More than two dozen beautifully preserved bronze statues fashioned 2,000 years ago have been pulled from the mud of ancient thermal baths in Tuscany, Italy.
These figurines are said to ‘rewrite history’ about the transition from the Etruscan civilisation to the Roman Empire, due to the fact they bear both Etruscan and Latin inscriptions.
They suggest that, while the Etruscans and Romans were entangled in conflict between the second century BC and first century AD, the groups living in this area still prayed together to deities in the sacred sanctuary.
Archaeologists have carefully removed all traces of dirt to restore the statues to their former glory, revealing some human-like figures of deities like Apollo and Igea, but also individual body parts and organs.
The statues would have been presented to the gods as votive offerings in exchange for medical cures through the baths’ waters, according to the ministry.
The new Italian Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, describes them as ‘an exceptional discovery for Italy’ and ‘immense and unique treasures.’
Most of the Etruscan civilisation migrated to Italy from western Anatolia and what is now Turkey about 2,500 years ago – nearly 500 years before the Roman Empire gave rise.
While in Italy, Etruscans controlled most of northern and southern regions by becoming a trading power in the Mediterranean.
They started to lose their foothold once the Greeks took control of Sicily, which was shortly followed by the Roman Empire in 27 BC that began to spread across the nation.
The Roman Empire began to take Etruscan cities one, by one, while also destroying any evidence that it existed – it is very rare to find artefacts from the Etruscan civilisation.
However, not all was war between the two, as the recent discovery shows the groups once lived in harmony.
The statues, part of excavations that started in 2019, were discovered in San Casciano dei Bagni, a hilltop town in the Siena province, about 100 miles north of Rome.
Jacopo Tabolli, who coordinated the dig for the University for Foreigners in Siena, said the discovery was significant because it sheds new light on the end of the Etruscan civilisation and the expansion of the Roman Empire.
‘While there were social and civil wars being fought outside the sanctuary … inside the sanctuary the great elite Etruscan and Roman families prayed together in a context of peace surrounded by conflict,’ Tabolli said.
‘This possibility to rewrite the relationship and dialectic between the Etruscan and Romans is an exceptional opportunity.’
He also noted that the sanctuary was active from the third century BC until the fifth century AD.
The sacred area was then abandoned as Christianity began to take hold, which led to the statues being submerged in the water and the pools were closed off with massive pillars and stones.
The find represents the largest deposit of bronzes from this era in Italy and it is also the longest surviving antiquities from the period are primarily in terracotta, the ministry said.
‘It’s a discovery that will rewrite history,’ Tabolli said in a statement, noting its shows when the Etruscans were being assimilated into Roman society, following centuries of prolonged territorial warfare.
Massimo Osanna, a top culture ministry official, called it one of the most remarkable discoveries ‘in the history of the ancient Mediterranean’ and the most important since the Riace Bronzes, a giant pair of ancient Greek warriors, were pulled from the sea off the toe of Italy in 1972.
It was an ‘era of great conflicts’ and ‘cultural osmosis’, in which the Great Bath sanctuary of San Casciano represented a ‘unique multicultural and multilingual haven of peace, surrounded by political instability and war,’ the ministry said.
The statues were covered by almost 6,000 bronze, silver and gold coins, and San Casciano’s hot muddy waters helped to preserve them ‘almost like as on the day they were immersed,’ Tabolli said.
The archaeologist said his team had recovered 24 large statues, five of which almost one meter high, plus several smaller statuettes, and noted that it was unusual for them to be made out of bronze, rather than terracotta.
The statues included etchings of what the experts believe are the names of powerful local families, who may have paid to have the artefacts commissioned.
In 2016, researchers uncovered a 2,500-year-old sandstone tablet at the Poggio Colla site in northern Etruria, northeast of modern-day Florence.
They believe the slab, weighing around 500 pounds, is a rare example of an Etruscan sacred text, with at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, and possibly the name of a god or goddess.
Archaeologist Professor Gregory Warden, principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, said in a statement: ‘This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions.
Most Etruscan discoveries are typically grave and funeral objects, for example.
The slab weighs around 500lbs and it is nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide.
It has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, said Professor Warden, main sponsor of the project.
It is likely to contain words in the lost language that have never been seen before.
The slab was discovered in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years.
Scholars in the field predict the stele, the name given to this kind of tablet, will provide a huge amount of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans.