BMCR 2020.11.37

Rethinking the concept of “healing settlements”: water, cults, constructions and contexts in the ancient world

, , , Rethinking the concept of "healing settlements": water, cults, constructions and contexts in the ancient world. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019. Pp. iv, 176. ISBN 9781789690378. £35.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Research on the subject of water in the ancient Mediterranean world is certainly flourishing, with numerous publications in the last few years addressing the stubbornly fluid yet persistently present relationships between water and power, the senses, landscape, urbanism, resource usage, and ancient technology. The book under review emerged from a session held at the 2016 Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC), and is the product of the long-standing research group at the University of Padua, which has produced numerous specialist monographs, dissertations, and conferences on the theme of thermo-mineral waters. It contains fifteen papers divided into two sections. These sections reflect the stated goals of the volume: to present examples of archaeological contexts characterized by thermo-mineral waters and waters considered to be sacred, and to discuss cult places/deities concerned with health/fertility. The contributions range widely across the Mediterranean, comprising case studies from North Africa, Bulgaria, the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, mainland Greece, and peninsular Italy. There is a clear focus on the Republican-Imperial Roman periods, with a few papers examining pre-Roman or classical Greek thermo-mineral sites. Most of the contributions combine archaeological, epigraphic, and archival sources to present local cases studies and how they compare with more well-known patterns.

Bassani and Fusco start off the first section with an introduction to the history of the field of thermo-mineral studies and some general methodological aspects. They emphasize the need to continue rejecting the knee-jerk reaction of ascribing healing powers to a particular deity simply because their statue is found in context with thermo-mineral waters. The following paper by Bassani continues this introduction, drawing upon the author’s extensive work at Montegrotto Terme (Aquae Pataviae) and the compilation of a database of 140 thermo-mineral sites in the Italian Peninsula. Fusco’s paper presents the imperial-period remains at three thermo-mineral sites in and around Veii, including an intriguing network of underground tunnels and a roughly rectangular two-story cistern from the end of the 1st c. BCE to early 1st c. CE. Marcato draws attention to case studies from Roman Alpine and Gallic provinces. The presentation of the different kinds of evidence available for these sites (e.g., coins, tabellae defixionum) is useful in itself, but more importantly, this contribution highlights the lack of context and quantitative recording for the vast majority of votives, which hampers the study of cultic depositions more generally. Zanetti presents material from the two Germaniae and Raetia, and similar to the previous contribution, takes a systematic approach to the evidence from these Roman provinces. This systematic approach allows the author to draw out larger regional trends, such as the kind of ex votos deposited.

The contribution by Carneiro and Soutelo compares the Roman healing spa of Chaves in Portugal with others in the Iberian Peninsula, and explores how architecture reflects the relationship between sacred and profane areas in a sanctuary. With reference to recent work on the sensory impact of urban water displays, they track the influence of these structures on Hispanic healing spas. Borgia continues with case-studies from Asia Minor, underlining the lacuna of systematic research on thermo-mineral bath complexes, in comparison with the more well-known fresh-water baths. Puzzlingly, the paper suggests both that thermo-mineral complexes developed only where geologically possible, and that they were intentionally isolated from urban centres due to unspecified hygiene reasons. Given ongoing discussions of hygiene, toilets, and sewers in the ancient Mediterranean world, surely thermo-mineral baths would have produced the same kinds of waste as any other thermal facility. While brief, contributions like the following one by Avramova are especially interesting, as the general lack of well-preserved and excavated thermo-mineral sites offer intriguing possibilities for future research. Closing out this section is an overview of thermal spas from Roman North Africa (Koehler), which suffers from the same issues of early unstratigraphic excavation as other thermo-mineral sites. However, Koehler makes good use of maps and descriptions from 18th-century travellers, and includes several helpful charts of spas across the provinces of North Africa. This contribution is the only one to consider the nachleben of Roman healing spas and their much-debated relationship to hammam baths.

The second section consists of five papers that more generally address issues of healing sanctuaries and cults. While anatomical votives are certainly the central characters in these papers, these contributions continue the current discussion of complementary and multi-faceted interpretations of these objects. Bolder-Boos and Calapà offer a helpful introduction to the subject, advocating for research beyond rigid and all-encompassing categories, and suggest instead to concentrate on case studies to understand the complex relationship between ritual practice and medical healing. The next contribution by Calapà presents material evidence for cult practices in caves in Etruria. It uses the example of “milk caves” to caution against the direct correlation of early modern fertility practices with ancient cultic activity. Bolder-Boos offers an overview of possible attributes of Herakles/Hercules in Rome, and uses a group of Republican temples in Ostia to propose that Hercules was also worshipped as a healing god here. Although this contribution does fit under the broader “rethinking” of healing settlements, it is the only one that drifts away from the general theme of the book, reminding researchers only that Hercules can have healing associations. Edlund-Berry and Turfa take a landscape approach to healing cults, and present a series of brief case studies from central Italy focusing on watery and forested places as places of cultic and economic connection. They conclude that cults served local needs in connection with local geography, an issue often overlooked by architectural or material-focused approaches to healing cults. The final contribution (Gorrini)combines a close reading of epigraphic evidence (i.e., temple inventories) with votive objects made from precious metals. Although this contribution does depart from the site-votive-deity focus of several of the papers in this volume, the identification of numerous vessels specialized for transporting, containing, and mixing water reminds us to acknowledge the potential sacrality of seemingly “everyday” objects. The volume ends with a final note by Ghedini and Zanovello, who emphasize the need for additional systematic studies and additional specialist meetings, as well as for a common language with shared databases.

Generally speaking, all of the contributions were well illustrated, with a good mix of colour and black-and-white images, and plans that usually (but not always) are of a high quality. Although the volume as a whole is targeted at specialists or researchers working in particular regions of the ancient Mediterranean world, the introductory chapters of each section do offer a helpful point of departure. The level of English varies in the text, with some contributions containing minor but awkward spelling and grammatical errors. A desideratum would be the addition of more maps, especially in contributions covering wider regions, as many of the sites listed are small and otherwise difficult to locate. Along the same lines, a single map in the introduction with principal sites mentioned would undoubtedly produce the desired “gasp” the editors expect from readers. It is necessary to read all of the contributions to appreciate the wide diffusion of such sites across the ancient Mediterranean world, which may be difficult for non-specialists. Continuing this expansion further, the concluding look forward to future research could have been strengthened by proposing other avenues, such as digital approaches to cult or the role of gender, class, and economics in healing settlements. The role of healing settlements in museums and public outreach would also be a point for future research to address: one has only to think of the prominent role that anatomical votives from thermo-mineral sites play in attracting crowds to museums around the world. A single concluding page advocating for more of the same kind of research conducted over the past two decades is certainly valuable, but including these other existing fields of research would surely strengthen the field going forward.

Despite these minor shortcomings, this volume succeeds in giving voice to both established and junior researchers, and expands the available published material for thermo-mineral sites across the ancient Mediterranean world.

Authors and titles

Bassani, M., Fusco, U., “Methodological Aspects”
Bassani, M., “Shrines and Healing Waters in Ancient Italy. Buildings, Cults, Deities”
Fusco, U., “The thermo-mineral springs at Veii (RM) and its territory: new discoveries and old excavations”
Marcato, M., “Cult and healing water in Roman Gaul”
Zanetti, C., “Places of Worship and healing water in Roman Germaniae and Raetia
Carneiro, S., González Soutelo, S., “Healing by Water: Therapy and Religion in the Roman spas of the Iberian Peninsula”
Borgia, E., “Preliminary considerations on thermal spas in the Eastern Roman provinces: the case of Asia Minor”
Avramova, M., “Roman healing settlements in Bulgaria: past scholarship and future perspectives”
Koehler, J. 2019, “Before the Hammam: the ancient spas of Roman North Africa”
Bolder-Boos, M., Calapà, A., “Cult places and healing: some preliminary remarks”
Calapà, A., “Sacred caves and ‘fertility cults’. Some considerations about cave sanctuaries in Etruria”
Bolder-Boos, M., “Hercules and Healing”
Edlund-Berry, I., Turfa, J.M., “Lacus and Lucus: lakes and groves as markers of healing cults in central Italy”
Gorrini, M.E., “Nomina Nuda Tenemus? The epigraphical records of dedications in two healing sanctuaries in Athens and in Oropos”
Ghedini, F., Zanovello, P., “Results and Future Prospects”