Norchia: the most beautiful Etruscan necropolis in Lazio!



Who that has visited this spot can forget the ruined church of Lombard architecture, wasting its simple beauty on the stupid gaze of the shepherd, the only frequenter of these wilds? Who that has an eye for the picturesque, can forget the tall cliffs on which it stands — here, perforated so as to form a bridge, there, dislocated, and cleft to their very base, — the rich red and grey tufo half-mantled with the evergreen foliage of cork, ilex, and ivy? Who can forget the deep glens around, ever wrapt in gloom, where the stillness is broken only by the murmurs of the stream, or by the shriek of the falcon — solitudes teeming with solemn memorials of a past, mysterious race — with pompous monuments mocking their very purpose; for, raised to perpetuate the memory of the dead, they still stand, while their inmates have for ages been forgotten? He who has visited it must admit, that though nameless and unchronicled, there are few sites in Etruria so interesting as this — none which more imperatively demand the attention of the antiquarian.


George Dennis - Cities and cemeteries of Etruria


The region of the Tuscia Viterbese is a trove of priceless treasures, treasures that elsewhere would be the object of development plans and tourist promotion. However, the dirt road that leads us to the clearing from which the path to Norchia starts, the ancient Orclae (whose name is mysterious - perhaps deriving from Hercules, or deriving from an Etruscan divinity), indicates that the archaeological area we are going to discover is perhaps really a place unknown to most.


In fact, not much seems to have changed since the days when George Dennis, an eccentric and well-read English explorer, explored the length and breadth of historical Etruria to then produce his monumental work, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, published in 1848 and in whom I admit to finding a kindred spirit.

The streams of the Acqua Alta and Pile and the Biedano river over have eroded this vast barren plateau over the course of millennia, leaving a tongue of red tuff where later civilizations settled, starting from the Upper Paleolithic (around 14000 BC) up to abandonment of the site in 1453 A.D. due to malaria. The city was then rediscovered by Francesco Orioli and Padre Pio Semeria in 1808 who are also known for the excavations of Castel d'Asso, another Etruscan site in the Viterbo area about which I will write in the future. Since the fourth century BC, Norchia was a satellite city of Tarquinia, an agricultural and strategic settlement probably governed by a zilath, a supreme magistrate elected for a year. The rise of Rome and the decline of Tarquinia would later appear after the end of the third century BC. brought Norchia into the Roman orbit.


Although we are at the beginning of March, the vegetation envelops the historical evidence of the ancient city, making our exploration more adventurous than expected and the waterways are swollen by recent rains. But what is most impressive is the silence and solitude that surrounds this place that has apparently gone unchanged since Dennis' time.

Descending along the path that overlooks the Pile stream above which the ruin of the Di Vico castle stands out, we venture among the first tombs of the Etruscan necropolis, which are mainly of the "cubic" type. We notice variations in the architectural details, but all the sepulchral structures are crowned by a space dedicated to funerary sacrifices which can be reached via a steep staircase while the burial chambers, bare and simple, are hidden under the façade, often at the end of a staircase or dromos. The remains of sarcophagi are scattered inside, or the niches are dug directly into the tuff. It is certainly curious how the monumental nature of the exteriors is in stark contrast to the simplicity of the interior spaces where the members of the clan were buried.


Archaeologists have given a name to each tomb, based on the inscriptions or on the basis of decorative and architectural apparatus and elements: Ciarlanti, Camino, Smurinas, Veie, Prostila, Vel Ziluse, Charun and Gemini, among others.

From below, the façade of this necropolis is monumental and scenic: and this was certainly the intention of the inhabitants of Norchia. But they certainly did not pretend to exaggerate as Dennis does when he compares the monument to an underground Colosseum!

“Were the chasms of the Colosseum closed, the slopes of its seats banked over with earth, carpeted with sward, and fringed with trees instead of bushes, and its encircling wall of masonry adorned with cornices inside as well as out, it would present a lively resemblance to this singular glen, which is the most imposing spot in the whole compass of Etruscan cemeteries.”


I think this is an excellent time to pause briefly and outline Etruscan funerary rituals. The sarcophagi of Norchia remind us that the practice of inhumation was the most widespread among the Etruscans (unlike the more frequent use of cremation among the Villanovans). As in other civilizations, the grave goods and structure of the tomb were inspired by the world of the living, since it was a widespread belief that the soul of the deceased would continue to exist in the Hereafter. The funeral ritual, especially for tombs as monumental as those of Norchia, had to be expensive, elaborate and had to involve the entire community. In addition to the burial of the body, there would have been ritual banquets, games (which may have inspired the fights between gladiators in ancient Rome), musical performances and many other celebrations preceding the closure of the tomb. Thus, the long journey of the deceased began, as they were accompanied by the infernal deities to another world, well separated from the world of the living but at the same time deeply linked to it.

We continue along the Pile stream, leaving some shaky and battered bridges on the left that we will cross on our return and head towards the Fosso dell’Acqua Alta. Here we ignore the ford further downstream and cross the stream in precarious balance on a wooden structure resting on the slippery boulders. A path opens into the bush, going up along the ridge and in a short time we find ourselves in front of the extraordinary Doric Tombs, probably the most recent among the funerary complexes of Norchia, which, with their style that betrays a strong Hellenistic influence, have been dated to the third century BC. The two tombs, built in tuff, proudly stand side by side and at the time they would surely have made a strong impression on those who would have admired them from below and from the city. Furthermore, they are of a rare type, given that tombs of this type (that is, which evoke the structure of a Doric temple) are found only in Sovana, in Tuscany! We must not forget that the tombs, and some traces are still visible today, would have been frescoed and plastered with bright and bright colors. The portico has long since collapsed and part of the pediment of the left tomb has been removed and taken to the archaeological museum of Florence, but the Doric frieze crowned by the two tympanums is still visible.


I immediately notice the Gorgoneion, with its mocking and insolent smile; Medusa guards the tombs as an apotropaic protector from evil spirits and adversity, silent guardian of the necropolis of the Acqua Alta for eternity.


In the tympanums, unfortunately in a very bad condition, you can see the figures and decorations that at the time would have depicted some Etruscan myth, ritual or significant event. We recognize figures that could be identified as warriors, priests but also divinities, demons and winged geniuses, Charun (Etruscan Charon), Tuchulcha or Vanth, or as written elsewhere, Venus Libitina who presided over the funerals and ritein honour of the dead. Hanging weapons (a sword, a helmet, a large shield) would have been clearly visible in the time of Dennis, who writes about the scene:

“No — he must have been an Etruscan in blood and creed; for this same procession shows certain peculiarities of the Etruscan mythology — the winged genius of Death, with three other figures in long robes, bearing twisted rods — those mysterious symbols of the Etruscan Hades — conducting the souls of two warriors with funeral pomp, just as in the Typhon-tomb at Corneto.”


Side stairs allow for a rapid ascent to the raised space from which you can admire the Fosso. From this vantage point I can admire the monumentality of the site. Surely the families who built these two tombs spared no expense at a time when Tarquinia's fortunes were changing.. Before continuing along the exploration, we also admire a valuable fake door in relief, an emblematic liminal door symbolically closed to separate the world of the living from that of the dead.


It seems that in 1993 another sepulchral room was found between the two tombs, which housed a deceased person buried with a simple but particularly interesting outfit due to the presence of a pair of wood and leather sandals preserved at the Viterbo Museum - I will have to investigate this!

When we reach the Biedano river, we find it swollen by recent rains and we immediately identify a feasible crossing in a recently fallen tree. Crossing is not difficult and we immediately notice fox droppings on the trunk! We are not the only ones to have taken advantage of this natural bridge!

We look in vain in the vegetation for the Lattanzi Tomb with the sphinx (dated to the fifth century BC) but without GPS coordinates and with the very dense vegetation of the other bank of the Biedano we give up. It should be located at the spot where the two streams flow in the Biedano but we encounter the same difficulties as Dennis, who writes:


“I sought in vain for one described by Orioli as having a trapezium cut in the rock above its façade, in all probability to represent the roof to that sort of cavaedium which Vitruvius terms displuviatum. Nor could I find another, said by the same antiquary to have a sphinx in prominent relief on each of the side-walls of the façade.”


The Tomb, belonging to the Churcle family, appears to be particularly difficult to find and we just have to try again in the near future. From the descriptions the tomb should consist of two superimposed floors, with a portico (apparently collapsed) and monumental steps but above all the remains of a sphinx, placed to protect the dead and keeper of mysteries.


Having no specific coordinates but only a vague idea of ​​where perhaps the most extraordinary element of Norchia might be, we cross the dense bush and go up a ditch to the plateau of Monte Romano (CAREFUL: it is often the site of military training), a barren agricultural scenery interrupted only by ruins and herds of Maremma cows, looking at a sign in the plateau on the horizon that can indicate the position of what we are looking for. Initially we venture into a cleft that widens up to a terminal point: before our eyes suddenly we see the extraordinary Via Cava known as Cava Buia. We experience a slight vertigo because we suddenly find ourselves on the edge of a gully at least ten metres deep carved into the rock and we resign ourselves to having to retrace our path to find a safer access. Returning to the plateau, after about 300 metres I find the entrance to Cava Buia, barred by a fence placed to prevent cows from entering.




The Cava Buia extends for more than 400 metres and is entirely cut into the rock, with a difference in height of 40 metres between the plateau and the Biedano gorge. It is an extraordinary work that makes me reflect on the meaning of these mysterious paths that the Etruscans left everywhere in northern Lazio and southern Tuscany. Along the way you can spot crosses carved into the rock, perhaps placed there as protection by fearful Christian pilgrims, frightened by the "pagan" energy still perceived in those ancient and monumental paths.

However, we do not find the inscription that reads Clodio Tallio C. Clodius Thalpius (ua) P (ecunia) XXXX MD (edit) which according to some could identify the path that we are following as the Via Clodia (which connected Blera with Tuscania), while according to others it merely indicates the work of a freedman of the first century BC

It matters little - we cross the Cava Buia slowly, partly due to the humid and difficult path, partly due to the extraordinary nature of an unusual and mysterious place. At the end of the Cava Buia, we notice on the right some "pestarole" used in the past to press grapes and collect the must and we continue along the rock until we find an alcove, a strange stone wall and a small waterfall (perhaps a medieval hermitage? ).

The vegetation is too dense and we trace our steps back, descending along the river, passing the remains of the Roman bridge of which only one pylon remains (a square tuff bridge, 35 metres long and almost five metres wide) to finally find a ford that is not very easy but which allows us to get closer to the acropolis of the old city. We go up an unmarked path that climbs along the tuff walls, until we find a modern ladder and finally the medieval door built of local tuff stone.

A little further up, on the right we see the silhouette of the medieval and Romanesque church of San Pietro (9th century A.D.) of which a large part of the apse remains standing along with some interesting architectural details. We sit among the wild flowers to contemplate the rugged and wild landscape that surrounds us and to rest after the efforts of the Cava Buia. The church, perhaps built right on the site of an ancient Etruscan-Roman temple, has a particularly bright color at this time of the afternoon and around us we see openings and ditches, perhaps ancient medieval wells.




We continue along the clearly path and we quickly reach the remains of the Di Vico Castle, a Ghibelline family defeated by Pope Eugene IV in 1435, who destroyed the castle and took possession of Norchia. The walls are still standing but the vegetation covers the interior spaces making it difficult to explore the site.


Finally, continuing along the path we come to a Christian columbarium, placed overhanging the Biedano stream, one of the many medieval burial sites on the acropolis. Crossing the acropolis we find the path that descends to the Fosso Pile from where we can admire the scenic monumentality of the necropolis that we visited at the beginning of the excursion and we descend, crossing one of the bridges of the Fosso Pile to then find the path in the necropolis and return to our lonely car under the eucalyptus trees.


We end with the words of Dennis, who describes his journey from Vetralla to Norchia in this way:

“In the ravines is always more or less of the picturesque; yet their silence and lonesomeness, their woods almost stript of foliage, and dripping with moisture, have a chilling effect on the traveller's spirits, little to be cheered by the sight of a flock of sheep pent in a muddy fold, or of the smoke of the shepherd's fire issuing from a neighbouring cave, suggestive of a savage comfort.”


Not much seems to have changed since then!We will definitely return to Norchia to find the missing tombs and the nearby necropolis of Sferracavallo.

Norchia can be reached along the Vetralla-Monte Romano road in Cinelli. After about 7 km, park the car at the end of a road where a dirt track crosses the fields.






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