Welcome to the Roman Baths Blog!

This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Games of Sulis

Nowadays, visitors to the Baths enjoy their chance to walk upon the stone trodden by Roman feet two thousand years ago; but did you know that, in the 1960s & ‘70s, there were regular events which gave people an even more intimate taste of ancient culture, allowing them to dine at a full Roman banquet around the baths themselves? 

An invitation to the very first of these, in the shape of a scroll with a wax seal and ribbon and entitled LUDI SULIS I JUNIUS MCMLXI (The Games of Sulis, 1st June 1961), has recently been acquired by the Roman Baths:

The invitation to the Roman banquet

The invitation sets out full details of the ‘orgy’, from clothing and music to décor and food, interspersed with quotes from poets such as Tibullus and Propertius, and even begins with a specially-composed, three-verse Latin poem, inviting the guests to the feast:

The invitation’s heading, including the Latin invitatory poem

The first two verses imagine the invitee as a weary ploughman or shepherd, enticed to take rest under a tree, sate their thirst and be lulled to sleep. The final verse invites the guest to a rather less tranquil affair, as can be seen by a possible translation:

But if you prefer a ladle of Falernian wine with water, or an beautiful girl to a disgusting sheep, seize the lavish joys of the night with the orgies of Sulis.

Every invitee was required to attend in full Roman attire to make the atmosphere more authentic, the men therefore being given a purple toga on arrival, the women a stola (a long, sleeveless dress). Together with the invitation was a photograph (see below) showing some guests in their outfits. The women’s hair is arranged in Roman style, in accordance with the invitation’s suggestion that they ‘imitated Cypassis’, an expert in ornamenting hair in a thousand fashions’ (ponendis in mille modos perfecta capillis, Ovid Amores II.8).

Guests to Ludi Sulis in their Roman attire of toga or stola

Each item of food in the gustatio (hors d’oeuvres), fercula (roast) and mensa secunda (dessert) was an authentic Roman delicacy. These ranged from tunny fish, snails, honey cakes and stuffed pastry birds to a complete roast pig, which greeted the guests as they arrived to sit on cushions around the Great Bath.

Organisers even took inspiration from Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s Feast), part of Petronius’ Satyricon (often considered one of the earliest ‘novels’, written in the 1st century AD), in setting up a ‘table of delicacies’. Guests were advised to decline these, seeing as they included things like nightingales’ tongues, flamingos’ brains and sows’ udders!

The feast was accompanied by music adapted from surviving Greek fragments and performed on lyres and recorders (the double flute or tibia being deemed too unwieldy to play). The after-dinner entertainment was decidedly more modern: guests were serenaded on the terrace by Nero and the Gladiators, a 1960s rock band!

According to a newspaper article from 1990 written about it, the event was organised by Mrs B. Robertson and Mrs V. Crallan to raise money for the Bath Festival. Tickets cost four guineas, and a film crew was even paid to record the event, on the condition that the cameramen must enter into the spirit of things by donning togas too! The event quickly morphed into ‘Roman Rendezvous’ nights, and many people remember being allowed to swim in the Great Bath before dancing in the Pump Room.

Acquisitions come from many different sources, such as donations, purchases or transfers - but it’s always fascinating to receive evidence of the colourful history of the Baths’ use through time.

Collections Volunteer 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Investigating Keynsham

At the top of the main staircase in Keynsham Library, you will find a new display of objects from the Roman Baths collection. Each object was found in or near Keynsham, some as the result of an archaeological survey underneath the old Keynsham town hall, and others were found by chance.

The variety of glass containers on display are typical of what could be found in a Victorian house

Many of the objects were found beneath where the library now stands. Ceramic jars and glassware give insight into the domestic life of Keynsham inhabitants during the 19th century, when pharmaceuticals were being mass produced and sold throughout Britain. Particularly beautiful is the glassware, with its array of vibrant colours and interesting shapes.

Alongside these items is a small collection of five metal objects, found by chance by locals and a metal detectorist. Representing Keynsham inhabitants living centuries before the glassware was made; a Roman coin sits apart, struck with the image of Constantius II, the second son of the famous Christian emperor Constantine.

The most striking objects on display are two small gold rings. Known commonly as posy rings, they were given to young women in the 17th and 18th centuries to display affection or romantic intention. They are distinguished from other gold rings by the heartfelt inscriptions on the inside band.

One of the posy rings displayed in Keynsham library. The full inscription reads "when this you see remember me"

It’s easy to imagine the wearer cherishing the intimacy of a personalised message that only they could read. The two on display read “A frends [sic] gift” and “When this you see remember me”.

Pop in to see the display next time you’re in Keynsham - it’s a brilliant chance to see the variety of objects we have as part of the Roman Baths collection.

Collections Placement

Tuesday Times Tables: Propaganda in your Pocket

Roman propaganda is everywhere! From literature to architecture, statues to religious ceremonies, the Romans made sure to impart what they saw as the benefits of living within the empire onto the provinces. Coins are a quick and easy way to spread imagery and messages, as we use money every day, and Roman coins were no different.
In the provinces, conquered locals were very unlikely to ever see the emperor, and even people living in Rome itself wouldn’t see him on a daily basis. Having his face on a coin allowed people outside of Rome to recognise the emperor, so he wasn’t just another faceless ruler from another country. It also strengthened the practice of the imperial cult outside of Rome, which was the idea that the ruling emperor and his family were worshipped, but not recognised as formal deities. Generally, people would be more willing to perform sacrifices if they knew who it was for, and coinage greatly helped.

The reverse of the coin was also used for propaganda, showing military or religious imagery, depending on who issued it. For example, coins issued by Vespasian (AD 69-79) and Titus (AD 79-81) bear images linked to the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73) and the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70). These two emperors lead the legions that crushed the Jewish revolt in the province of Judaea demonstrating military strength, and the message seems to be ‘We will crush any rebellion’, possibly to dissuade future revolts.

Vespasian dupondius; reverse showing ‘Judaea’  next to a trophy

                                   Titus sestertius; reverse showing defeated Jewish rebels                              next to a palm tree, IUDAEA CAPTA S.C

Even emperors with no experience in the army used military imagery. The Nero sestertius pictured below depicts him on the reverse with a soldier, galloping on horseback, despite Nero preferring to pursue more artistic activities, like music and literature.

Nero sestertius; reverse showing Nero and a soldier on horseback

On both faces of a coin there is usually writing around the edge, though on some Roman coins this is difficult to read because it has worn away over time. This list of achievements or titles gained during an emperor’s reign tells us a lot about how he wanted to present himself. 

The names ‘Augustus’ and ‘Caesar’ are seen on imperial coins, and became adopted titles for emperors and their heirs. Augustus was Rome’s first emperor, and Julius Caesar his adoptive great-uncle, so the names also provide a link to military heroes who were loved by the people. The religious implication of these names is important too, as Caesar claimed to be descended from Venus, and therefore so did Augustus and all of his heirs.

Military titles are also included like ‘Germanicus’, translating as ‘Conqueror of the Germans’. We see this on Caligula’s coinage, and here it has two meanings; Germanicus was Caligula’s father’s name, but he was also a successful general in Germania. Associating himself with his father’s memory and achievements helped legitimise Caligula’s rule.

Caligula sestertius; reverse showing Caligula’s sisters depicted as the Three Graces, goddesses representing charm, beauty, and creativity

All in all, Roman coinage tells us a lot about how emperors wanted to be viewed and remembered, highlighting military strength and spreading the Roman religion, but also making the emperor seem accessible in the provinces.  This concept can still be seen today on modern coins more than 2,000 years later! Have a look in your pocket and see if you can spot any similarities!

Jess, Roman Society Placement

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Tuesday Times Tables: Glorious Roman Glass

Have you ever wondered how glass was made in the Roman period, or what the components of Roman glass are?

Roman double-handled bulbous vase

Glass has three principal constituents: a former, a flux and a stabiliser. In antiquity, silica, in form of sand, acted as the former; soda was used as flux and calcium in form of lime was used as stabiliser. 

The Roman glassworker could vary the colour of the glass by adding specific metal oxides. Different quantities of these colouring agents, that have different chemical compositions, and manipulation of furnace temperatures produced a very wide range of translucent and opaque colours. 

The addition of copper produced a range of blues, greens and red; cobalt was for dark blue; iron was used for brown and black glass; manganese for yellowish or purple glass; and for the colourless or opaque white glass was used antimony.

Roman melon bead made from glass paste

The ingredients were initially heated together to a temperature of about 600 Celsius degrees to remove the impurities and this process, called “fritting”, produced the material known as frit. The best of the frit was then broken up and heated to 1100 Celsius degrees or more to form glass.  

Roman jar with thick zig-zag pattern from neck to shoulders

The three principal processes used to manufacture Roman glass vessels were casting, mould-blowing and free-blowing.

Tall slightly twisted Roman jug with strap handle

The casting was in widespread use in the early years of Roman Empire, but became rare towards the end of first century AD and occurred only occasionally thereafter. In the casting process the glass objects were cast by directing molten glass into a mould where it solidified. This technique created decorative effects by joining together prefabricated component parts, like handles, feet and rims. The most common cast vessel found in Roman Britain is the pillar-moulded bowl.

Modern glassmakers blowing glass

By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in the reign of the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, most Roman glass was produced by the blowing method. The invention of glass-blowing completely transformed the glass industry: it was now possible to produce a wide variety of forms more cheaply. 

It consists of an inflation of a gather (a mass of melted glass) onto the end of an iron rod. The glass could be blown in a mould or with the free-blowing method, but in this last case the glassworker had to shape the vessel by rolling the iron rod across a flat stone or a metal surface and by manipulation with tools. When the vessel was ready it was removed from the iron rod and then handles and other parts were added.

Michela Amato
Collections Placement

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Tuesday Times Tables: Fascinating Flint

Flint is an exceptionally hard material, and if worked correctly, it can be sharper than a metal razor. It’s no surprise then that it is one of the first materials to be shaped by prehistoric man.

Examining flint tools today connects the modern world with the prehistoric in a way that reminds us of the extraordinary ingenuity that brought us to where we are now.

In an attempt to celebrate this connection, a small assortment of the Roman Baths’ most impressive flint tools were on display for one night next to the Great Bath for visitors to handle.

Our handling tables give visitors the chance to pick up and examine objects from our collection.

The Roman Baths has well over a thousand individual pieces of flint in its collection from archaeological sites throughout Bath and North East Somerset, including arrowheads, scrapers, and blades. At first glance, many visitors could easily make out the familiar shape of an arrowhead, or a small blade, but the earliest flint tools are less familiar. One of the most remarkable examples was on display for handling – a handaxe, found in Priston.

A Palaeolithic handaxe. The point of the axe has broken off.

We can recognise the handaxe (pictured above) by its sharp edges that would have joined at an obvious point, had the point not broken off. It sits in the hand comfortably, and provokes the holder to try and imitate its original owner. Self-restraint comes easy when reminded that this particular handaxe was created over 250,000 years ago.

Next to that, the other objects on the table seemed relatively young, ranging from 11,000 to 4,000 years old.

The age of these objects is often astounding, and almost impossible to grasp. Even more astounding is that prehistoric worked flint can be found in the most common of places, like a garden or field. All it takes is a keen eye and interest, and before long you could build up a collection as big as the Roman Baths!


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Lords, Land and the Law

Recently, a fascinating legal document from 1790 entered our collection (fig. 1). Found with a collection of 19th century train documents from Bath Spa Railway Station, the agreement was older, and in much better condition than many of the papers around it. It has clearly been looked after carefully, and the document is in perfect reading condition, allowing us to easily identify it as a legal agreement between Sir Thomas George Skipwith of Prewbold Prevell, and the Right Honourable Francis Seymour Conray, commonly known as Lord Viscount Beauchamp.

Fig. 1: A legal agreement dating to 1790. While the writing is very clear, it is hard to read the entire document due to its fragility.

It specifies the tenancy terms of inherited land owned by Conray, formerly leased to Skipwith. Skipwith died in 1790, and the agreement is part of a legal process which handed Skipwith’s estates to his kinsman, Sir Gray Skipworth, who was born and raised in Virginia, and was remarkably a descendant through his mother of Pocahontas.

Thomas Skipwith himself was an inconspicuous member of the House of Parliament, representing Warwickshire from 1769-1780 and Steyning 1780-1784. Despite being head of the poll for Warwickshire in 1780, Skipwith refused to stand, drawing comment from the London Chronicle. ‘The unexpected resignation of Sir Thomas Skipwith is held by the inhabitants in the number of the most paradoxical events that may have happened amongst them.’[1]

Fig. 2: Francis Seymour Conray, also known as Lord Viscount Beauchamp.

On the other side of the agreement is Francis Conray (fig. 2). Conray had a number of significant roles, including Ambassador to France (1763-5), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1765-6), Master of the Horse (1766), and Lord Chamberlain (1766-82). David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, wrote of him, ‘I do not believe there is in the World a man of more probity & Humanity, endowed with a very good Understanding, and adorned with very elegant Manners & Behaviour.’[2]

It is remarkable to find a document relating to such characters, and they feed into the larger picture of Georgian life in England. Families survived on inheritance, and there was a massive importance placed on an individual’s legacy. Their titles and achievements were just as significant as the land they owned, and it was documents such as this that ensured a family’s rich heritage endured.

If you would like to see the document in person, alongside a number of interesting documents relating to the origins and workings of the GWR in Bath, come to the Lansdown Local History Store Open Day – Wednesday 30th May.

Placement Student

[1] Namier, L. and Brooke, J., 1985. The House of Commons 1754-1790 (Vol. 1). Boydell & Brewer.
[2] Hume, D., Klibansky, R. and Mossner, E.C., 1954. New Letters, Edited by Raymond Klibansky and Ernest C. Mossner. Clarendon Press. p.77-78.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Entitled Tiles

During the late 1970s, a joint team of students and staff from Bath College of Higher Education and the University of Leeds uncovered, among other things, four complete medieval tiles from a manor house in Newton St. Loe. Striking in design and aesthetic, these tiles provide unique insight into the medieval world, and make excellent learning tools in understanding core archaeological principles. They will shed light on how we can approach a better understanding of a site.

The team at Newton St. Loe dated these tiles to 1290 – 1320, and the question I want to ask is how exactly can an accurate estimate be made? 

Fig.1 – Floor tile found at Newton St. Loe displaying the royal arms established by Richard the Lionheart, reversed.

Take the example above (fig. 1). The most obvious feature is the clear heraldry, but as is often the case with heraldry, it could prove to be a red herring. We can see it displays the royal arms established by Richard the Lionheart in 1198. In 1340, the royal arms were quartered by Edward III, incorporating the fleur-de-lis. In addition, medieval tiles in England came into production around the mid-13th century. Using this evidence, we could say the tile was made during the late 13th and early 14th century.

But what if our method is wrong? Perhaps either the artist or the patron preferred an earlier design, despite what was socially accurate. It’s possible the tile was part of a cheaper, mass produced set from the late 14th century, a result of the Black Plague severely hampering the customers’ ability to afford unique, custom-made tiles. Many cheaper tiles that re-used old designs flooded the market as a result of the plague.

Ultimately, any number of reasons can undermine even the best and most seasoned logic. The heraldry alone is only going to get us so far.

Fig.2 – Found alongside the royal arms tile, the circular, floral, design of this tile is of unknown origin or heraldry.

So how can we date an object like this, while also ignoring its most identifiable feature? The key is context. It was the manor’s family history, the interesting architecture, and the layers of archaeology, that all work towards informing the tile, and allowed the archaeologists to estimate a suitable date. It is the job of an archaeologist, a historian, even an enthusiast, to try and fit each small piece into a grand mosaic that is in the end, far bigger than the sum of its parts.

Placement Student

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Civilisations: A Humorous History

Today, we put a lot of trust in doctors who prescribe our medication, but how different was medical knowledge in the past? This blog focuses on the theory that dominated medical science until the 1700s: the Four Humours of the body.

The four humours are a medical theory that the human body is made up of four different liquids; black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm.  In a healthy body there is a balance or equal amount of all four liquids. In the body of a sick person, there is an imbalance (too much or too little) of at least one the humours.

The theory of the Four Humours of the body

This theory was developed by Hippocrates who suggested that it was a medical imbalance of the humours that affected bodily functions. Later, Galen classified the humours as hot/cold, wet/dry. He suggested that the humours could be rebalanced by treating the patient with its opposite. For example, if you were too cold, you would take hot baths and eat hot foods. As well as being linked to being hot/cold, wet/dry, the four humours were linked to the seasons, the elements, personality traits, and parts of life.

Blood was seen as being wet and hot. If a physician thought you had too much blood, they would prescribe bloodletting, where leeches would be attached to the skin to suck blood from your body! Blood was linked to air, childhood and springtime; presumably the spring brings a new lease of life. Out of the cold winter, brightly coloured flowers appear, and many animals have their young. Blood was linked with a ‘sanguine’ personality type, which describes people who enjoy taking risks, are enthusiastic, active and love to socialise.

What yellow bile actually consists of is still up for debate. Historians are unsure as to whether it is urine, vomit, or stomach bile. Yellow bile was seen as being hot and dry. It was linked with fire, adulthood, and the summer. Yellow bile was linked with a ‘choleric’ personality type, which described people who are independent and goal-oriented; they make great leaders and work things out logically.

Black bile was seen as being cold and dry, and is thought to be faeces. Black bile was linked to earth, old age, and the autumn. This could be because animal dung is used to fertilise land and so would have strong links to earth and soil. Black Bile was linked with a ‘melancholic’ personality type. This described people who were self-reliant, reserved, and strived for perfection.

Phlegm was seen as being cold and wet. It was linked to water, decrepitude/death, and winter. Phlegm was linked to the ‘phlegmatic’ personality type. This described people who were easy-going, peaceful and good at compromising.

The theory of the four humours was at the forefront of medical science even into the medieval period. As the church banned human dissections, the theories created by Greek physicians were seen as being completely accurate! 

Collections Intern