FLORENCE, Italy, March 31 (UPI) -- A 500-pound slab of sandstone recently unearthed in Italy after 2,500 years underground might offer valuable new insight into Etruscan history and the lives experienced by members of the ancient civilization, scientists said Thursday.
The slab, known as a stele to archaeologists, was found in the foundation of an Etruscan temple in Tuscany and features numerous distinguishing marks researchers believe were part of the civilization's language -- an aspect of the society that has never been fully understood.
"We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language," archaeologist Gregory Warden said in a news release. "Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long, so there will be new words that we have never seen before."
Researchers said the stele dates back to 6th century B.C.
Because finding Etruscan artifacts are rare, scientists have hailed the stele's find as a major discovery, which may also enable experts to gain better insight into the civilization's religion.
"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," Warden, a professor at Southern Methodist University, said while noting that the slab was likely displayed at the temple as a symbol of authority.
The stele was uncovered at the Poggio Colla excavation site, which lies northeast of Florence.
"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," Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa said. "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."
Based on what researchers say they do know about the civilization, Etruscans' way of life heavily influenced the ancient Romans on numerous matters, such as religion, government, art and architecture. The stele, which measures four feet tall and two feet wide, features at least 70 legible letters and punctuation markings.
The sandstone slab will be studied and preserved at a research site in Tuscany, scientists said, which will include full photogrammetry and laser scanning.
The archaeologists said cleaning the stele, which shows signs of chipping and evidence of a possible burning on one side, will allow them to better read its inscriptions.