Bronze uterus, mint coins found at sacred baths

The excavation of the ancient sacred baths at San Casciano dei Bagni near Siena in Tuscany has unearthed a treasury of votive objects including an extremely rare bronze uterus and more than 3,000 freshly minted coins.

Votive offerings made to sacred sites associated with healing were often shaped like the body parts that were afflicted with illness or pain. The bronze uterus was likely a fertility offering. It dates to the period between the violent demise of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Terracotta uteri are relatively frequent finds in Etruscan and Roman temples dedicated to fertility gods, but bronze examples are vanishingly rare.

Other bronze votive body parts found in this year’s excavation include a leg from the knee down, a bronze penis, a realistic bronze ear and a more stylized, roughly designed ear that is exceptional because of its inscription. It records the name of Aulus Nonnius, the man who dedicated the ear to the sanctuary in the first years of the Roman Empires.

This summer is the sixth season of digs at the baths, and the area under excavation has been enlarged to cover previously unexplored sections of the complex, revealing for the first time the full dimensions of the sanctuary and shedding new light on the many phases of its history.

Evidence was unearthed of a major collapse in the Great Bath area in the late 3rd century. A sinkhole seven feet deep opened in the ground, causing the surrounding structures — bathing basins, colonnades, buildings — to collapse. This natural disaster was considered a prodigy (an omen heralding an impending calamity) by the Romans, and they quickly moved to appease the disgruntled deities by raising a new altar inside the sinkhole itself. They then built a new, smaller basin over the rubble with a set of stairs leading into the bath.

This season’s excavation reached over a mile away from the core of the ancient sanctuary to unearth the remains of a portico built in the 16th century when the Medici dynasty ruled Tuscany. People seeking healing still sought out the ancient sacred spring, although I’m not sure the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, would have visited the bath repeatedly in 1600-1 to cure his persistent “cheek ache” had he known he’d was keeping company with votive penises and uteri.

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 [Rome] 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. […]

“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.

One thought on “Bronze uterus, mint coins found at sacred baths

  1. This is actually common practice, or has been until recently?, even if there is less bronze involved these days. There are modern pieces that are quite similar to that ear or the leg.

    The town of Altötting, for example, is the capital of the district Altötting in southern Bavaria, just north of the Alps. For 500 years it has been the scene of religious pilgrimages by Catholics in honor of Mary, including a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and one by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

    During the Carolingian period, there was a royal palace here. Nearby, King Carloman erected a Benedictine monastery in 876, with Werinolf as first abbot, and also built the abbey church in honour of the Apostle St. Philip. They even have a website (, where the history of the votive offerings is described (machine translated).

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    “Out of gratitude and as a sign of great solidarity, consecration offerings have been brought to Our Lady of Altötting since the beginning of the pilgrimage. As a sign of deep veneration, the request for intercession and answer to prayer, but also as a symbol of self-giving and atonement, precious objects or donations in kind were offered. Thus, the candle is an ancient offering that consumes in place of the sacrificing person in the sacred place. It is also a good custom to have body parts or weight weighed out in wax. The symbolism was even more evident when sick limbs were offered molded in wax. The complete devotion to Mary was shown by pouring his whole body with wax.”
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