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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Livorno > Popolonia and the Iron of the Etruscans
Populonia: the iron of the Etruscans

Damiano Andreini

The month of August, in Tuscany, slowly passes through still and sunny days. The thirsty and droughty country still maintain its golden face with the recently cut wheat. The sky is a clear, silent sea. In the afternoon life seems to be suspended, waiting for the evening, when people will walk and think again. During the hot hours of the afternoon the only alternatives are to sleep or sunbathe, except for those who still fight working in the weak rhythm of the hot time. Then, if one has the luck of being in enchanting and never too much crowded beaches, like the one in the Gulf of Baratti, I can assure you, on my own experience, that it is really delightful to combine both things.


The Gulf of Baratti and Populonia (one hour time by car southwards Pisa) is the northern end of the Piombino headland, privileged sailing place for Elba Isle. One who gets there, still before parking the car, immediately realizes to be in a very special place: at the left of the sole small road crossing the whole gulf there are some of the most beautiful Etruscan tombs of Tuscany; several sarcophagi and elegantly hut or tumulus shaped stone buildings dot the surrounding soft country.

The tombs, which are now part of a large archeological site (about 80 hectares divided into three different didactic routes) saw the light in the early XX century further to a large excavation carried out with mechanical machines by a metallurgical industry for the iron working, as the soil there around the gulf resulted to be very rich in iron residues. At about 10 meters dip, down the debris, a necropolis was discovered and some years later, on the hill westwards the gulf , also the acropolis of Populonia (called in the Etruscan language "Fufluna", arised from Fufluns, god of the agriculture) was discovered. Populonia was the last town of the Etruscan "Dodecapoli" to be founded and the only one of them to have a view over the sea.


Between the VIII and the V century b.C. Populonia had the monopoly in the iron trade (and its by-products) all over the Mediterranean Sea. The raw iron mainly came from Elba Isle, but it then began to be imported when the island (which was called, not by chance, "La Fumosa" - the smoky island - by Plinio il Vecchio) had no more trees to be stoked in the furnaces. The iron working therefore began in the Gulf of Baratti. Throughout the centuries the most ancient necropolis of the place became abandoned and literally submerged by thousands of tons of waste products, obviously unused by the Etruscans who did not own blast furnaces.

On the right of the road, two meters lower compared to the road level, we can find a dark red-sandy beach shining at the sun with its iron residues; here and there some big half-burned rocks emerge, they are probably what has left of the Etruscan rudimentary melting furnaces. It is also known that the beach is what remains of the millenarian erosion of the gulf coast, since the harbor, back in its origins, extended for some other tenths of meters further the present shore-line.


If one who has even a vague idea of the millenarian story of Baratti places his beach towel over that evocative beach stretch and falls asleep in the enveloping sun of August, practically gives himself up to the time and history: it seems that indistinct voices of the ancient forge men, of shouting mariners from the ship bow, of peasants bowed in the fields and of women busy with their children, our ancestors, still can be heard, mixed to today's bathers, like playing there on the pier, two steps from us..

The hill that on the opposite promontory closes the Gulf of Baratti houses the small village of Populonia, already called by the Etruscans Fufluns, 150 meters sheer to the sea. It is there, from the non asphalted large square before the entry walls to the castle, that the most charming sunset of the entire Tuscan coast can be enjoyed. Or, at least, this is my convinced opinion.

Damiano Andreini
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