History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
The Etruscans: Technology and Engineering 
Ship on fresco from Tomb of the Ship, Tarquinia
Trading ship. Etruscan. 5th C BC. Tomb fresco. Tomb of the Ships, Tarquinia, Italy. Photo Mysterious Etruscans and other Web sites.


The Etruscans understood that to prosper you needed a growing population.

Only with a growing population could you escape the basics of survival--hunting, gathering, or subsistence farming.

The Etruscans used technology to increase the welfare of their society and thus the total size of the population.

Etruscan Technology and Engineering  

As Etruscan power grew, deadly rivals took notice: pirates, Carthaginians, Romans. But the Etruscans were not complacent. They became noted engineers and technologists to protect themselves.

They could have used a good publicist.  Hardly anyone today has heard of an Etruscan cuniculus, while everybody knows about Roman aqueducts.

The Etruscans developed:

--new water and agricultural techniques

--metallurgy, especially bronze


--ships and ports

--architecture and buildings


Roof Tiles and Temples

The Etruscans spread t
iled roofs and temple architecture throughout Italy. Tiled roofs protected the fragile and  perishable wooden building underneath.

Their notable contribution was in popularizing the roof's seal. The roof could then protect the structure of the wooden building from the effects of rain and animals for a longer time than existing building materials.

To seal, the Etruscans lay down rectangles of tile across the roof, then overlapped half-round tiles on top, along the seams of the rectangles--an ingenious seal.

The ends of the tiles along the roof line were sealed with antefixes, usually with fierce-looking figures like a Gorgon or a Medusa to scare away danger. Or to keep birds from nesting inside the openings.

Tiled roofs were most often seen on Etruscan temples. The Etruscans used post-and-lintel construction, with columns as the visual point of focus, topped by the red tile roof.
  modern terracotta roof tile
A terracotta roof tile, schematic drawing

Roof tile antefix
Antefix, Gorgon or Medusa .
Etruscan. 5th c BC. Terracotta. Getty Villa.
Water Control

The Cuniculus

The most remarkable Etruscan engineering feat was in water control. .

lentiful, controlled, clean water was one of the most serious problems in the ancient Mediterranean.

The Etruscans inhabited potentially fertile coastal plains. But, their water source--the downhill flow  from the Apennines Mountains--was  unpredictable.  It meandered down in streamlets and became marshland rather than flowing in a straight line.

The water from marshlands could also be unhealthy. In a marshland, standing water is exposed to direct sunlight, developing algae and methane gas.

The Cuniculus

The cuniculus was their ingenious solution. It was a type of trenching system which could  drained water away from the marshes. They used it to irrigate dry farmland, thus increasing the food supply.

By carrying healthy water to Etruscan villages, tiny communities could become larger. As Etruscan villages grew into cities, specialized labor to produce goods emerged.
  Etruscan cuniculus water system, graphic
Etruscan cuniculus system for water control.

The Etruscans were sitting on vast natural resources, both on their Island of Elbe and in the foothills of the Apennines. Underneath the surface lay copious amounts of copper and other ores.

As their population grew, specialists emerged. The Etruscans developed highly-desired metallurgy skills.

They became famous for their bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, and for their gold jewelry.

Etruscan Armor

Bronze gave them an edge in military prowess. Their military equipment was bronze, while their competitors had only leather. With the technical superiority of their bronze, Etruscan military forces could protect their natural resources and ports.

Etruscan Jewelry

Etruscan jewelry today shows astonishing technique and refinement.

They devised new gold smithing techniques, resulting in high demand for their products.

As wealth accumulated throughout the Mediterranean, their supply of gold jewelry met a growing market for their products.

Etruscan body armor Cuirass. New York Met
Military Body Armor (Cuirass)
. Etruscan. 5th C BC. Bronze. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Etruscan gold necklace. Munich
Necklace. Etruscan. Gold. State Museum of Antiquities, Munich.
Roads and Bridges

The raw ores needed for metallurgy and for trade were located in the interior of Etruscan territory. The metalworking shops and the coastal trading ports were on the coast.


To get the ores to the workshops and then to the trading ships, the Etruscans built roads that were the best until the Romans perfected road building hundreds of years later. Etruscan roads were made of tufa--easy to cut but also easy to crumble.


The Etruscans built bridges for their roads, made of wood and tufa. (Two tufa bridge supports remain near San Giavonale. The bridge itself is long gone.) 
  Etruscan Road Sarteano Italy
Etruscan Road, Sarteano. Photo: Italy House Scout web site.

Sea Power

Shipping by sea was much more economical and faster than transport by animal-drawn carts. The Etruscans were known for their seamanship, enabling them to trade freely throughout the Mediterranean. 

Etruscan Trade

The Etruscans’ control over the seas was crucial for developing its north-south  trade. They wanted amber. This precious ingredient was used in jewelry and in religious rites from the Baltic Sea in the north. Once the amber Italy, the Etruscans  traded it by sea with areas throughout the Mediterranean and further east.

On the Adriatic, the Etruscans established the port of Spina, below present-day Venice, for east-west trade. They exported their own finished goods, especially jewelry,  and imported huge numbers of Greeks vases in the 5th c BC.  Etruscan objects have been found all around the Mediterranean and the Near East. 
  Ship on fresco from Tomb of the Ship, Tarquinia
Trading ship. Etruscan.
5th C BC. Tomb fresco. Tomb of the Ships, Tarquinia, Italy.

Merchant vessels were squat affairs, using square sails and closely hugging the coastline.
There’s lots we don’t know and cannot recover.

While we can see the final product-- ships (through paintings), tile roofs,  roads, military gear, jewelry-- we know little about how they got there. What were the means of production?  How  did they extract minerals and raw ore from the ground and worked the metals?  No intact mine works or metallurgy workshops have been found to give us clues. 

How did they train others? We don't know.  Engineering manuals, if any were ever composed, have not survived.
You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com