Nov 15 2022

Cache of Ancient Bronze Statues Found

Archaeologists have uncovered a large cache of over 50 small bronze statues in the ruins of an ancient temple in Tuscany. The find dates from the second century BCE to the first century ACE. It is being reported as the greatest bronze statue find in 50 years, one of the greatest finds ever, and a significant window into that period of history.

The statues themselves range from small representations of specific body parts, to statues representing the gods and up to a meter in length. These statues were deliberately tossed into a thermal spring within the temple, where they sunk to the bottom and were covered in mud. The mud preserved the statues in relatively good condition for the last two thousand years. Many of the statues also have writing on them, in either Roman or Etruscan. Archaeologists believe that these statues were offerings to the gods intended for healings. The body parts represent the ailment that the offerer wishes to be healed. They also found over 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze coins that were tossed into the spring over those three centuries.

Essentially, this thermal spring and temple were the equivalent of a spa for the wealthy. Bathing in hot springs was a common luxury for the wealthy of the time, and this temple was also clearly not a public place. Rather, this was likely a private location for the wealthy and elite. The bronze statues would have been very expensive, only affordable just to be tossed into the waters by the very wealthy.

It’s easy to become smug from our modern perspective about the primitive behavior of making offerings to imaginary gods in hopes of being healed. But I think the opposite reaction is more appropriate. Certainly making such offerings in the genuine hope of being healed is pure superstition, and also completely useless in terms of effecting real change to one’s health. Given the primitive state of medicine at the time, however, it was also pretty harmless (and an archaeological boon, it turns out). Even the wealthy and powerful did not have access to what we could consider basic health care, and so tossing expensive bronze statues was the best they had.

Today, however, we have the benefits of modern medicine. With all its current flaws and limitations, it is still extremely powerful and effective. Think about your life and the impact that modern medicine has had on it, even in the little things. I know for me personally, I would likely be dead several times over, and if I managed to survive I would have a miserable quality of life compared to what I have. At 58 (without getting into TMI) I would probably not have many of my teeth left. I have had a couple of broken bones that would likely not have healed well. I have had the usual assortment of infections that would have done their damage. My wife would have died a horrible death without modern care, and one of my children would probably not be alive. With modern care we brush off illnesses as minor inconveniences that would have killed or ravaged people in pre-modern times.

And yet – with all the benefits of science-based medical care, we still have spas where people do the equivalent of tossing offerings to the gods to improve their health. This, in my opinion, is far worse that the same behavior two thousand years ago. People in modern times actively reject evidence-based effective treatment for pseudoscience and magic.  We can hardly claim (collectively) any superiority over ancient people in this respect.

Getting back to the statues, this superstitious behavior is a remarkable boon to modern scientists. The inscriptions of the statues give us a window into the culture of the day. One thing archaeologists have already learned, for example, is that the Etruscan language survived as a spoken language longer than previously thought. They expect to learn many more nuggets of knowledge when the full examination is done. There are also plans to build a museum on the site to display all the statues.

Bronze and marble statues were a mainstay of art in the ancient world. When Rome expanded to cover the Mediterranean they were impressed by the Greek culture on display in the cities they conquered. Rome then had a fascination with Greek art. They set about to make copies of Greek statues to bring home. These copies were mostly bronze casts. They also, however, made plaster casts that were then used to make marble copies. Often you can tell that you are looking at a marble copy of a bronze original because some support needed to be added (marble is not as strong as bronze). This often took the form of a small tree trunk, for example, to support a leg. Marble statues were also often painted, and fitted with glass eyes. They therefore looked very different during their day than what we see now with classic bare marble.

More marble statues survive into modern times than bronze (giving a bias of our modern perspective) because bronze was valuable and would have been melted down to make weapons or tools. This is why much of what we know about Greek statues, which were mainly bronze, comes from Roman marble copies. Marble was also stolen and repurposed for new buildings, but statues would not have been useful in that way, so many of them survived.

The relative rarity of bronze statues also makes the latest find more valuable. These survived because they were buried in mud. It must have been quite a task to toss a one meter high bronze statue into the waters. I wonder if the temple had some burly men on hand to help their patrons with the task, or if patrons were expected to bring their own muscle.

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