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Archaeologists recover ancient ‘fertility statuettes’ from famed Tuscan hot springs

<i>Emanuele Mariotti/SABAP-SI</i><br/>A collection of three ear-shaped votive offerings unearthed at San Casciano dei Bagni.
Emanuele Mariotti/SABAP-SI
A collection of three ear-shaped votive offerings unearthed at San Casciano dei Bagni.

Silvia Marchetti, CNN

The village of San Casciano dei Bagni, in Tuscany’s lush Sienese countryside, is widely seen as one of Italy’s top hot spring destinations, a place where open-air spa lovers and thermal pilgrims have come to float in natural bubbly waters for over two thousand years.

San Casciano’s modern-day facilities are just a few feet from an ancient site that is currently the focus of an excavation effort. These thermal baths are a network of holy pools built by the pre-Italic Etruscan people as early as the 4th century BC, and later made more lavish by the ancient Romans, during an era when health and faith were deeply intertwined.

San Casciano is a geothermal hub with forty hot springs, six connected to the thermal sanctuary. The Etruscan picked this location to utilize the therapeutic power of the water’s chemical properties — it is rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium, as well as chloride and sulfates.

Archaeologists at the site unearthed last week a treasure trove of artifacts and relics, shedding light into the intimate connection Italy’s past civilizations had with “water religion,” or the healing, divine origins of hot spring water.

Rare items believed to have been used as votive offerings to the gods — including so-called fertility statuettes shaped like a phallus, a womb and a pair of breasts — have been dug out from the site’s mud. So have 3,000 ancient coins, 700 of which are freshly minted — and still shiny. In the second century AD, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Carus had the coins thrown into the baths to honor gods watching over his health, as well as that of all Romans traveling to San Casciano for thermal treatment.

“What makes this site unique in the entire Mediterranean is the exceptional state of preservation, and the [evidence] it provides for how medical hot water practices were considered curative under divine protection,” said archaeologist Jacopo Tabolli, scientific director of the excavation project and professor of Etruscan studies at Siena’s University for Foreigners. “The amount and quality of the objects recovered are also astonishing — we knew something was down there but weren’t expecting such a surprise.

San Casciano locals have long called the site a “sacred mountain,” Tabolli said, citing also a report from a circa-16th century doctor mentioning the presence of ancient buildings and a fountain. A geo-physical survey conducted by Tabolli’s team in 2019 revealed the presence of structures on the springs; the following year, ancient columns were discovered jutting out of a bush and excavation work began (though it later paused during the pandemic).

San Casciano’s ancient thermal baths functioned like a hospital clinic, with visitors seeking respite from respiratory problems or aching bones. For many, a float in the waters reduced their pain, so after their bath they’d throw offerings to the gods into the bubbly pools giving thanks for being healed. These included tree branches, scented pine cones and fruits such as peaches — which have been recovered in well-preserved states thanks to the layers of mud the site has since been covered by.

Several relics sculpted in the shape of miniature bronze legs, arms and ears offerings have also been unearthed. They were left to thank the gods for healing specific body parts, or to call attention — hence the ear shape — to the prayers of mortals in pain.

During Etruscan and Roman times, womb-shaped votive offerings were usually made with terracotta. A bronze one found at San Casciano — which would have been very expensive to commission — is the first of its kind, said Tabolli, and serves as proof of how important this thermal site was.

“The discoveries tell us a lot about Italy’s ancient communities,” Tabolli explained, “and advance our research on their social, cultural and religious landscape with regard to the sacred nature of hot water.”

The excavation site currently features one Etruscan pool, which at eleven meters long and five meters deep is known as the “big bath,” and five smaller Roman pools where hot water still flows in at a pace of some 2,000 gallons per minute. There are ruins of fountains and statues alongside travertine stone altars to the god of prophecy and medicine, Apollo, the goddess of fertility, Isis, and the goddess of the first born, Fortuna Primigenia.

Health rituals carried out at the thermal baths included those specifically linked to pregnancy and birth. A recovered statue of a naked baby led archaeologists to believe that ancient women would visit San Casciano both during their pregnancies and after giving birth in the hope of protecting their baby’s health. Related practices have continued in the centuries since: “Up until 50 years ago, village women who had trouble conceiving a child would come to the thermal baths in the belief that the water would relax their womb,” 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 big bath is also extraordinary, said Tabolli. It is the largest collection of ancient currency associated with hot springs in the Mediterranean, and unique also for their perfect state of preservation. The coins have retained their original coloring both thanks to the water’s chemical properties and due to being blanketed by mud, which prevented oxidation.

“They’re still shiny brown and shiny yellow — such bright colors have never been found in any excavation site,” said Tabolli. “It’s a miracle.”

A new village museum will soon showcase the recovered wonders to the public. Local authorities and experts believe the spa still holds more treasures waiting to be discovered, with its deepest muddy layers hiding items dating back to the Etruscan era.

Archaeologists will keep working at the site, with Tabolli excited about what might next come to light. “I hope to unearth the founding sanctuary in its entirety,” Tabolli said. “We can already spot a pre-Roman layer.”

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