Archaeologists make new discoveries at San Casciano dei Bagni in Tuscany
The modern facilities of San Casciano are just a few meters from an ancient site which is currently undergoing an excavation effort. These baths are a network of sacred pools built by the pre-Italic Etruscan people as early as the 4th century BC, and later made more lavish by the ancient Romans, at a time when health and faith were deeply linked.
Archaeologists at the site uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts and relics last week, shedding light on the intimate connection that Italy’s past civilizations had with the ‘water religion’, or the healing and divine origins of hot spring water.
A votive offering in the form of a matrix to the gods, cast in bronze. Credit: Emanuele Mariotti/SABAP-SI
“What makes this site unique throughout the Mediterranean is the exceptional state of conservation, and the [evidence] it explains how hot water medical practices were considered curative under divine protection,” said archaeologist Jacopo Tabolli, scientific director of the excavation project and professor of Etruscan studies at the University for Foreigners of Siena. “The quantity and quality of the objects recovered are also astonishing. – we knew there was something there but we didn’t expect such a surprise.
Residents of San Casciano have long referred to the site as a “sacred mountain”, Tabolli said, also citing a doctor’s report from around the 16th century mentioning the presence of ancient buildings and a fountain. A geophysical study conducted by Tabolli’s team in 2019 revealed the presence of structures on the springs; the following year, ancient columns were discovered sticking out of a bush, and excavation work began (although it was later halted during the pandemic).
The ancient baths of San Casciano functioned as a hospital clinic, with visitors seeking respite from respiratory problems or bone pain. For many, a float in the waters reduced their pain, so after their bath they threw offerings to the gods in the bubbling pools giving thanks for being healed. These included tree branches, fragrant pine cones, and fruit such as peaches – which have been recovered in well-preserved states thanks to the layers of mud covering from the site.
Several relics carved in the form of miniature bronze leg, arm and ear offerings have also been unearthed. They were left to thank the gods for healing specific parts of the body or to call attention – hence the shape of the ear – to the prayers of suffering mortals.
A collection of three ear-shaped votive offerings discovered at San Casciano dei Bagni. Credit: Emanuele Mariotti/SABAP-SI
In Etruscan and Roman times, votive offerings in the shape of a womb were usually made of terracotta. A bronze found at San Casciano – which would have been very expensive to commission – is the first of its kind, Tabolli said, and serves as evidence of the importance of this thermal site.
“The findings tell us a lot about ancient Italian communities,” Tabolli explained, “and advance our research into their social, cultural and religious landscape as it relates to the sacred nature of hot water.”
The excavation site currently includes an Etruscan pool, which at eleven meters long and five meters deep is known as the “great bath”, and five smaller Roman pools where hot water still flows at a steady pace. approximately 2000 gallons per minute. There are ruins of fountains and statues alongside travertine stone altars dedicated to the god of prophecy and medicine, Apollo, the fertility goddess, Isis, and the firstborn goddess, Fortuna Primigenia .
An example of a phallus-shaped offering. Credit: Emanuele Mariotti/SABAP-SI
Health rituals performed at the baths included those specifically related to pregnancy and childbirth. A recovered statue of a naked baby has led archaeologists to believe that ancient women would visit San Casciano both during pregnancy and after childbirth in hopes of protecting their baby’s health. Similar practices have continued over the centuries since: “Until 50 years ago, women in the village who were having trouble conceiving a child would come to the baths believing that the water would relax their wombs,” said Tabolli.
The number of coins of bronze, silver and orichalcum — a precious metal believed by the Romans to have mystical powers — found in the deep end is also extraordinary, Tabolli said. It is the largest collection of old coins associated with the hot springs of the Mediterranean, and unique also for their perfect state of conservation. The pieces retained their original color both through the chemical properties of water and from being covered in mud, which prevented oxidation.
“They are always bright brown and bright yellow – such bright colors have never been found in any excavation site,” Tabolli said. “It’s a miracle.”
A new museum in the village will soon present the recovered wonders to the public. Local authorities and experts believe the spa town holds even more treasures to discover, with its deepest muddy layers hiding artifacts dating back to the Etruscan era.
Archaeologists will continue to work on the site, with Tabolli excited about what might be uncovered next. “I hope to dig up the founding sanctuary in its entirety,” Tabolli said. “We can already spot a pre-Roman layer.”