The Etruscans occupied ancient Italy prior to the Romans, known to have laid the foundations for the great civilization to follow. Though highly influential, little is known about them because of a surprising lack of non-perishable artifacts. Our understanding of Etruscan language and culture is scant; their religious beliefs have been all but lost.

But now, a breakthrough discovery: Archaeologists excavating an ancient Etruscan temple in Tuscany have unearthed a 2,500-year-old stone slab that is marked with obscure writing that scholars believe could represent a long lost Etruscan religious text, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden.

“Inscriptions of more than a few words, on permanent materials, are rare for the Etruscans, who tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets,” added Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa. “This stone stele is evidence of a permanent religious cult with monumental dedications, at least as early as the Late Archaic Period, from about 525 to 480 BCE.”

The enormous 500-pound stone slab is worn down from years of erosion, but a lengthy inscription remains that contains at least 70 characters and punctuation marks readily discernible to the naked eye. Most examples of Etruscan writing found previously are from funerary objects — marked graves, basically — which are much shorter by comparison to this inscription.

Scholars are enthralled by the possibility of learning new words from the ancient language, words that might reveal the names of lost gods or goddesses once worshipped but now forgotten.

It's a remarkable discovery that promises to fill gaps in our knowledge of a lost culture, a culture that mysteriously disappeared from recorded history despite existing at the very nexus of the great Greek and Roman civilizations.

Interestingly, modern genetic studies suggest that the Etruscans likely represented the indigenous people of the region, and research into their language indicates it was non-Indo-European, unrelated in any direct way to other known language groups. They were a unique, inexplicable people — so this presents a historical conundrum, considering how they brushed shoulders with the major civilizations that sit at the heart of Western development.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Ancient stone engravings could be long lost religious text
2,500-year-old stone slab could offer clues to deciphering the lost language and religion of the Etruscans.