Archaeological Site of Hotel Preistoriche at Montegrotto Terme

Sacred place of Aponus between Monte Castello and Colle San Pietro Montagnon.

Archaeological Site of Hotel Preistoriche at Montegrotto Terme

The Archaeological Site of Hotel Preistoriche at Montegrotto Terme gave back several objects that can be related to a sacred place, regularly attended between the second half of the 7th and the 3rd century B.C. and located around a stretch of water (today disappeared) fed by smoking water sources. On its banks, for centuries, the devotees offered sacrifices to a deity of thermal waters and laid miniaturized “ex voto”, such as ceramic vessels and bronze statuettes mainly representing cavalrymen and horses. Other findings attest the use of the area also during the Copper Age (3.300 – 2.200 B.C.) and the Middle Bronze Age (15th-14th century B.C.), even if it is not possible to define the function that this place had at those times.

Archaeological Studies

Around 1872, some casual findings persuaded Pietro Scapin to go on a dig within his estate, located not fat from the Chiesa di San Pietro Montagnon – beside the homonymous hill. Among the items discovered on that occasion, only 180 little vases and 16 bronze statuettes were given in 1878 to the Musei Civici di Padova by Scapin’s progeny; all the rest got lost. In 1892, the engineer Federico Cordenons, during systematic surveys within Scapin family’s properties commissioned by the township of Padua, located a section of the bank of the ancient little lake, buried under an approximately one-metre stratum of erosional materials coming from Monte Castello. The objects discovered on that occasion were firstly stored in Villa Draghi and afterwards scattered. The systematic excavation of 1911, wanted by Giuseppe Pellegrini (the then Soprintendente alle Antichità) and carried out by Alfonso Alfonsi within the same area (today owned by the Braggion family), allowed to better define the borders of the stretch of water; thousands of finds, vessels and bronze objects mingled with black soil, coal and animal bones were discovered on that occasion. As Pellegrini chronicled, 3.500 undamaged vases were gathered in only 12 m³ of ground; however, the number of fragments that the excavators did not retrieve let scholars presume a three-time bigger original amount of items. The finds were afterwards stored in the Museo Nazionale di Este, under the appellation “Fondo Braggion”. In 1954, following an occasional circumstance such as the planting of a magnolia beside the east side of the Terme Preistoriche Hotel, another crammed accumulation of vases of various dimensions was brought to light; these finds got afterwards lost.

First phase

Rare findings refer to a presence in this area in far-off times. The flint poniard presumably connected to the “archaeological layer” rich in coal discovered in 1892 (surely preceding the sacred place) is datable between 2.400 and 2.100 B.C. (Late Copper Age and beginning of Early Bronze Age. As in the case of the archaeological site at via Neroniana, this kind of discoveries seems to attest more likely an episodic presence (e.g. hunting battues) rather that a geographically stable settling during the Copper Age. The fragment of the handle of ceramic vase found here is datable between 15th and 14th century B.C.; this find is presumably connected to some oak piles discovered in 1911, sunk into the bed of the ancient stretch of water – later become a sacred place; initially interpreted as part of a religious aedicule, these piles seem to refer more likely to a palafitte (stilt house). Several fragments of ceramic vessels datable between 10th and 9th century B.C. (end of Bronze Age, beginning of Iron Age) seem to refer to an initial and limited religious use of the thermal sources.

The sacred place

The sacred place was in use between the mid-7th century and the 3rd century B.C. (Iron Age); its natural landscape – and not an artificial structure – had to be the scene of the worship. In particular, a key role was assigned to the stretch of water, shaken by underwater springs emanating thick acrid fumes (at that time an unexplainable – and therefore scary – phenomenon). It was possible the presence of simple fences to mark the spaces of the sacrifices and of the ceremonies reserved to priests, as it occurred in the coeval sanctuaries of Este and Altino. As for the oak piles found in the midpoint of the stretch of water, it seems more likely that they belonged to a more ancient palafitte rather than to an aedicule consecrated to the godhead. For centuries, the devotees came on the banks of this “little lake” to accomplish their rites: thermal water presumably had a key role within this ceremonial. The votaries offered libations, either using real cups, bowls and glasses that were afterwards given to the godhead as presents, or symbolically dedicating similar miniaturized vessels: these containers were sometimes moulded perfunctorily at the moment, using the clay of the lake shore. The devotees of high social standing also offered bronze statuettes representing cavalrymen, warriors and above all horses, along with engraved bronze laminas, fragments of gold foils and other little delicate objects (owing to their brittleness, the first excavators did not retrieve these items). Judging from the great quantity of “ex voto” found during the various campaigns of excavation (Pellegrini mentions the discovery of more than 3.500 vases, forecasting at least “three times more”), the sacred place was not only attended for centuries, but also used contemporaneously by a considerable number of devotees. Other ceremonies entailed the offering of the first fruits of the land and the sacrifice of domestic animals (such as oxen and sheep, symbols of cattle-breeding) or wild beasts (such as the deer, symbol of hunting): as a matter of fact, bones and horns mixed with traces of fire have been abundantly found in this area. The simple dedication of bronze horses replaced in a symbolic way the sacrifice of these precious animals, for which the ‘Veneti’ were renowned in ancient times. The name of the godhead to whom the sanctuary was dedicated still remains unknown. The only inscription discovered in the site seems to refer to a male godhead, a male just as “Aponus”: supposed heir to the thermal deity adored by the ancient ‘Veneti’, this god was worshipped in these places during the Roman age. Given the abundance of horses among the “ex voto”, it could also be presumed an affinity with Diomed, god-hero and horse breeder par excellence. The sacred place, located far from built-up areas, lay in a strategic position at the border between the territories of Padua and Este. It is not sure which one of the two cities controlled the sanctuary; however, the typology of the bronze “ex voto”, the masculine connotation of the godhead and the topographical position of the site more likely refer to Padua. As a matter of fact in the 2nd century B.C., at the beginning of the Roman age, the Euganean thermal area was under the aegis of Padua: presumably, the new administration simply made official the previous state of affairs.

After the decline of the sacred place

The most recent finds discovered in the area date back to the 4th- 3rd century B.C.: nothing else was found afterwards. The sacred place was presumably abandoned owing to the steady depletion of the stretch of water; finally, a sewage of erosional materials coming from Monte Castello filled up the lowland. Later on, a few Roman objects (one coin, some fragments of vases) were found upon the stratum that sealed the area of the little lake; however, these discoveries only attest an occasional presence in the area.

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