One of Italy’s top hot spring destinations is the San Casciano dei Bagni, a village in the province of Siena in the rich countryside of Tuscany. With its 42 springs and a mean temperature of 42° C (108° F), spa lovers and thermal pilgrims from far and wide have come to soak in the mineral-rich waters milennia. The thermal baths were built by the Etruscans possibly as early as the 4th century BC and were later embellished by the ancient Romans, who were master spa builders.
In 2016, the “Roman Baths Project” began in order to restore the thermal baths to their former splendor. A team of European archaeologists started ground reconnaissance, geophysical surveys and landscape maps. At that time nobody imagined what they would eventually find.
As the archaeologists explored the area of the ancient springs, they realized that some type of structure was emerging from the mud. First, ancient columns appeared, followed by a monumental entrance. Then they found a travertine altar carrying a Latin inscription “sacred to Apollo,” god of prophecy and medicine. Work was interrupted not only by the difficulties of working immersed in hot water, but also by the limitations imposed by the pandemic. When work resumed, the team found a second altar dedicated to Fortuna Primigenia, the Roman goddess of fortune and the first born. Then came a third altar dedicated to the Egyptian deity Isis. Finally, a marble statue of Hygeia, deity of health, emerged. “It was an international sanctuary of great importance, given that so many different divinities were housed in one place,” said team director Jacopo Tabolli.
In August 2022, archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of artifacts and relics from the excavation site, which together with the sanctuary, reveal a lot about how health and faith were intertwined in Italy’s past civilizations. Findings include rare fertility statuettes; 3,000 ancient coins; sculpted body parts; and even well-preserved organic matter, such as tree branches and fruit.
Ancient visitors came to San Casciano’s thermal baths seeking respite from their ailments—from respiratory problems to aching joints. For many, floating in the warm waters rich in calcium and magnesium, as well as chloride and sulfates, had therapeutic powers and reduced their pain. Thankful to the gods, they left behind coins and other offerings: scented pine cones or peaches; bronze arms or legs to call attention to healed anatomy parts; or bronze ears in appreciation for hearing the prayers of mortals in pain.
Health rituals at the thermal baths included those specifically linked to pregnancy and birth. Votive offerings were found including fertility bronzes shaped like a phallus, a womb and a pair of breasts. A recovered statue of a naked baby led archaeologists to believe that ancient women visited San Casciano during pregnancy and after childbirth in the hope of protecting the baby’s health.
According the Jacopo Tabolli, who is also a professor of Etruscan studies at Siena’s University for Foreigners, “What makes [the San Casciano] 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.” He also noted that the amount and quality of the objects recovered are “astonishing.” Furthermore, the number of coins found in the bath was extraordinary; in bronze, silver and orichalcum, a precious metal that the Romans believed had mystical powers, the coins represent the largest collection of ancient currency associated with hot springs in the Mediterranean. They are also unique for their perfect state of preservation; they retained their shiny original coloring thanks to the water’s chemical properties and the mud that prevented oxidation.
The excavations are expected to continue for several more years, and the experts believe that many more treasures will come to light. A new museum will showcase the wonders for the public. For San Casciano, the project is not only a source of great cultural pride, but also provides opportunities for its economic future.