‘Surprise amongst the sewage:’ Ancient Hercules statue unearthed from Roman sewers

An ancient statue of an individual dressed as Hercules was discovered during repairs to a sewer system in Rome, archaeologists said.

The nearly intact marble sculpture was found in a 60-foot pit during an operation to clean and repair a century-old sewage pipeline, according to a Jan. 25 statement from the Appia Antica Archaeological Park.

“I doubt anyone was expecting a find like this under these circumstances,” Dr. Jane Draycott, an ancient historian, archaeologist, and lecturer at the University of Glasgow, told McClatchy News. “A nice surprise amongst the sewage!”

A lion skin draped over the life-size figure’s head indicates the individual is dressed as Hercules, the mythological hero renowned for his strength, archaeologists said.

The statue was identified as Hercules, the mythological hero, by the lion skin covering its head, archaeologists said.
The statue was identified as Hercules, the mythological hero, by the lion skin covering its head, archaeologists said.

Hercules was a highly popular deity in ancient Rome, leading many prominent men to try to emulate the hero, Draycott said.

The politician Mark Antony was known to dress as Hercules, while others, such as Emperor Commodus, permanently cast themselves in his image — through statues and other artwork — in order to signify their manliness, Draycott said.

However, it’s not clear who is represented in the sculpture because important context is missing. Archaeologists believe the statue was tossed into a trench used for the old sewer line about 100 years ago, separating it from remains that might have helped place it in history.

Though its original location is a mystery, it’s possible it was installed at a nearby villa, Draycott said, adding that, “statues of Hercules were popular decorations for gardens.”

By looking for comparisons with similar artifacts, archaeologists hope they can eventually positively identify the man beneath the guise of Hercules.

An initial analysis suggests the sculpture bears resemblance to portrayals of Emperor Decius, who ruled from 249 to 251 AD.

The sculpture’s wrinkled face draws comparisons to depictions of Decius, which are also characterized by a furrowed brow meant to evoke a concern for the state, archaeologists said. Similarities also exist between the nose, lips and eyes.

Additional identification analysis will be made after the statue is thoroughly cleaned.

“It’s quite rare to find an ancient life size statue in marble,” Lorenza Campanella, an official with the Appia Antica Archaeological Park, told McClatchy News.

Still, excavation efforts in and around Rome do occasionally reveal ancient treasures, Draycott said. The Tiber River, which snakes its way through the city, has piled up deposits of silt over the centuries, raising the ground level and blanketing the relics of antiquity under layers of soil.

“A lot of sites have never been fully excavated because they have farmland and other things on top of them that the owners don’t want to disturb,” Draycott said.

A similar statue of Hercules was rediscovered in Greece in October 2022, McClatchy News previously reported.

Restored Pompeii estate provides a glimpse of elite Roman life. Take a look inside

Golden tongue among 49 amulets found buried with mummy that sat in storage for 100 years

1,100-year-old prank? Or important symbol? Handprint uncovered along moat in Israel