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.

Monday, 4 July 2016

            This week I had been tasked with researching the Greek vase, pictured, at the Roman Baths. With most of the work on it having been lost or never fully completed, and with original documentation on the vase being brief, it is safe to say I appreciated the challenge!
            The vase is Attic (i.e. from Attica, the principality surrounding Athens) and its shape suggests that it was a small container for oil, or more likely a funeral gift or grave offering – it is called a lekythos (λήκυθος). It was made between the late 6th century BC and early 5th century BC, and the painter has used the black-figure technique, where details are painted in black paint onto a red surface, and later highlighted (incised) using the nib of a sharp tool (this is called incision). Potters and painters could become very well-renowned in ancient Greece, and painting of this kind was considered a form of high art.
            It depicts a four-horse chariot (quadriga) and four figures around it: two are riding the chariot, whilst two others flank it. This lekythos is unusual insofar as it features a red-coloured background, when we would usually expect a white-coloured background for a lekythos from this period and location. Increasingly, white-ground lekythoi were used as grave offerings and commonly featured scenes of death or ‘final farewells’.
            You can just about make out one figure playing the lyre (cithara). Sadly, much of the design is worn and therefore many details are lost. However, the horse and figures are clearly visible. Traces of purple paint are visible on the neck, and there is a geometric pattern just below the mouth of the vase, where the handle has also been lost.
            The figure playing the lyre has formerly been identified as Orpheus. However, I think that they are probably better identified as Apollo, who, as a god of death and music (an unlikely pairing!), would better suit a vase which was probably dedicated as a funerary gift—music might have been played at the funerary procession.

Chris Gallacher
University College, London

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Science Week Success

The Roman Baths were part of British Science Week again this year by hosting and participating in several events during the week, the first of which was Science Busking. This involved having five tables of information regarding the science behind different aspects of Roman life and buildings such as; where the thermal water came from, how hypocausts heated rooms, coin manufacture, health and bones. This garnered the attention of around 55 visitors throughout the three hour event. A model aqueduct and water organ attracted more children and families who, with the help of volunteers from the Explorium and staff members learned about how they worked.

Throughout the week a table set up on site was used to inform visitors of the science behind a variety of objects and engineering feats found in the Roman world. These tables ranged from information about skeletons, coins, aqueducts, hypocausts and glass with objects being available for the public to hold and discuss with a volunteer. Each day held interest for the visitors with between 40 and 70 people taking in or questioning the material available. However, Wednesday was the most popular day with over a hundred playing with and learning about the aqueduct.
My handling table on the science of glass

The last event was Bath Taps into Science at Victoria Park, to which the Roman Baths took an aqueduct and arch model. These proved to be very popular with the children, who enjoyed learning about how and why the engineering feats worked whilst playing with them themselves. The constant stream of families meant there was no way of verifying the numbers of visitors, though all seemed to enjoy it. All in all, Science Week appeared to be a success as a popular event for children, families and the general public alike.

Kirsty Luckcuck
Bradford University intern

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Tompion Clock

One of the jobs I am privileged to do as Collections Manager at the Roman Baths is to wind the Tompion Clock. It has stood in Bath’s Pump Room since 1709 and its older than the present Room!

The 1670s-1700s were an interesting time in the history of telling the time: pendulums had only recently been invented and clock makers were working out how to improve clocks and watches’ accuracy particularly with springs, making it possible to take these fragile instruments onto ships. 

Thomas Tompion was (and still is) a well-regarded clock maker. He worked for Charles II, William III and Queen Anne. As a friend of the first Astronomer Royal, Flamsted, two of his clocks were built into the Observatory, Greenwich.  And after a successful life, having made over 700 clocks and 6,000 watches when he died his work was recognised with a burial in Westminster Abbey.

The clock with its hood removed 

The Bath clock is, to get technical, a long case equation clock.  This means its much bigger than a grandfather clock (it stands over three metres high) and it has a kidney shaped dial which reflects the solar time which is not regular like the ticking of a clock because of the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun. This was important to the men of science as that was what they were used to from sundials. Even so, to check an equation clock its necessary to regularly use a sundial to get “the sun’s time”.  So all of these clocks were supplied with a sun dial!  Ours is outside the nearest window in the Pump Room. 

Tompion's sundial outside the Pump Room

Unlike most of Tompion’s clocks, which were given mahogany wood cases, ours has an oak one.  Another difference is that it has to be wound every 3 weeks which sounds good until you consider the one Tompion made  for William III now in Buckingham Palace needs to be wound only once a year!

Some people have suggested these difference are because Tompion made the clock cheaply and gave it the City of Bath not so much as a gift but a very large advertisement in the social centre of Bath!   However, as he did live here for   and he was made an honorary freedman of the city before he gave the clock, that doesn’t sound fair.

Our earliest photograph (early 20th century) of the Tompion Clock in the Pump Room with the Victorian colour scheme!

Apart from the pedigree of this clock, I love it because of its elaborate details: the urn and foliage decoration around the dial, and the fire gilt finials with mini flames on top!

I’m surprised that it shows the date: but this means throughout the year we have to ever so carefully, don gloves, and move the delicate hands around to show the right date.  


Thursday, 25 February 2016

'Cataloguing Keynsham' Update

Our Keynsham volunteers have been hard at work documenting the material from Keynsham Abbey, that I reported on in 'Cataloguing Keynsham' in November 2015.

Keynsham volunteers photographing tiles

To date 21 boxes of Medieval floor tiles have been catalogued, that’s 592 tiles covering 91 designs. The team have been getting to grips with the photography; how to make sure your image is clear and that you’re photographing the tile the right way up, which isn’t always easy if all you have to work with is a small fragment.

Saxon stonework from Keynsham Abbey site

Meanwhile the other half of the team has been tackling all manner of jobs including measuring and photographing stonework, amounting to some 289 pieces, and accessioning and cataloguing the remainder of the Medieval tiles not accessioned back in 2011. Next they’re on to more fiddly objects; photographing all the small finds from Keynsham Abbey, a great opportunity for them to handle a variety of different materials including bone, copper and textiles.

Look out for more updates on the project in the coming months.

Verity, Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Pipe-clay Puppy

Described initially as a “terracotta bear figure” on the finds list for the Beau street dig, the little pipeclay dog overcame his identity crisis and can now be found in the museum, and spotted just before you enter the Temple Precinct.

The figure was found during the 1989 excavations close to the Cross Bath in Trench IV, which was situated where the Thermae Spa can be found today. However, it is believed that both it and the other pipe clay ‘dog’ we have in the collection came from the Allier region in central Gaul. It is possible that traces of red/brown paint remains, and figures from this region are also known to be painted.

The fine clay used for the figure is similar to the clay used to create white clay pipes many years later, plenty of which can be found on archaeological digs in the area. Definitely not indestructible and usually found broken, the pipes were a disposable item that was fairly easy to make in high volumes. Although not as slender and spindly as a pipe, an effort probably would have been needed to protect the little dog from getting unrecognisably shattered if he was handled on a regular basis. He would have been produced in a bivalve mould, however only the front of him remains today.  Despite his ears breaking off at some point, his collar, and possibly a bell still remain, and he is certainly recognisable as a dog.

Dogs are common features in ancient art, often in reference to their contributions to hunting, and there are many instances of dogs on other items in the collection. It was even thought that dogs possessed healing powers. At an Aesculapius healing centre in Epidaurus, an inscription describing a miraculous cure from a growth at the hands (or rather tongue) of a sacred temple dog is found. We could theorise that this is why the little dog found its way here to Bath and the hub of healing; perhaps it was a personal talisman for attracting good health. There have even been many contemporary stories of dogs curing ailments, detecting cancer, and helping with physical rehabilitation. Dogs can even be found on some hospital wards as visitors for patients who benefit from the company of a furry friend. Our want to have dogs around us definitely has not faded from our collective consciousness.

We will never know the circumstances surrounding the little pup’s journey to Bath, perhaps that connection does lie with the therapeutic waters found here, or maybe his original owner understandably just really liked canine knick knacks.

Ella, Placement from New Zealand

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Repair, reuse, recycle…

Samian ware was highly prized Roman ceramic tableware, distinct for its orange/red colour and skilled craftsmanship. Imported and relatively expensive, your average (fairly) well-to-do Roman would have had the odd piece to show off their wealth. As it is, it was of such an expense that though you do find some quantity of samian on most archaeological sites, it was also a material that wasn’t thrown away with ease…

You’re doing the washing up and you accidentally chip the rim of your favourite bowl; most of us may hang on to it for a while, but eventually we would throw it away. The Romans weren’t quite so quick to dispose of their prized possessions.

When samian, being prized as it was, got chipped, the Romans had a novel (and presumably time-consuming) way of hiding the evidence. They would grind down the rim around their pot to produce a new unbroken rim, often having to remove a significant portion of material to achieve this.

Samian bowl with rim ground down

You knock your favourite bowl off the table and it’s lying in pieces on the floor; the Romans had a solution for that too!

Samian is sometimes found with holes drilled through it along the line of a break, evidence that the bowl has been put back together. Corresponding holes would be drilled on the two halves of a break, and a lead rivet would be put between them to hold the two pieces together.

Samian bowl with lead rivets

The Romans were not hesitant about using lead in conjunction with food, being (relatively) unaware of any issues with it, and as samian was about showing off your wealth, it would seem the distinct colour and decoration, was enough to distract admirers from the less appealing lead additions.

Samian spindlewhorl (used for spinning yarn)

And they didn’t stop there, when all you had was a sherd left, you could always chip it down, in to a rough circle and use it as a counter, or with a hole drilled through it, it could be used as a spindle whorl (for spinning yarn).

So you see concepts of recycling were nothing new, the Romans were at it long before us.

Look out for the objects pictured here in our current temporary display on samian, in the Sun Lounge at the Roman Baths.

Roman Baths Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas in the Collections Office

Unlike the rest of Bath we in the Collections team breathe a sigh of relief when Christmas approaches: it means quieter days when the phone doesn’t ring, less emails come through the enquiries box, when half or more of our colleagues are away and even the buskers seem to be quieter: perhaps they are Christmas shopping as well.

The Baths are quieter (and in the early morning the Great Bath is wonderfully steamy); so we can do some of the glamorous parts of our job with impunity; dusting the inscriptions and models, checking silica gel in the cases (this is a dessicant which ensures that despite being damp outside, our cases stay dry and this protects all the metal objects) and checking the Roman monument.  We look forward to having a chance to do this during the dark January mornings and evenings.

With more than  36 volunteers and 5 placements working with us this year, its inevitable some mistakes are made: records have been left incomplete, things have ended up in the wrong boxes…..

On this year’s "to do" list is location checking: which is just like stocktaking in a shop: checking that objects are where the database says they are and that they’re in good condition.  We’ve started with photographs which were mainly taken by previous marketing teams.

Checking photographs is always fun, you never know what will turn up! An early photo of Swallow Street with sedan/bathchair hybrid and the Roman Baths in the background
We’ll be checking weights of the Beau Street Hoard coins ready for full publication of the coins to be published next year.

Verity's desk all ready (?) for Christmas 
And we have a chance to review and plan for the new year.  As a Museum Accredited with Arts Council England, we have a documentation plan that lists all the recording we have to do.  With over 64,000 records on our database, there’s only about 10,000 more objects to go!  A lot of this work will be done by volunteers so each object to be documented has to have its paperwork and history is ready for them.

So whilst you're munching on your mince pies, think of us ...

But we're looking forward to welcoming back our volunteers in mid January (a Collections Team is for life not just for Christmas)

Verity & Susan