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Sacred treasure found in San Casciano Roman baths

'Only site like it in the Mediterranean' - archaeologist Tabolli

·(by Silvia Lambertucci) (ANSA) - SAN CASCIANO (SIENA) - 4 AUG - Pools bubbling with hot, therapeutic water with breath-taking scenery featuring sharp changes of altitude, terraces that merge into the greenery, fountains, colonnades and water features - thermal bath tourism is still important for San Casciano dei Bagni, a small Tuscan hamlet in the province of Siena.
    Archaeologists have been working here at the ancient site for three years on a dig that had already made news with the discovery at of a large pool, votive objects, altars dedicated to the gods, a stunning bas relief with the image of a big bull and a splendid bronze putto, a masterpiece of the Hellenistic period.
    But the real surprise, revealed to ANSA by archaeologist Jacopo Tabolli with a sneak preview, has arrived over the last few weeks with the discovery of the real size of the sanctuary here that belonged to the Etruscans and was renovated by the ancient Romans in the early centuries of the Empire to make it more lavish and monumental.
    It was such an exceptional place that the mint was ordered to produce a trove of shiny coins made of silver, orichalcum and bronze, perhaps for the emperor's own offerings to honour the gods tasked with watching over his health and that of the many noble Romans ready to travel to this sacred site.
    "It's a site without equal in Italy or in the ancient Mediterranean," said Tabolli with visible excitement.
    Tabolli teaches at Siena's University for Foreigners and since the off he has been leading the project organized by the local council on behalf of the culture ministry, together with Excavation Director Emanuele Mariotti, Ada Salvi of the Superintendency and several Italian and international universities.
    "It's an exceptional discovery because of the size of the area of the sanctuary, which is much larger than we could have imagined, with several holy buildings, altars, pools," he explained.
    The images from above, with the succession of marble, various structures and pools of every shape and size emerging from the dirt, are thrilling.
    But what is also astonishing is the quality and rarity of the objects to have emerged from the dig in recent weeks.
    Tabolli said that perhaps the most important is an amazing bronze womb that dates back to the years between the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire.
    "Terracotta wombs are often found in Etruscan and Roman temples devoted to fertility; bronze ones are extremely rare," the professor explained.
    Despite the boiling hot temperatures, the adrenaline level at the site has been high every day, he explained, with discoveries being made constantly.
    These went from a remarkable bronze ear from the earliest years of the Empire that a man named Aulus Nonnius had dedicated to the gods for a recovery from illness, to a leg and even a very rare penis, again in bronze.
    That is without counting "over 3,000 freshly minted coins" as documented by Salerno University expert Giacomo Pardini.
    "These left the Rome mint and were immediately taken to San Casciano to honour the sacred nature of the place and, very probably, its founding monuments," said Tabolli.
    These wonders are in addition to the splendid altars sculpted into local travertine.
    The work done in this latest excavation campaign, the seventh, which, as usual proceeded with the involvement of hordes of students, shed new light on some periods in the history of this incredible sanctuary, which was also frequented in the age of the Medici.
    Indeed, Federico Borromeo - that's right, the cardinal who featured in Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed - came here twice, in 1600 and 1601, to treat a painful and mysterious 'cheek ache'.
    "We are recovering that remains of the colonnade built in the 16th century by the Medici," said the archaeologist, explaining that they moved the thermal centre to the Fonteverde area, two kilometres from the ancient sanctuary.
    Evidence has also been found of a dramatic collapse in the area of the area of the Big Bath (Bagno Grande) in the final years of the 3rd century DC, when the ground opened up to a sinkhole that was over two metres deep and brought down almost everything - pools, buildings, colonnades.
    The Romans tried to fix the disaster, with a massive, painstaking restoration, and the devastation was interpreted as a 'prodigium', a signal sent from the gods.
    "In the heart of the sinkhole they erected a new altar and they build a new, small pool over e rubble with steps to make it easier to get into," he said.
    This determination is testament to the appeal of a place that has been loved and frequented for over 2,000 years.
    And with excavations resuming in the autumn, it could have many more surprises in store. (ANSA).
   

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