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, 7 August 2019

Festival of Archaeology: Roman Death and Burial

As part of the Festival of Archaeology the Roman Baths Collections team were in Sydney Gardens exploring the theme of Roman death and burial.

Burials are a major source of information that helps us to understand life in Roman Britain. Burials provide evidence about physique, disease, social organisations and religious beliefs and rituals.

Emily preparing the Death and Burial display at Sydney Gardens

So how can we tell a burial is Roman?

In Roman Britain you were typically buried in one of two ways, either cremation or inhumation. A cremation burial is the burial of cremated remains in an urn or pot and inhumation is the burial of body in a grave or tomb.  

Cremation with grave goods became more widespread following the Roman invasion in 43 AD, but later gave way to inhumation with fewer grave goods, possibly as other religions, such as Christianity and Mithraism grew in popularity.

Roman coarseware jar containing cremated remains, on display at the Roman Baths museum

What is a grave good? 

An object buried with the body, mostly of inorganic material such as pottery, jewellery, weapons and toys. Organic items would have been deposited with the body, but have since decayed. Grave goods can help us date a burial as well as provide insight into the life of the individual. Grave goods often reflected the wealth or status of the individual, or their family.

They were also ritual objects, with pottery at a burial site often being a sign of ritual feasting. Feasts were held as the deceased was buried, or sometimes days after. Food was also left as an offering for the deceased. These practices explain why we find food and beverage vessels at different levels at a burial site. 

Selection of grave goods: Clockwise from top left to right; flagon rim, samian sherd, jar base, rim sherd, iron brooch, commemorative bronze coin of Septimus Severus with funerary pyre depicted on the reverse, selection of hobnails

What would they be buried in?

The first materials to decompose are organic such as wood, food, and clothing. This leaves us without much knowledge of what clothing a person was buried in. Items such as pins, brooches and hobnails are the only remaining clues for a person’s clothing. Pins and brooches were used to hold together a shroud or toga.

Hobnails are common remaining fragments of a Roman shoe. This tells us the individual could have been clothed when they were buried or that the shoes were placed as a symbolic grave good in or outside the coffin. The nails would have been screwed into the sole of the shoe, similar to a modern football boot.
Female skeleton excavated at Batheaston with hobnails found in situ at the soles of the feet

What do you think would survive in a burial today that could tell us about life in 2019?

Imogen Westcott

Thursday, 2 May 2019

British Science Week: A Weighty Subject

To celebrate British Science Week 2019 (8th – 17th March) at the Roman Baths, several displays were set up around the museum on the Saturday to showcase some of the scientific aspects of Roman life on this ancient site. I set up a handling table, laid out with a selection of objects not currently on public display, to highlight the various different ways in which the Romans utilised lead.

Lead was used for a whole variety of things in the Roman period, such as slingshot missiles, make-up and anchors. The lead found here at the Roman Baths was mined locally in the Mendip Hills, where there is a large deposit of naturally-occurring ore. This was often combined with tin (from Cornwall) to form an alloy called pewter.

Bowl of a pewter spoon, missing its handle. Discovered in the Temple Precinct.

The majority of the Baths’ 130 curse tablets, all of which were published by R. S. O. Tomlin (Cunliffe 1988), are also composed of this alloy. Curse tablets were a means by which the victim of a crime – usually theft – could vent their anger and express their desire for revenge to be visited on the culprit, by writing a prayer to the goddess Sulis Minerva on the metal and throwing it into the Sacred Spring. 

A curse tablet was made by first melting some lead alloy, then leaving it to set after pouring it out. A thin sheet could then be fashioned out of the cool metal by hammering it, before the message was inscribed on the surface with a stylus.

Curse tablet inscribed with a list of names, originally folded five times.

A few examples were simply left in their original solidified state, resembling a smooth pebble, such as this:

Curse tablet inscribed with a list of names.

Pure lead was used as a sealing agent in more heavy-duty work. The Great Bath is still lined with the original lead sheeting laid down by the Romans to keep it watertight, a fragment of which was removed in the discovery of the Great Bath in 1871.

Lead sheet fragment from the Great Bath - deceptively heavy!

Thanks to its durability, a large quantity of Roman leadwork from the site has survived, allowing us a deeper insight into the Romans’ metallurgical practices.

Collections Volunteer

Cunliffe, Barry (editor). The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. Volume 2. The Finds from the Sacred Spring.  Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1988.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A is for Alphabets

The Sun Lounge has recently become home to some new displays! They are part of a series of changing displays that will explore the weird and wonderful objects in our collection by going through the letters of the alphabet. As the displays move through the various letters of the alphabet, more and more unusual objects will come out of storage and into the cases.

The Alphabets display, currently in the Sun Lounge

The first case, ‘A is for Alphabets’, looks at how different alphabets and writing systems have been used throughout history. Each of the objects shows different writing systems, including Latin, Arabic, Chinese, cuneiform, and hieroglyphs.

Not all of the writing systems displayed here are technically alphabets! Cuneiform, hieroglyphs and Chinese are not ‘true’ alphabets. These were developed earlier and the symbols represent parts of words, or whole words, as opposed to single sounds. Latin and Arabic are the only ‘true’ alphabets displayed as each symbol represents a single sound.

The case shows that writing has been used for similar purposes in different cultures and time periods.  The objects on display include a Roman curse tablet, a number of Chinese coins, a cuneiform tablet and cone, and a bank note. The artefacts broadly fall into 4 categories; trade, religion, organisation, and food and drink. 

Egyptian shabtis

My favourite objects are the two shabtis. These ancient Egyptian figurines represent agricultural workers who would serve the deceased in the afterlife. The hieroglyphs on the front are typically from the Book of the Dead. The Book was made up of spells to help the deceased navigate the underworld.

Alphabets and writing systems give us a fascinating insight into different civilisations throughout time and across the world. I really enjoyed putting together this display. Pop into the Sun Lounge to see this display and keep an eye out for the next installation; the letter B!

Collections Volunteer

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!