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The Roman Doctor Will See You Now

Anthea Gerrie explores a remarkable excavation, a Roman surgeon’s house in Rimini.

It was the Roman equivalent of the Cornwall home of television’s Doc Martin, with its in-house consulting rooms and lovely sea view. For centuries the 2,000-year-old home and surgery, complete with all the tools of the doctor’s trade, lay undiscovered beneath a park, but now the most important relics ever unearthed of the ancient medical world have been unveiled in Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Also lying undiscovered for 1,500 years were the house of a fifth-century tycoon with an even more spectacular mosaic floor and a cemetery that archaeologists have dated to the sixth century ad, by which date Christians were burying their dead within the city walls. There are also medieval ruins, although these are less impressive.  

Plainer mosaics decorate the triclinium or dining-room, and the doctor’s anteroom.   There is also evidence of a latrine and a central-heating system serving what was once a two-storey house with  kitchen and pantry upstairs.

But it was the stash of contents that most excited the diggers, particularly the largest collection of Roman medical paraphernalia ever discovered – mortars, scales, measures and vases for the preparation and conservation of medicines as well as the 150 instruments. Some had melted, suggesting that the house probably burned down, but all are now on display in the City Museum adjacent to the site.      

The first of the relics came to light when a tree was uprooted in the park in 1989. The most interesting remains formed part of a residential block on the northern edge of Roman Ariminum, a town then facing the Adriatic coast though now a kilometer inland. The area was flanked by two streets running at right angles, which still form the main thoroughfares of the city today.

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