Trove of Rare Artifacts Unearthed Beneath an Ancient Roman Well

Dozens of items, including burnt bones and ceramics, provide new insights into ritual activity in the city of Ostia

Man in well
The 10-foot-deep well is located in Ostia Antica. Italy's Ministry of Culture

When archaeologists excavated a well in Ostia Antica, an ancient city about 15 miles southwest of Rome, they found more than just water. Dozens of rare artifacts were uncovered at the bottom of the 10-foot-deep structure, according to an announcement from Italy’s culture ministry.

The well is located near the Temple of Hercules in a sacred area of the archaeological site. When the excavation began, it was still filled with water. The well-preserved artifacts, most dating to the first and second centuries C.E., were lodged in oxygen-poor mud, which had helped protect them from the elements. The trove is providing researchers with new insights into imperial life and cult rituals.

“Restoration work has proven to be a unique opportunity to study and deepen knowledge of the functions and activities that took place in the sanctuary,” says Massimo Osanna, director of museums at Italy’s culture ministry, per a translation by La Brújula Verde’s Guillermo Carvajal.

Funnel-shaped object
Archaeologists aren't sure what purpose this funnel-shaped object served. Italy's Ministry of Culture

One of the most puzzling discoveries is a “wooden funnel or chalice-like object with an unknown purpose,” as McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft writes. Additionally, researchers found pieces of glass and marble, pottery fragments and a set of interlocking pieces of wood, which may have once formed a tube-like structure.

The well also contained burnt bones, which suggest that animal sacrifices occurred at the site, per the announcement. Some of the ceramics were also burned. Archaeologists think the animals (likely pigs or cattle) were cooked and eaten during a ritual banquet.

“These finds are a direct testament of the ritual activity that took place at the sanctuary,” Alessandro D’Alessio, director of the archaeological park, tells the Art Newspaper’s James Imam. “We might have imagined this happened, but previously we had no evidence.”

Artifacts found in the well
The artifacts found hidden in the well are 1,800 years old. Italy's Ministry of Culture

Ostia is said to have been founded in the seventh century B.C.E. by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, though the oldest archaeological evidence unearthed at the site is a settlement dating to the fourth century B.C.E. The city, which served as a vital port for the Roman Empire, peaked in the second century C.E. with a population of some 50,000.

Members of the public will soon be able to visit the park’s sacred area, which is “one of the oldest and most evocative complexes of Ostia,” as D’Alessio says in the statement, per La Brújula Verde’s translation.

In the meantime, restoration work at the site is ongoing. The Art Newspaper reports that specialists will also work to restore the newly discovered artifacts, which will eventually go on view at the nearby Ostiense Museum.

In recent months, researchers have unearthed numerous Roman artifacts in Italy, which is home to some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. Just last week, officials reported that they had excavated an opulent shrine with rare blue paint on the walls at Pompeii. In the winter, archaeologists announced the discovery of a pristine mural made of shells, stones, minerals and imported tiles near the Colosseum and an ancient Roman burial ground filled with precious jewelry, coins, amulets and pottery fragments in a town north of Rome.

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