Trove of bronzes found at ancient Italian sanctuary

Archaeological investigations have revealed more than 20 large statues dating from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD, as well as thousands of bronze, silver, and gold coins

Archaeologists in Italy recently announced the remarkable discovery of 24 bronze statues, more than 2,000 years old and dredged from a mud pool in excellent condition. The find was made in San Casciano dei Bagni, a small Tuscan town some 60km south-east of Siena, named after its famous thermal baths, which have been known since antiquity. Here, an Etruscan and Roman sanctuary devoted to the worship of healing waters and healing gods has been the focus of archaeological investigation since 2019, thanks to the commitment of the town’s mayor Agnese Carletti and to an international team of archaeologists, led by Jacopo Tabolli from the Università per Stranieri di Siena and by fieldwork manager Emanuele Mariotti.

Two of the bronze statues discovered at the Etruscan and Roman thermal baths and healing sanctuary at San Casciano dei Bagni. IMAGES: Ministero della Cultura

Despite punishing conditions in the heat of summer, wearing gumboots sloshing in gushing hot water, the team cleared the mud filling the main pool of the shrine. They were rewarded by an unexpected and magnificent find: more than 20 large statues, 1m high, dating from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD, as well as thousands of bronze, silver, and gold coins, and many votive objects reproducing healed parts of the devotees’ anatomy, all exceptionally well-preserved thanks to the absence of oxygen in the mud.

The statues of the gods and goddesses (including Hygeia, the goddess of health, with a snake wrapped around her arm; Apollo, the god presiding over the shrine; and the Egyptian goddess Isis) and of donors would have been positioned along the exterior edge of the sanctuary’s sacred pool. These statues are thought to have been laid at the bottom of the pool during specific dedicatory rituals.

The shrine was refurbished in the 1st century AD. Worship continued here until the beginning of the 5th century AD, when the sanctuary was dismantled. To seal it and mark its final closure, the pool was covered with large tiles and with the columns of the portico above it.

Many of the bronze objects bear inscriptions in Etruscan and in Latin, indicating a multicultural and multilingual context: Latins and Etruscans shared the shrine since it was founded, perhaps by an Etruscan king in the 6th century BC, and the most-important Roman and Etruscan families from the region as far as Perugia and Chiusi were able to afford such costly votive gifts even when war between Rome and the Etruscan cities in central Italy was rife.

The bronzes – fragile now that they are no longer protected by silt – will have to be quickly restored in special laboratories. A museum in a 16th-century palace in San Casciano will open in the future, where the statues and other finds, including medical instruments, will be displayed. More impressive artefacts are expected to be discovered when excavations resume next summer, with the site eventually being turned into an archaeological park open to visitors.

Elsewhere, further Etruscan discoveries have been made in Latium, where a team led by Mariachiara Franceschini of the University of Freiburg and Paul P Pasieka of the University of Mainz has uncovered the remains of a previously unknown large Etruscan temple at the ancient city of Vulci. It is a similar size to the neighbouring Tempio Grande, another temple in Vulci. Based on the findings so far, they have dated the construction to the late 6th/early 5th century BC.