Ischia’s history is an extremely long one and has been gradually revealed in archaeological excavations which began in the 1700s but have only used contemporary scientific methods since the mid-20th century.

The oldest evidence of human settlement on Ischia island is Neolithic, dating to around 5500 years ago. The most significant findings relating to this era took place in the 1960s in Ischia in an area called Cilento and a nearby area called S. Michele. These date to 5000 to 3500 years ago. Findings from Cilento are fragments of simple undecorated ceramic pots and painted clay pots made by hand without the help of a wheel but there are also terracotta fishing weights, a sign that this was one of the main occupations of the island’s Stone Age men.


The Bronze Age was the island’s golden age.


The Greek colony Pithecusae, in Greek, Pithekoussai, a citadel which is best described as an emporium, was founded in the 8th century. Pithecusae was at Lacco Ameno and was discovered only in the second half of the 20th century by Giorgio Buchner. Finds unearthed on the Monte Vico hills and San Montano bay by this German scholar threw light on an advanced civilisation which traded with the near East, Greece, Spain, Southern Etruria and Sardinia. In no other site have finds from such a vast area been unearthed. And these were the excavations which unearthed Cup of Nestor, part of a boy’s funeral goods. It is an extremely important find. The cup’s inscription is considered the oldest document in Greek still extant and is the earliest poetry fragment conserved in its original form, contemporary to the famous epic poem attributed to Homer. “I am Nestor’s beautiful cup. Whoever drinks from this cup will immediately be the object of beautiful crowned Aphrodite’s desire”.


The archaeological evidence on periods after the 8th century BC are limited. Pithecusae had now fallen under Cumae’s control and no longer had an independent existence. In around 450-420 BC Cumae fell into the hands of the Sabellians and Pithecusae was occupied by the Neapolitans, as Strabo recounts, and remained a Greek civilisation for a further three centuries.


The Roman era


As the main tombs show, the island’s principal residential centre remained in Lacco Ameno, called Aenaria in Roman times, although it was no longer on Monte di Vico, at least until the 5th century AD. But there were other Aenaria settlements on the island and one of the most important was situated in Ischia, at Cartaromana. Underwater excavations here unearthed an extremely interesting archaeological site in the sea between Castello Aragonese and Scogli di S. Anna. These are the remains of a lead and tin foundry, traces of walled buildings in reticulatum and lead artefacts. 


A further important archaeological site on the island is Fonte di Nitrodi, in Barano.


The votive tablets to the nymphs were found here which testified to the fact that the spa waters had been used in antiquity, too, and had been considered miraculous in their healing properties. The first references to the finding of votive gifts to the Nitrodi nymphs are the 1689 treatise De' rimedi naturali che sono nell'isola di Pithecusa, oggi detta Ischia by Giulio Jasolino. A note by doctor and philosopher Giovanni Pistoja which described Fontana di Nitrodi and its virtues found here also mentioned the fact that, in the late 17th century, certain peasants had unearthed two ancient marbles: one showed two women standing under a tree holding a child by the hand with an inscription which read: voto. The other was found incomplete and depicted a pot for drawing water with the inscription LYMPHA NITR. Both these marbles were lost.


The fate of a series of votive marbles found in 1757 was better. Digging ditches for vines, certain peasants found twelve marble reliefs dedicated to the Nitrodes nymphs showing newly healed women and the arrival at the springs of a number of doctors. In ancient times the springs, and the hottest and most health giving ones in particular, were under the protection of female divinities, the nymphs, who probably derived from the ancestral cult of Mother Earth and were thus, like chthonic divinities, possessed of oracular and healing powers. Heracles is frequently associated with the nymphs as is Apollo.


Dating to the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD and small in size, the reliefs mainly show Apollo holding a cithara with two or three nymphs by his side carrying shells or pots from which they are pouring health giving waters. The scenes depicted are accompanied by dedicatory inscriptions giving thanks for healing to the god and the spring’s nymphs called Nitrodes or Nitrodiae, the springs’ current name. It derives from the word ‘nitro’, namely ‘soda’ which it was believed the springs’ waters were rich in. In all likelihood these ex voto marbles were hung on the walls of a grotto as the inserts at the back of some of these testifies, perhaps a sacred grotto on the site at which the Apollo cult was celebrated. 


Where can the Pithecusae, Aenaria and Nitrodi finds be viewed?


Moulds taken of the Roman era votive finds unearthed at the Nitrodi springs are on display at the Pithecusae museum in Lacco Ameno. The original Nitrodi tablets are now kept at the Naples National Archaeological Museum but they are not on display. A further two are on display at the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum.


Ancient Pithecusae can be visited at the Lacco Ameno Archaeological Museum at Villa Arbusto.


Under-sea Aenaria, on the other hand, can be visited on site. The Marina di Sant'Anna co-operative at Ischia Ponte organises guided trips on transparent bottomed boats.




Spa Baths