2 Jan 2008

Turfa exposes a 70-year-old error in Etruscology

The above picture is courtesy of Turfa, Catalogue of the Etruscan Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania (2005), p.138 [link] which, while explaining the inscription on this intriguing object, has inadvertantly said something profound about Etruscology (red indicates parts of the text I find somewhat alarming yet also typical of this field):

"E. Fiesel, note to Lehmann-Hartleben 1935:80 (this cites inscription on exterior as name 'sphinx,' but spelled atu, now recognized as aśu, for archaic form of cross-bar sigma. Correct reading given in Fiesel 1936); G. Buonamici, REE in SE 11 (1937):443-44 no. 1, but incorrectly inserts mi before name; TLE 766 (incorrect insertion of mi); Agostiniani 1982:526 (follows TLE 766); Rix, ET Cr 2.42 (mi inserted); Bagnasco Gianni 1996:310-11 no. 303, 335, 374 (follows TLE 766); L. Bonfante, forthcoming: gives correct reading without mi)"
Half of the beauty of this quote is its unnecessary obfuscation, since it is very easy to overlook the ugly jumble of numbers and codes that obscure the account of what is in effect just one example of the perverse carelessness in Etruscology still going on.

Let me translate what the above is effectively saying. It says that the correct transcription was given in 1936 (a total of 40 years before I was born) but then a year thereafter, Giulio Buonamici was the first culprit that inserted mi, presumably because he made an "innocent" mistake of presuming this was a "speaking inscription" with mi preceding the name Thanakvil despite the obvious fact that the name is the very start of the inscription because of the smoothly finished edge of the vessel's rim right next to the initial letter theta, quite visible in the supplied photograph! Personally I don't find a mistake like that very excusable because truly attentive scholars examine and re-examine these artifacts so they wouldn't likely leave mistakes like this left uncorrected for decades unless their ego or disinterest was the reason.

So apparently 1937 was a bad year. Thereafter, Buonamici's lack of diligence was compounded by the errors of new scholars equally ignorant of their archaeology. So Massimo Pallottino, a man considered to be a foremost expert in Etruscology, could not be bothered to verify his antecedents' transcriptions. The TLE (short for Testimonia Linguae Etruscae) was first published in 1954 and listed the many inscriptions known to Etruscology up to then. This means that at this point in time, the mistake was already about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Even a 20-year-old mistake like this is proposterous in itself.

A few decades went by, Woodstock happened, the Beatles broke up and Elvis died. Vladimir Georgiev published the same gaffe in 1979 (see link here; read also footnote [1] below). Then George Michael popped onto the scene doing his gogo, the Berlin wall came down and finally Helmut Rix, yet another noteworthy academic in the field, published his Etruskische Texte in 1991. Reindexing "TLE 766" as "ET Cr 2.42", he apparently was also too busy to verify the transcriptions he had before him in a mad dash to get something of great magnitude published in his name. At this point, the mistake hit its 54th birthday. You'd think this error was nearing the age of retirement but alas no. Clinton became president, had a cigar controversy, George Michael was outed and it took Larissa Bonfante all this time to publish the inscription correctly again (but not before Turfa set an example). The Bonfantes too then would be implicated in the decades-long gaffe, right up to only a few years ago, if they have at any point published this inserted word.

So from 1936 to 2005, the world of Etruscology had amnesia and actually forgot what was previously known. This mistake is a total of 68 years old, older than my own father. An entire person's lifetime of error! Why did such a simple mistake take so long to correct? Are we to believe that despite what must be at least a thousand people reading the TLE and the ET for such a long time, absolutely none of them noticed this? Or did several people notice this but reckoned that rocking the boat wasn't such a good idea? Or perhaps most have an undue amount of faith in the infallibility of whomever society labels "experts"? How many similar errors are out there like this?

This caper only proves that a deep suspicion of Etruscology and its ivory tower politics is perfectly reasonable. The cold, hard truth seems to be that, unlike other fields such as Egyptian or Near-Eastern studies, there are as yet no genuine experts in Etruscology that have evolved beyond this sort of amateurish disregard for basic details. Etruscology remains stagnant in its infancy. This is why I'm in a mad hunt for detailed artifact pictures. Trust no one, caveat lector.

[1] Notice also how D'Aversa also apes everyone else in the same year while completely misrepresenting the actual sibilants in the inscription by mixing san with sigma, giving them all diacritics. D'Aversa, La lingua degli etruschi (1979), p.292 (see link): mi Θanakviluś Śuciśnaia.


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