedition may be confident that they will make discoveries that will reflect daily life in the Etruscan and Roman periods.”* 

More detailed information about the sites and excavation project can be obtained at the project website and here. The latter link includes information about how to apply, for those interested in participating in the excavations.





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