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, 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

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Civilisations: Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

Continuing with our theme of Civilisations, I put together a handling table of Ancient Egyptian objects in our collection for the event day.

The theme of my table was the Ancient Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife, represented through funerary objects in the collection. The Ancient Egyptians believed that when someone died, their individual journey did not end but was merely transported from the earthly plane to the eternal plane.

This shabti is from Luxor. It is made from limestone and incised with text from Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead. It is from the tomb of Djhuthirmaktuf (meaning ‘Thoth is his protection’)

One of my favourite objects I used was the shabti figurine. As the Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a mirror image of their normal life, it was thought that they would still be called upon to do manual labour for the gods. Shabtis were intended to act as servants or minions for the deceased and it was believed the shabtis would magically come to life and do manual labour in their stead! They are often called ‘answerers’ as they carried inscriptions asserting their readiness to answer the gods’ summons to work.

Translation of Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead

Also in our collection, we have some small amulets, which often depicted deities and were believed to have protective and regenerative powers.

In Ancient Egypt, frogs were associated with Heqet who was the goddess of fertility. Every year when the river Nile would flood, thousands of frogs were born and the land would be incredibly fertile, which is where this link between frogs and fertility originates. These amulets would be placed in tombs as it was believed Heqet helped with the rebirth after dead.

This amulet is a representation of Heqet, the goddess of fertility

Also in the collection are small Osiris figurines. Osiris was well known as the god of the afterlife and resurrection, and was a key figure in the lives of the Ancient Egyptian people. He was killed by his brother Seth but brought back to life by his sister (and wife!) Isis. Osiris figurines were placed with the deceased in the belief that they would help to resurrect the dead in the afterlife.

Osiris is often depicted with a deep black beard and green skin, which symbolises the fertile soils of the river Nile.

I had so much fun researching and presenting my table during the Civilisations Festival and I think it was a great way to bring out objects from the collection that aren’t on display!

Collections Intern

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Gallop through History

The ability to complete hard jobs with minimal effort is an apt way to describe most technological innovations ever created by man.  For science week the decision to delve into the technology surrounding animal husbandry, in particular the Equus (horse in the language of the Romans: Latin.)

Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “The substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind.” 

This is certainly true, and although the day of the horse as the centre of many of our technological innovations is long past, I hoped to in some small way honour the creature that I consider man’s second best friend. 

When we first domesticated the horse, around 3500BC, it became quickly apparent that the creature would need proper treatment if it was to perform the heavy labour that was required of it.  Just as an army must have good boots to march many miles, the horse must also be provided with premium footwear.  Working in poor conditions caused horses to become lame, which was solved by the horseshoe; a sheet of metal hammered into the hoof to form a protective lining.  I hear all ye animal lovers cry out in indignation, but fear not!  The shoe, when fitted properly, only goes through the horse’s equivalent of a fingernail. 

Medieval Guildhall type horseshoe (left), post-medieval horseshoe (right)

Above you can see the evolution of the horseshoe from a medieval Guildhall type shoe to a later 17th century style.  The style changes to better fit the horse, the inner arch point disappears with time.  A further point of interest is the overall greater size of the medieval shoe, likely for a draft horse (a horse that would have pulled a heavy wagon.) 

17th-18th century rowel spur

Another noteworthy object in our beautiful collection is a 17th- 18th century rowel spur (albeit missing the rowel - the circular spinning part.  When the horse became a practical way for our ancestors to get around, and even later sit atop and charge battle, the spur was developed so that the rider could communicate more complex manoeuvres to his mount.  At first the ‘prick spur’ did little more than to jab the horse but later the rowel spur was developed to be more gentle. 

Through my journey into the Roman Baths Collection I have only deepened my already considerable respect for the horse and those who mastered it, as Churchill said, for the “progress of mankind.” 


Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Civilisations: Writing around the World

Writing is a significant part of everyday life. It is a form of communication we often don’t think about. But how important was writing in the past? This is the question I decided to focus on when creating a handling table for the BBC’s Civilisations Festival. 

While selecting various types of writing that we have within the collection, I found that all over the world, different materials have been used as a writing surface. From clay tablets, to wax tablets, to metal, each material is chosen for a different purpose.

Cuneiform is one of the oldest known fully formed written languages, and was used in all Mesopotamian civilisations until its abandonment in favour of the alphabetic system. It was designed by the Sumerians who created the pictorial images to replace the shaped tokens that had been used for accounting. Many of the Cuneiform tablets found are about palace administration, military strategies or, like the tablet within our collection, are an inventory.

The clay tablets were written on using a wedge-shaped stylus, which is where Cuneiform gets its name as it means “wedge-shaped” in Latin. The tablets were reusable as long as they hadn’t been fired which means that all writing can, in theory, be temporary. This suggests the writing was intended to be a temporary and practical record rather than a permanent document of events. In many cases, it is thought that the tablets have been fired accidently, perhaps through an act of warfare where a building has been burnt down and fired the clay tablets inside.

The Cuneiform tablet within our collection dates to c.2027 BC

The Roman Baths collection is the home of 130 curse tablets excavated from the Sacred Spring, each one bearing a message that has been scratched into a sheet of lead or pewter. Many of these are messages to the gods, asking for punishment to fall on the person who betrayed them. Others are just a list of names, are they asking for the gods to curse everyone on the list? Or, are they sending the gods a list of potential perpetrators and asking them to punish the person who did it?

Unlike the Cuneiform tablets, the curses were made to be a permanent and personal record of an event (even if the event was something small like having a glove stolen). These messages are personal and emotive; you can almost feel the anger in each scratch. These curses were deliberately placed in the Spring so that they could be found and read by the gods, and some remain unread even today.

Curse tablet with inscription "May he who has stolen VILBIA from me become as liquid as water..."

It is clear that past civilisations used writing to document the most important things that were going on at the time. For the Sumerians, this began with accounting and evolved into administration, written on a material which allowed you to choose what was kept. The Roman curse tablets are written from a personal and emotional perspective, scratched onto a permanent surface as a physical manifestation of their feelings. 

Whatever the focus of the text, writing is something that separates the human race from the animal kingdom. Many forms of writing have yet to be translated and we can only imagine the stories they tell!

Collections Intern

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Civilisations: A Display of Belief

'Civilisations’ is a new series on BBC 2 spanning 31 countries and looking at humanity’s desire to create. Each episode covers a different theme, ranging from how people in the past depicted themselves through art, to how different faiths are represented through art and objects.

The Belief display case
As part of the Civilisations festival, I put together a display case in the Sun Lounge based on belief systems in past societies and how they are represented through the objects in our collection. I wanted to try and represent as many different countries across the world using interesting objects, just like the Civilisations programme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘belief’ as the trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

Replica Iron Age spoons

I chose to display the Iron Age spoons as they are somewhat of a mystery, but incredibly interesting. They are made in a style unique to Britain and Ireland, formed from a single sheet of metal, with one spoon bearing a large cross and the other a small hole on the right side. Liquid may have been poured onto one spoon and dripped through the hole onto the other spoon during rituals. Little is known about belief systems in the Iron Age, but it is believed that a lot of the ritual practices revolved around offerings and sacrifices to the gods.

One of my favourite aspects of the display case is the two images of Haile Selassie at The Roman Baths in 1936. Haile Selassie was Ethiopia’s Emperor from 1930-1974. He was worshipped as god incarnate among followers of the Rastafari movement which developed in the 1930’s.

Haile Selassie visiting the Roman Baths in 1936

Rastafarians believe that they are the chosen people of God, but that colonisation and the slave trade has led to their role being supressed. Haile Selassie was not part of the religion himself but people still believed him to be god incarnate. They believe in the ritual inhalation of marijuana and the religious ceremonies consist of chanting, drumming and meditating in order to increase their spiritual awareness and reach a state of heightened spirituality.

There are many other interesting and important artefacts from our collection which represent different belief systems in past civilisations. If you want to find out more, you can see this display for free in the Sun Lounge!

Collections Intern