Founded in the mid-eighteenth century thanks to a donation by the noble abbot Mario Guarnacci, it has been housed in Palazzo Desideri Tangassi since 1877 and exhibits artefacts ranging from prehistoric times to the Hellenistic period (1st century B.C.), the period of Volterra’s greatest splendour. It houses the world’s largest collection of Etruscan funerary urns, some 600 in number, used to collect the ashes of the dead.
The production of urns was widespread in Volterra between the 4th and 1st centuries B.C., using various materials such as terracotta, stone and alabaster. The most significant urns are made of alabaster, a material that is easy to shape and paint.
The museum, one of the oldest public museums in Europe and one of the most important Etruscan museums in Italy. has also been recognised as being of regional importance, linked to Volterra as the 2022 City of Culture of Tuscany.
Among the most famous pieces are the Ombra della Sera (the symbol of Volterra), an Etruscan bronze statuette from the 3rd century B.C. with a characteristic elongated shape that resembles a human shadow cast in the light of sunset, the monumental Etruscan stele of Avile Tite, 1.70 metres high and depicting an Etruscan warrior, and finally the Urn of the Bride and Groom, (Urna degli Sposi) which depicts two elderly spouses lying on a bed at a banquet with their faces strongly characterised.