PHILADELPHIA - The Romans relished their founding myths. Aeneas, a fugitive from fallen Troy, anchored in the mouth of the Tiber River and there in the hills of Latium rekindled the flame of Trojan greatness. Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars and a sleeping beauty, were suckled by a she-wolf and grew up to establish the city destined for grandeur.
In reality, though, the Romans owed more than they ever admitted to their accomplished predecessors and former enemies on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans.
It has been left to the archaeologists and art historians of today to part some of the veils of time obscuring Etruscan culture and restore these enigmatic people to their proper place in pre-Roman history.
The Etruscans, who occupied much of north-central Italy in the first millennium B.C., traded far and wide in the Mediterranean. Their prosperity and taste for luxury supported a long trading chain leading north to the Baltic Sea for prized amber. That, some experts speculate, may account for the migration of a common Etruscan man's name, Lars, to Scandinavia.
Of more enduring importance, the Etruscans were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture and its pantheon of gods to the Romans. The Etruscans developed a version of the Greek alphabet, a step that influenced Roman letters and thereby northern Europe's. They built the first cities in Italy, when the hills of Rome stood barren of promise, and their influence shows up in later Roman works of architecture and engineering.
If the Etruscans were once considered a "lost" society, scholars said at a recent symposium at the University of Pennsylvania, they are now being found in new excavations and a closer examination of the wealth of artifacts that have been uncovered over the last century.
The symposium, "The Etruscans Revealed: New Perspectives on Pre-Roman Italy," was held in conjunction with the opening of a new gallery of Etruscan antiquities at the university's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
"Now we are feeling confident that we really know the Etruscans and what they believed and what they were doing," said Dr. Jean M. Turfa, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr College, who was an organizer of the meeting. "We can begin to look upon them as real people."
Dr. P. Gregory Warden, an Etruscan archaeologist at Southern Methodist University, said the significant change was a movement away from almost total reliance on evidence from tombs, splendid as some are, to systematic excavations of where the people lived.
The ruins of settlements and cities, Warden said, are revealing the "social landscape" from huts to houses to palaces. At places in and around Florence, Bologna, Perugia and Pisa, excavators are uncovering remains of fortification walls, artisans' workshops and kilns, temples, and grids of streets.
Dr. Stephan Steingraber of the German Archaeological Institute of Rome described evidence of considerable urban planning. Some cities were laid out in separate zones for residences, industry and public buildings. Roads had ruts paved with stone, like trolley tracks, for a smoother ride in springless carriages and chariots.
Dr. Annette Rathje of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said that excavations at a site called Murlo, on a hill south of Siena, were turning up increasing evidence of large-scale settlement and monumental art, including bold friezes and some of the earliest architectural terra cottas in Italy.
The ancient city had an impressive acropolis and an enormous building, the largest in Italy before the sixth century B.C., that appears to have consisted of many smaller structures around a courtyard. Statues of gods or dignitaries and mythical beasts adorned the place. Perhaps, Rathje said, this was a ruling family's palace.
Warden is directing research at a site called Poggio Colla, 22 miles northeast of Florence. The team, which includes other excavators from Southern Methodist University, Penn, and Franklin and Marshall College, has explored a well-defined city wall, an extensive cemetery and, especially rare, a temple.
The excavations, Warden said, have yielded new insights into the stratified Etruscan society in which a wealthy elite controlled a large population of slaves and serfs. People lived at Poggio Colla from the seventh to the second century B.C., almost the entire span of known Etruscan history.
No one knows when the Etruscans came to Italy or where they came from. They spoke a language unlike any other known European tongue, one that is hard to read and survives mostly as limited tomb inscriptions.
Etruscan ancestors may have crossed the Alps from the north, or lived so long where they were that their origins were of little relevance. Yet Etruscan customs and traditions have been seen as an intriguing amalgam of those of others, possibly people from Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and particularly the Greeks. Aristotle wrote of a trade alliance signed by the Etruscans and Carthaginians.