Scientists pretty much agree that the ocean is like an alien world. In fact, it’s believed that humans have only managed to explore 5% of the ocean floor, meaning there’s a whole mess of who-knows-what happening beneath the waves. Secrets exist at the most incredible depths, and scuba divers make it their mission to uncover them.
When one deep-sea diver went into the water in Italy, he wasn’t sure what he was going to see. Still, when he imagined exploring the ocean, he certainly didn’t expect to spot the seemingly sinister object he saw sticking out of the sand.
Stefano Mariottini, a chemist on vacation in Calabria, Italy, in 1972, considered himself an amateur deep-sea diver. He had explored many areas over the years, so when he decided to do some dive fishing while on vacation, he wasn’t concerned.
What he most loved about diving was getting up-close and personal with the various sea life found beneath the waves. He often dug through the sandy seafloor and vegetation in hopes of finding something unique.
But when he dove 26 feet off the Ionian Coast of Riace, something sticking out of the murky depths caught his eye. Despite feeling immediately unsettled, he swam closer to see if it truly was what he thought.
Sure enough, he made out the curve of an elbow and five fingers — it was an arm. Immediately, one terrifying thought ran through Stefano’s mind: just across from his vacation spot was Sicily, the part of Italy with the most Mafia connections.
The term “sleeping with the fishes” came to mind, and he couldn’t ignore the possibility. Could this arm sticking up from the sand belong to a corpse? Stefano knew there was only one way to find out, but it would mean getting even closer.
He mustered up his courage and swam closer to the ghostly arm. To his relief, the closer he got, the less real the arm looked, and when he finally touched it, he had a startling realization.
It wasn’t a real arm; it was bronze. Sure enough, he saw that the arm was attached to a statue. Though it was covered in muck and sand, it was clearly a tall statue lying on its side…and it wasn’t alone down there in the sand.
Stefano also made out a second statue, this one lying on its back directly next to the first one. Stefano could tell that these statues were not just debris. He quickly returned to the surface, where he called the police.
As they hauled the statues to the surface, everyone wondered what they were and where they came from. Rome, the capital city of Italy, is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and its rich history meant that these statues could be more than just decaying trash.
Though thousands of bronze statues were crafted during the days of the Roman Empire, only a few survived. Experts were vying to see the statues, and to see if these were some of the few that stood up against time.
The statues were sent to the National Museum in Reggio Calabria for cleaning and restoration. There, it was discovered that they had been on the seafloor for over 2,500 years…and that they certainly weren’t just discarded decorations.
The statues were finally identified as original Greek bronzes from the 5th century B.C. Early Classical period. These stunning statues may have existed with the likes of Alexander the Great and Socrates. Unfortunately, one complication made it hard to confirm anything else.
See, the statues had been waterlogged for so long, they were covered in dense concretions that obscured any detail around their faces. Thankfully, the restoration team in Florence could remove the residue, and what they found underneath showcased the artistry of ancient sculptors.
They saw copper lips, silver teeth, eyes inlaid with ivory and glass, and even individual silver eyelashes. The details were astounding, but experts were still stumped as to who made them and who these statues represented.
“Statue A,” or the open-mouthed statue, is thought to be the work of Myron, while “Statue B,” or the wide-eyed statue, is believed to have been made by Alkamenes, a pupil of Phidias. Though they look similar, both statues are believed to signify very different things.
“Statue A” portrays a young warrior hero with a proud, powerful look, and “Statue B” is a more mature hero with a relaxed pose and gentler gaze. The theories about who these warriors are don’t end with their looks, however. Experts may have even figured out their names.
One theory is that Statue A is Tydeus, a warrior who ate the brains of the defender who mortally wounded him, and that Statue B is Amphiaraus, a prophet with wide-set eyes. Both were featured in “Seven Against Thebes,” a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus.
When the statues were returned to their former glory in 1980, they were lauded as pristine artifacts from one of the most prosperous times in Italy’s history. They were even given parades and featured on postage stamps.
Still, though the statues were honored in multiple museums and thoroughly looked over by experts, one question remained: How did they end up under Stefano’s gaze, thousands of years after their creation? We’ll never know for sure, but experts agree upon one theory…
They were likely en route from Greece to Rome when they were tossed overboard in order to lighten the ship’s load. This is the most probable conclusion, since no shipwreck was found on the seabed. Such beautiful works of art were abandoned for so long…
But the Riace bronzes, as they’re now called, currently stand in the Museo Nazionale in Reggio Calabria, all thanks to the sharp eye of an amateur diver. The statues give us another glimpse into the artistry of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
And decades later, archeologists aren’t done uncovering the artifacts left behind from these ancient civilizations. In 2018, a discovery was made that had archaeologists scrambling to a spot just north of Milan.
My Little Adventure
In the small city of Como, a simple renovation project uncovered one of the greatest treasures in the country’s history. But this discovery wasn’t made in some farmer’s field or at the bottom of a river.
It was found beneath a theater! Built in 1870, the Cressoni Theater had been a major venue, featuring theatrical productions, magic shows, and wrestling matches. It even served as a cinema for nearly 100 years before closing its doors for good in 1997.
Teatro Cressoni / Facebook
With the site abandoned for over two decades, city planners pegged it as the perfect spot for a new apartment complex. The plan was approved, and in late September, demolition on the centuries-old structure began.
Teatro Cressoni / Facebook
Work went on steadily for several months, though midway through November, the bulldozers came to a grinding halt. Down in one of the pits, one of the workers had apparently stumbled upon something strange.
MiBAC / Twitter
The object in question appeared to be an old jar of some sort, and, save for one large chip, it was in remarkable shape. But while the container itself was certainly a significant find, its contents proved to be a far greater treasure…
MiBAC / Twitter
Nestled within the pottery were gold coins, hundreds of them, each one more brilliant than the last. The workers were stunned, and once they finished marveling at their find, they phoned authorities to find exactly what they were looking at…
MiBAC / Twitter
When experts arrived on the scene, they confirmed there were not one, not two, but three hundred gold coins inside the jar. And what’s more: the coins were packed in deliberate rows, almost like those you’d expect to find in a bank.
MiBAC / Twitter
“[The coins] were stacked in rolls, similar to those seen in the bank today,” said coin expert Maria Grazia Facchinetti. “All of this makes us think that the owner is not a private subject; rather, [the jar] could [have belonged to] a public bank or deposit.”
Digging further into the history of the coins, the experts dated them as at least 1,500 years old. But perhaps what made the coins truly incredible was the exact time period in which they were minted: the age of the Roman Empire.
While the Romans’ 500-year reign produced plenty of coinage, this currency was likely minted around 474 AD, just before the fall of the empire. If this was the case, then these coins would be some of the last Roman currencies ever circulated.
This assumption was further supported by the actual coin faces, which sported the insignia of Emperor Libius Severus. One of the last Western Roman rulers, Severus’ puppet regime was one of the direct factors that contributed to the fall of the empire.
In addition to the currency’s unusual history, the coins themselves were also in near-mint condition. The markings and engravings on each piece showed very little signs of wear, and the coin faces were practically pristine.
As word of the discovery spread, the archaeological community could barely hide their excitement. Not only was this find a unique one, but perhaps it could even provide new insights into the fall of one of history’s great empires.
“[It’s] more than exceptional. It’s epochal,” gushed Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activites. “[It’s] one of those discoveries that marks the course of history.”
The priceless artifacts will likely never see auction, but in terms of pure value, even just one of the coins would set you back a small fortune: according to precious metals retailer APMEX, the pieces could be worth between $2,500 and $5,500 each!
New York Daily News
Amazingly, the coins weren’t the only treasures buried beneath the Cressoli. Upon further inspection of the site, archaeologists discovered another jar with a gold bar inside; this only seemed to confirm the theory that these treasures once belonged to an ancient bank.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
For now, the coins will remain at the MIBAC restoration lab in Milan where scientists will continue to try to unlock the secrets of their origin. Once they have, the artifacts will likely be returned to Como, where they will be displayed for all to enjoy.
Hurriyet Daily News
Yet the Romans weren’t the only group to leave something behind in Italy. On the opposite end of the boot-shaped country, another basement was concealing a treasure almost as old as time itself.
When Luciano Faggiano drifted off to sleep at night, his dreams were filled with satisfied customers and handmade pasta. After years of brooding over a fictitious menu, the middle-aged man was ready to finally open his own family restaurant.
The only thing keeping Luciano from popping on a chef’s coat was a leaky old toilet. Yup, once he rolled up his sleeves and repaired the troublesome can, he planned to convert his home into an authentic trattoria.
John Linton / Flickr
If location is everything, then the Faggiano family hit the jackpot. Their home was nestled in the quintessential Italian coastal city of Lecce, a place known for its historic architecture and top-notch olive oil.
Ika_pol / Flickr
Before he could start drawing up a floor plan, Luciano had to fix the toilet. Granted, he didn’t really know what he was getting into but how hard could it be? Once he opened up the floor to take a look at the old pipes, he was confident he could remedy the leakage.
Anna Conti / Flickr
Since their house was quite old, Luciano wasn’t sure if the plumbing problem was due to aged hardware or a past patch job. So he enlisted his two sons, one who returned from university, to help with repairs.
Italian American Museum / Facebook
Luciano predicted the project would take a week at most. He wasn’t prepared for longer than that. But once he and the boys unhooked the toilet and moved it aside, they realized this wasn’t your average porcelain throne.
They chipped away into the flooring and hit their first conundrum. Where they’d expected pipes to be had actually been a false layer. Shining their flashlights through years of dust, they saw what was concealed.
No, it wasn’t a Fixer Upper style hardwoods reveal, but a centuries-old floor that was built over. Through the hole they’d burrowed in the bathroom, they could see what looked like an underground chamber.
Buzzing with excitement, Luciano and his sons had to get a better look. The smaller of the sons squeezed his body down into the space to investigate, something they hid from Mama Faggiano at first. Peering around in the darkness, the toilet was no longer a priority.
At first, they opened up a wider entry to the secret room below the ground. Quickly, the project grew as they made further astonishing discoveries. Underneath the family home were a series of ancient passageways and chambers left dormant.
The Faggianos dedicated most waking hours to excavating their bathroom. Naturally, the neighbors soon caught on to the extensive project. Heaps of dirt and rubble were traipsed out of the villa at a suspicious rate. Someone phoned the authorities.
Terry White / Flickr
Local inspectors arrived at Luciano’s doorstep and demanded to see the bathroom. From there, the activity screeched to a halt. Granted, he never sought out to deep dive into Italian underground, he just wanted to patch up a leaky commode. Nevertheless, the excavation was illegal.
Boss-19 / Flickr
The codebook stated digging deeper than 50 cm in an archeologically rich region like Lecce was prohibited. So while it was fun while it lasted, their time playing archeologists was over. Still, Luciano had been lucky.
True, he’d been found guilty of conducting an illegal excavation. But by the skin of his teeth, Luciano avoided fines and jail time. Even still, the family was deflated. All their hard work resulted in a big gaping hole in the floor they were forbidden from touching.
For weeks on end, Luciano eagerly awaited word from the authorities about their verdict. They had to decide how to proceed. Weeks turned to months and months to a year. Luciano had to walk by his tempting bathroom vault each day and resist the curiosities of his own home.
“Italy’s like that,” he said. “If you’re not a policeman or a politician, nothing gets done.” Finally, word came through. Another stroke of good fortune, the digging was allowed to continue, but with one major stipulation…
The Faggianos could resume their excavation, but to Luciano’s chagrin, only with the eyes of a member of the Italian Ministry of Culture looming over his shoulders. His presence was required in case they came across anything of historical significance hidden away.
Even though they had uncovered wild secret chambers, they still had a toilet to fix. Luciano kept hacking away at the walls and aged stone to locate the leaky pipe. Instead, they happened on some impossibly old pavement. On closer examination by the Ministry member, it dated back to the medieval period.
But that was small potatoes compared to where the pavement led next. The boys walked straight into a Mesopotamian tomb! For reference, the last time Mesopotamians hoofed it around Italy was about 500 years prior to the birth of Christ.
Iain B of Over / Flickr
All the family’s energy was focused on exploring the cavern below their house. Both of the Faggiano sons took a break from their studies to help their Dad. It was necessary because finding relics in the tomb became a full-time job.
To date, there were over 5,000 treasures discovered in the tomb. Including one of the family favorites, a Jesuit bishop’s ring encrusted with a cool 33 diamonds. Each day was a new adventure, conducting their own dig and handling valuable artifacts. Then they unveiled a somewhat spooky find…
A mere 32 feet below where the Faggiano’s brushed their teeth was a 15-meter long pit used in the process of mummification. If it weren’t for a leaky sewage pipe, we would all be none would be the wiser.
Inevitably, Luciano came to the realization that his home may not work out as a traditional mom and pop trattoria. The fates clearly intended the historically rich property be used for alternative purposes, so he started planning a new business venture.
Luciano wanted to share the joy of stepping back in time with people outside his family tree. So, he scrapped the eatery idea and resolved to convert his bathroom chambers into a museum. The cavern was practically swimming in interesting artifacts, so he felt people would flock to see them.
Yet again, the Italian authorities put the kibosh on Luciano’s dreams. According to the law, finding ancient relics on your property didn’t equate ownership. Most of the found objects were seized by local officials and displayed in a separate museum.
South China Morning Post
This struck a nerve with the Faggianos. After all, they shelled out all the money to cover the excavation. It was their home that had been uprooted into an archeological site. They hoped some of the relics would be returned, but that was wishful thinking.
What was left in their possession were mostly scraps of valuable artifacts. Despite this blow, the family persevered. They configured their once humble bathroom, now an elaborate entryway to awe-inspiring chambers, into the privately operated Faggiano Museum.
Visitors climbed down via metal spiral staircase to the depths of the multi-level passageways. Luciano teased the museum patrons by replacing the one false floor with glass panels, giving them a glimpse of what was in store.
Each step through the corridors guides the visitors back in time. From the crypt to Templar Knights artistic tributes, an offshoot of the Idume river, and an ancient Roman grain store, their secret “basement” samples a wide gamut of Italian periods in history.
Luciano smiles fondly thinking about the leaky commode that sparked the match. The Faggianos joked that the repair was “the toilet that keeps on giving.” He may not have served fresh orecchiette to drooling patrons in his villa as he planned, but he was granted Buona Fortuna all the same with that defective potty.
As the only independent museum in Lecce, visitors from around the globe flock there. It’s not every day you get to descend into the earth and witness untouched history, but a Polish subterranean landmark offers just that, and then some…
Kraków, Poland, is the quintessential European city. Culture, history, architecture, it has them all. But just outside the bustling city streets, a secret gem, hidden to the eye, makes Kraków a place unlike any other.
Cross the bridge out of the city, and you’ll find the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Centuries old, the mine is now a tourist attraction, and people from all over the world travel to see its hidden grandeur. Rest assured, the mine is more than just an underground cavern of tunnels.
Happy To Visit
In fact, stepping into the Wieliczka Salt Mine is closer to stepping into a royal palace or a cathedral. It’s ornate, a fact made far more impressive when you consider what everything in the mine is carved from.
Aleksandr Pasechnik / Flickr
Rock salt! And up until 2007, Wieliczka was a working mine! They produced regular old table salt, the kind you may have once sprinkled on your fries or used to give your last meal a little extra something.
In medieval times, when the mine was founded, salt was a highly valued commodity. Its preservative properties were unmatched, and a mine like Wieliczka meant riches for the taking. For hundreds of years, it was one of Europe’s most profitable businesses.
The Vintage News
Naturally, the wealthy frequented the mine for business dealings, but the miners were the backbone of it all. They spent their working lives picking at the caves walls and carving out the beautiful structure — and more — in the process.
When the mine opened in the 13th century, miners began constructing figures from salt for fun. The job trapped them underground for the sunlight hours, so the miners took it upon themselves to make their space feel vibrant.
Pamela / Flickr
The tradition of carving designs in the mines began as a way to honor St. Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners. In fact, Legends say Princess Kinga came to Poland from Hungary to marry Polish prince Bolesław the Pious.
The Vintage News
Before leaving Hungary, the princess tossed her engagement ring down a mine shaft. Then she set off to Poland. She traveled to Krakow with a team of miners, and when they arrived, she instructed them to dig.
They hit something solid! A huge lump of salt. The miners broke open the lump, and nestled inside was the Princess’ engagement ring! From then on, she was their patron saint and kept miners safe and secure during their forays into the earth.
PabloClavo / Flickr
The chapel built in her honor was adorned with the most lavish embellishments of the entire mine. Skilled artists were brought in to furnish the space. One such artist, Antoni Wyrodek, carved a tribute to da Vinci’s “Last Supper” out of salt.
Antonio Vaccarini / Flickr
At 443 feet deep and over nine levels down, miners constructed breathtaking chambers. Many of these chambers are stunning chapels that draw the eyes upwards.
The Vintage News
But it was at 330 feet below the surface the miners built their masterpiece. The most famous chapel, dubbed the “crown jewel” of Wieliczka mine, is the Chapel of St. Kinga. Actually, it’s one of the largest underground church structures in the world.
Get Your Guide
In more recent years (since the mine opened to the public), and leaders added a sculpture of Pope John Paul II to the chapel. But continuing to commission artwork for the worship space doesn’t make much sense unless it’s being enjoyed, right?
Catholic News Agency
The present-day owners of the mine agreed the space should be utilized. Every Sunday, holy mass is held in the chapel. Lucky sweethearts can also use the space to tie the knot! Still, the Chapel of St. Kinga isn’t the only area people can wander through…
Wedding In Salt Mine
If you walked the 2,000 chambers of the mine, it would take about two full months! That’s a lot of real estate! Lots of businesses pounced on the potential of the salt mine to draw curious customers.
A few of the saline chambers host a health resort that’s been around since 1839. The resorts offer a slew of different services: massages, salt baths, and overnight “health sleep.” Relax as your body adjusts to the conditions of a “salt microclimate.”
Millions walk through the Krakow Saltworks Museum annually, learning the ins and outs of its history. But for those looking to take their experiences a little further, there are other underground services, too…
The Vintage News
You can, for instance, take a step into a salt miner’s shoes! The Miner’s Route expedition is an intense trek through the less-developed chambers. Don’t worry, a professional guides the tours. Bonus: you get a cool spotlight helmet.
Contemporary artists also showcase their works in certain chambers. Other chambers are occupied by bars and restaurants, and even rented out for conferences.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The miners of Wieliczka could never have imagined their craftsmanship would be marveled at by millions. But if any of them were wandering the caverns and chambers today, they’d surely be delighted!