Oval Hut Urn, 9th century B.C., Terracotta
20.5 x 26 cm (8 1/16 x 10 1/4 in.)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The urn above is a characteristic example of similar objects discovered throughout the period (of which you can see examples here and here). What's fascinating about these urns is that they provide us with rare information about what early Italic houses might have looked like. Structures like these ones – most likely made of a combination of a combination of wooden poles, wattle and daub walls and thatch roofing – tend not to be preserved, as the natural materials tend to decompose over time (except in special circumstances: the site at Must Farm in the UK is one example). Here, we get a glimpse into the everyday lives of this early Italian civilisation, and the houses in which they would have lived.
And the example above has a lot to tell us. If we start with the door, you can probably make out a protrusion sticking from its centre with a hole in the middle – matched by a similar one either side of the doorframe. This would originally have held a small wooden rod to keep the door closed. Projections on the terracotta roof hint at the original roof structure, complete with ridge pole, rafters and cross beams; while the incised scratches along the roof's edge perhaps hints at the texture of thatch. It has even been suggested that the projecting rafters above the ridgepole show a Cretan influence, hinting at the influence of Greek trade and Greek art in the Villanovan period – thus complicating both our usual insulated approach to the study of Greek and Roman history, and the Dark Age narrative of reduced Greek trade and commerce across the Mediterranean.
Similar hut urns were discovered in a 9th-8th century BCE cemetery in central Rome, directly beneath the site of the later Roman forum. With objects like this, we can begin to imagine what the early settlement in the Tiber valley must have looked like: a series of small farmsteads, made of wattle and daub and roofed with thatch, situated near the River Tiber on the hills which would later form the heart of the city of Rome.