Planet Earth

Ancient Offerings Unearthed in Tuscany Reveal a Cultural Crossroads

These bronzes have been called the “find of the century," where the ailing set aside their differences to worship and heal.

By Elizabeth HeathFeb 17, 2024 10:00 AM
Il santuario in corso di scavo
Field director Emanuele Mariotti leads the excavation at the San Casciano dei Bagni thermal baths — separated from spa pools that are still in use today by mere yards and a simple fence. (Credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)


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Field director Emanuele Mariotti unambiguously calls it “the find of the century” — the most significant discovery in Mediterranean archaeology thus far in the 21st century, and maybe in the last century, too.

In the autumn of 2022, his team excavating at the ancient thermal baths at San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy, revealed to the public the spectacular relics they’d pulled from the mud. Scholars and armchair archaeologists alike were gobsmacked, both by the abundance of artifacts — more than two dozen bronze statues and busts — and by their remarkable states of preservation, thanks to their long sleep under a blanket of airtight muck.

 The artistic value of the bronzes is indisputable, but what makes San Casciano so important, Mariotti says, is that the objects and the broader site being excavated are exactly as they were left when the site was systematically closed around the turn of the fifth century C.E. “Museums are full of beautiful objects,” he says. “But sometimes they don’t tell the story, the relationships between those objects.” Thanks to this intact historical context, the story emerging here promises to shed new light on the end of the Etruscan period, a turning point in history as dominion over the central Italian peninsula transitioned from the Etruscans to the Romans.

 Archaeologists have also recovered bronze anatomical figures of feet, hands, ears, internal organs and viscera, even a uterus. It’s these peculiar finds that help to verify that San Casciano was more than just a place where worshippers petitioned the gods.

According to researchers, the artifacts may demonstrate that for nearly a thousand years, those who came to San Casciano were visiting an established center of medicine where they had a viable chance of being cured. That cure came not just by divine intervention, but likely also by skilled healers with knowledge of human anatomy and maladies and an understanding of the curative properties of the hot mineral water that still bubbles up all over the valley.

(Credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)

Adopting and extinguishing culture

Today, San Casciano dei Bagni is one of Tuscany’s most popular spa destinations. Steam rises off the outdoor thermal pools at a luxury resort. Down the hill, those who don’t want to pay five-star prices can soak in shallow stone vasche, or tubs, built by the Romans and fed by the same hot springs that have surged here for millennia. There are 42 sorgenti, or springs here, from which millions of gallons of water gush on a daily basis, naturally heated to temperatures between 100 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit.

A tall fence is all that separates present-day bathers from the sanctuary of the Bagno Grande (“the large bath”), which until recently had been buried under an agricultural plot. Since excavations began in 2019, archaeologists led by Mariotti and Jacopo Tabolli of the Università per Stranieri di Siena have drained and excavated this semi-elliptical pool and its surrounding ritual spaces — which were almost certainly the focal point of a much larger religious and healing complex.

The complex was active from the third century B.C.E. to the turn of the fifth century C.E. The peak of its importance, and the period that’s most intrigued researchers, appears to have been between the second century B.C.E. and first century C.E. The bronzes date to this period, and they help tell the story of a tumultuous period on the Italian peninsula: the centuries-long arc of Etruscan decline and Roman supremacy.

By the second century, Rome was securing its authority in Etruria, the region of central Italy that now includes parts of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. Archaeological evidence has suggested that during this time, Etruscan language and identity, which had dominated central Italy since at least 900 B.C.E., were all but consumed by Romanization — the gradual, organized hegemony in which Rome absorbed the suppressed culture, adopting and adapting certain aspects, and extinguishing others. Popular uprisings were still common, however, and whatever uneasy truce prevailed was enforced by the military might of Rome.

But the bronzes at San Casciano challenge this accepted history. Instead, they provide contextual evidence of Etruscan and Latin cultures and peoples peacefully coexisting and coming together to solicit cures, give thanks to the gods, and seek treatment for ailments. Many of the recently uncovered bronzes are inscribed in Etruscan or Latin and are contemporary to each other, showing that the Etruscan language survived much longer than previously thought. Many bear inscriptions from prominent families of nearby Chiusi (one of the most important of the Etruscan cities), Perugia, and Siena, evidence that these families survived Roman conquest.

The statues, combined with the long active period of the site, confirm, according to Tabolli, “that even in historical periods in which the most terrible conflicts rage outside, inside these basins and on these altars the two worlds, the Etruscan and the Latin, they seem to coexist without problems.” The 2023 unearthing of a travertine altar further corroborates Tabolli and his team’s findings. Dating to the first century C.E., the altar’s inscriptions mention the sacredness of the hot springs, or source — and are written in both Etruscan and Latin.

Archaeologists have so far pulled over two dozen bronze works from the muck, ranging from busts to statues to votive offerings. (Credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)

Site of healing

So what actually happened at San Casciano dei Bagni, and why do archaeologists believe that it was a site of healing, not just worship? The answers are found in knowledge of Etruscan and Roman medical expertise, the presence of thermal mineral water at the site, and those dazzling bronze clues left at the bottom of the Bagno Grande. 

Ancient texts, including passages from fourth-century-B.C.E. Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who was writing contemporaneously to the Etruscan era, speak of the skills of Etruscans in the use of medicinal plants. Many of those herbal remedies and their associated cures are still known to us today, such as feverfew for treating pain and inflammation, gentian for digestive problems, and valerian for eczema and insomnia. Hundreds of years later, Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist who famously perished at the 79 C.E. eruption of Vesuvius, wrote in his Natural History of the Etrurians’ use of milifolium (or yarrow), in treating wounds and toothaches.

The archaeological record also yields plenty of insights into ancient medical understanding and practices in Italy during the Roman imperial period. “Name the surgical instrument and they probably had one,” says Lauren Caldwell, a lecturer on Roman social and medical history and law at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who lists “scalpels, spatulas for applying salves, knives, scissors, cupping vessels, obstetrical instruments, specula for gynecological and rectal exams, and appliances for removing teeth and setting bones” among the tools that archaeologists have discovered at sites including Pompeii and Rimini. Caldwell says that while there’s scant textual evidence that describes actual surgical procedures from before Imperial Rome, the first-century-C.E. encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus does describe operations such as cutting for bladder stones and amputating limbs.

Grounded in that understanding of Roman and Etruscan medical expertise, equally important is that the ancient record documents the association of springs and thermal sites with healing — wisdom the Romans may have gleaned from the Etruscans. Prior to excavations at San Casciano, springs, pools, and running water features were identified at several Etruscan cult sites, which, like San Casciano, became Roman places of worship and, in some cases, healing. By at least the first century B.C.E., Romans associated springs with healing — Vitruvius recommended building temples to healing gods near these sources, such that when the sick “are transferred from an unhealthy to a healthy spot, and treated with waters from health-giving springs, they will the more speedily grow well. The result will be that the divinity will stand in higher esteem and find his dignity increased, all owing to the nature of his site.” Caldwell points out that Celsus described going to hot springs to treat fever, chills, and muscle aches, and for post-surgical recovery and wound healing.

That healing facilities would be located next to cult sites is a reflection of how faith and medicine were intertwined in the minds of the ancients, explains Caldwell. “We have a broad sense that the idea of divine healing was coexisting and compatible in people’s minds with going to the doctor,” she says, and that the same person would seek out both medical treatment and an assist from healing gods. Hot springs, still used today for their therapeutic benefits, would have logically been places for seeking cures and making divine offerings. The healing pilgrimage may have involved the patient making an initial offering in supplication, which might have included a vow to make another offering if a cure was obtained. Excavation work at San Casciano is just beginning to explore wider questions about what kinds of activities, such as worship rituals or treatments by healers, might have taken place around the sanctuary.

Combined, the bronze finds at San Casciano document that both supplication and thanks were offered. Anatomical parts, such as the uterus model that was recovered, or statues of infants, suggest worshippers may have been asking for pregnancy or safe childbirth. Bronze hands, feet, and ears may have been left as requests for the gods to heal specific body parts, or they may have been a more symbolic entreaty to be touched by, walk with, or heard by the gods. The offerings would have been left on the edge of the Bagno Grande or at small altars surrounding the main pool. Some were left at the base of a large tree that once stood in the sanctuary.

Among the most curious items recovered from the Bagno Grande are two bronze models of viscera — depictions of torsos with organs, including lungs, trachea, stomach, and intestines exposed, what Mariotti describes as essentially “autopsies in bronze.” One is inscribed with the name and provenance of the donor, followed by VSLM, the abbreviation for the Latin votum solvit libens merito, meaning the donor “discharges the vow freely, as is deserved.”

Archaeologist Jean Macintosh Turfa of the University of Pennsylvania has extensively researched ancient anatomical votives and explains that the inscription on the torso “could have [indicated] any number of different problems. The fact they do not specify [the ailment] in inscriptions is similar to the way the models do not depict lesions, since depicting disease or imperfection might detract from the good publicity of a cure and might remind people that their affliction was a punishment from the gods.”

Such an offering, called an ex-voto, would have been made in fulfillment of a vow to the gods (“If you heal me, I’ll make a donation”), and indicates that the donor was cured, though we don’t know of what.

(Credit: Italian Ministry of Culture)

Preserving offerings

Those few centuries that Etruscans and Romans co-worshipped, sought cures, and left their precious offerings at San Casciano were essentially sealed in a time capsule sometime around the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century C.E. The Bagno Grande was very deliberately dismantled, but not destroyed, either by pagans seeking to protect the vestiges of their vanishing faith, or by the emerging Christian majority: Whoever closed the site intentionally placed the bronzes into the main pool and laid the stone columns that lined the vasca on top of it, effectively preserving the offerings for more than 1,500 years.

Bathers in the public baths nearby or at the private hotel up the hill may not realize the historical significance of the thermal waters they soak in. They no longer leave offerings, though they do, presumably, come to the baths for some form of relief. The constant has always been the water, the springs, the source. And as excavations carry on here for years to come, those same waters will continue to reveal the secrets of this remarkable place of cultural crossroads and ancient healing.

This story was originally published in our March April 2024 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.

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