Astragalomancy in Etruria: An Analysis of the Astragali at Cetamura del Chianti

Patrick Lebo


158 unpublished astragali (animal knucklebones) excavated from 2011-2014 in a deep well on the Romano-Etruscan site of Cetamura del Chianti (Tuscany, Italy) are the focus of this research project.  Knucklebones were and still are widely used in many world cultures for games of chance and to determine divine will. My research question was to determine whether these sheep/goat, cow, pig, and deer bones were used for Roman or Etruscan divination or games of chance, or were simply thrown into the well as debris between the 3rd century BCE and the mid-first century CE. My methodology included a detailed analysis of each knucklebone, cataloging, weighing, measuring, and photographing each, and noting any anomalous features. After a brief synthesis of research on astragali at archaeological sites in Greece and Asia Minor, specifically the Artemision in Ephesus and the Corycian Cave near Delphi, my focus turns to astragolomancy (divination by throwing knucklebones) and cleromancy (divination through lots) more broadly as they relate to both Etruscan and Greco-Roman ritual, in order to further understand their significance at Cetamura. Next, the archaeological context of the bones is highly suggestive of ritual activity, since a forthcoming report on the bones made by an Italian scientist for the Cetamura dig shows that most of the bones are not in matching pairs, so are not likely to be food debris. I conclude that signs of human use on the bones combined with the spread of deposition constrained mostly to the Etruscan use level of the well, the evidence for other ritual activity at the well, and what we know about the Etruscans’ affinity and respect for divination strongly suggest that these bones did have a ritual or religious function and that they were deposited with regularity during the Etruscan occupation of the site.


Classics; Archaeology; Etruscans; Astragali

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