The enigmatic ‘cave roads’ of Tuscany

Little is known about the ancient Etruscans, but one of the clues they left behind is a network of sunken paths that are said to connect the living and dead worlds.

As I hiked down from the volcanic-rock hilltop fortress of Pitigliano into the Tuscan valley below, wildflowers grazed my legs. I crossed a gurgling stream at the bottom of the hill and followed a winding trail as it ascended. I found myself suddenly surrounded.

Huge blocks of tuff, a porous volcanic ash rock, rose up to 25m on either side of the trench I was in. I was terrified, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way in a cave like this. For centuries, these subterranean paths have been linked with devil and deity lore.

“Nobody went there when we were kids,” Elena Ronca said. a hiking guide who has spent the last 12 years leading tours in the Tuscany region where she grew up.

That’s because little was known about the trails or the Etruscan civilization that built them. Many pathways were abandoned and overgrown with shrubs because the ancients did not leave road maps or written records. Archaeological discoveries in tombs across central Italy, as far south as Corsica, have revealed more about the Etruscans and their mysterious vie caves, which are said to connect the land of the living with the land of the dead.

Vie caves (via cava is the singular) were walled pathways used to travel from the highlands to the riverbanks and vice versa. While they can be found all over central Italy (where the Etruscans thrived from 900 BCE until they were absorbed by the Roman Empire), the vie cave in southern Tuscany between the towns of Pitigliano, Sorano, and Sovana is one of the oldest and most intact. “It’s incredible how long the vie cave has lasted,” Ronca said. “They knew what they were doing during the Etruscan period.”

Each vie cave I walked through on my hike through the area was unique. Some were narrow, with walls no taller than me and finely crafted stairs. Others were lush moss and fern jungles surrounded by massive walls, or residential roads wide enough to fit a car or two.

The vie cave was originally carved only a few feet deep, Ronca explained, using a rock-cutting technique first seen in ancient Egypt that involved drilling a hole into the tuff, inserting a piece of wood, and then filling the hole with water. The tuff would fracture as the wood expanded. They would repeat this process, lengthening and deepening the road until it reached the desired size. “It’s not a simple or simple technique,” she explained.

Various empires, including the Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Franks, altered the vie cave over the centuries to suit their needs. Stairs and ravines were added at some unknown point along the way, but even the original vie cave had a way to channel out the rainwater: in each path I walked, I could see some form of water trough system cut into the tuff rock to prevent erosion and drain rainwater. “The Etruscans were exceptional hydraulic engineers,” Ronca said. “We know that they levelled some lakes and then drained vast wetlands in order to create farmable lands.”

As I continued on my journey, I came across deep diagonal pits with what appeared to be human-carved rock monuments above them. These were Etruscan necropolises, with individual or family tombs cut deep into the tuff and filled with gold, food, and clothing to ensure safe passage into the afterlife.

Unfortunately, many Etruscan tombs in the area have long been looted. After a visit to Tuscany in the 1920s, English writer D H Lawrence wrote in Etruscan Places, “to the tombs we must go: or to the museums containing the things that have been rifled from the tombs.” “. However, historians such as Luca Nejrotti, an archaeologist working with the Italian government in the region, have discovered pottery and painted frescoes in the necropolises, which may provide answers to some questions about the Etruscans and their culture. “Most Etruscan tombs have been robbed since antiquity, but the robbers used to take only the gold,” he explained. “So it’s quite interesting for archaeologists because you can still find pottery and other items that are quite old. “It’s crucial for historical research,” he said.

Because paint doesn’t stick to tuff very well, Etruscan tomb frescoes didn’t last in the Pitigliano area, but by studying famous frescoes in necropolises like the ones beneath Tarquinia, in the province of Lazio, along with artefacts in Tuscany, Nejrotti believes that vie cave might have hosted celebratory funeral parades, complete with food offerings, dancing, musical instruments, and even public sex. Some historians believe this is because the Etruscans believed life continued after death, and the vie caves served as portals to the afterlife. “The Etruscans believed that trees were gods, rivers were gods, and the most important gods were underground,” Ronca explained. “So, we’re not sure if the idea of digging a cave through the rock was a way to connect with these gods.”

Interestingly, the artefacts also suggest that women and men were equal in Etruscan society, which differs from how the Romans behaved: women are depicted in sculptures and paintings as being not only welcome but active participants at banquets and social gatherings; inscriptions indicate that women could inherit property and kept matronymic names (Roman women took their father’s or husband’s name); and the Sarcophagus of the Spouses, found in the Etruscan necropol

“Roman women were just the mother of the family – they had a lot of power, but it was all inside the house,” Ronca explained. “Females in the Etruscan world, on the other hand, were almost [the same] as men; they could rule a family, they could rule a town. We have a few female magistrates.”

The most intriguing theory proposed by artefacts and archaeological research, according to both Nejrotti and Ronca, is that Etruscans had a limited impact on the environment when compared to the Romans, who frequently razed land, rerouted rivers, and flattened hills. For example, the vie cave had a low environmental impact and was built with locally available materials -Perhaps because the Etruscans believed that certain natural features (such as trees and rivers) were gods and that man was inextricably linked to nature.