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, 11 October 2017

Locksbrook to Lansdown!

It’s busy-ness as usual for the Collections team this week as we’re moving the contents of our Local History store all the way from St Johns Store on Locksbrook Road up to a new and improved store in Lansdown.

Needle douches at St Johns Store

The move has involved considerable planning, as the collection ranges from rickety needle douches to beautiful wooden furniture. Originally, the new space seemed like it would be too small for the sheer amount of objects, but with the installation of a mezzanine floor and some lovely new racking, the move was fit to go ahead.

A hair hygrometer measures the humidity of the atmosphere in %RH (relative humidity)

Of course we hit a few bumps in the road – mostly to do with conservation because the environment up on Lansdown isn’t always the friendliest! On one of the first days of planning the move, we took a hygrometer with us to measure the moisture in the air, which read 92% RH (relative humidity) after just an hour! Considering the nature of the collection (lots of wood and metal), which requires a much drier, more stable environment this had to be dealt with quickly. Today, we have just the machines for the job – two dehumidifiers that consistently keep the humidity in the store at a balmy 45%RH.

Planning the move!

Even with the racking put in place, space was still an issue. The only way to solve this was to chalk it up to experience and literally draw chalk lines onto the floor, outlining the shapes and sizes of objects to make sure we were using the remaining space as efficiently as possible. It’s not just a matter of being able to squeeze around it – we also need to have access for collections purposes as well as for our visitors to view these amazing objects!

A beautiful desk fits snugly in its allotted area of floor space

I can’t express my delight when all this hard work paid off and each object slotted smoothly into its intended space to within a centimetre of the chalked outlines! Work continues today to get everything moved to Lansdown, and it’s already looking like the store we always wanted.

The move is still in progress, but we'll be open for visitors soon!

Join us up at Lansdown North on the 26th October from 11am-3pm to celebrate the Grand Opening of our new store. For more information, please visit the Museums Week website.

Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

A Stony Situation

With a very busy summer coming to an end, you might expect life at the Roman Baths to quieten down a little - but things couldn’t be further from the truth! The Archway Project is in full swing, with some preliminary excavations in the vault beneath York Street in central Bath already unearthing some exciting surprises.

Archaeologists at work in the York Street vault

When the Archway building works under York Street are completed and the new Investigation Zone is opened to the public, it will be filled with Roman stones from the site as part of the interpretation and display. The Collections team and our volunteers have undertaken the laborious task of recording hundreds of stones, some previously unidentified and many untouched since their discovery by the Victorians.

Identifying stones at our offsite store 

With all hands on deck and a crack team from Cliveden Conservation, who lifted, weighed and sometimes turned each stone individually, we recorded 202 stones with weights going up to 620kg in just 10 days!

Cliveden Conservation lifting and weighing a stone from the Roman Baths

In that time, Cotswold Archaeology joined us for three days to create a 3D photogrammetric record of 15 specific stones. This involved taking hundreds of photographs of each stone from every angle possible in order to create a digital 3D model that can be examined in minute detail, rotated and moved around with ease on a screen. The chosen stones will be used in an app for schoolchildren to identify specific types of Roman building blocks and manipulate them on screen, learning more about Roman building and how the Roman Baths may once have looked.

Photogrammetry in action!

The results of this work will also be incredibly helpful as a conservation record for our collection, showing the stones in a way that allows us to easily examine, compare and move them around without having to physically lift these huge blocks again! Our plan is to produce a 3D model of every stone that we have been examining, and with this technology at our fingertips continue to learn more about our incredible site for years to come!

A sea of stones, recorded, weighed and identified

For more information about the Archway Project go to our website and keep an eye on our Facebook page for updates as they happen!

Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It!

Beth's Tuesday Times Table
Tuesday 29th August marked the final Tuesday Times Table event, making it my turn. While no one can deny the research is fascinating and it’s great to interact with visitors, there is something slightly unnerving about standing by the Great Bath with the culmination of a good few weeks of work, waiting for some interest - perhaps more so when you are trying to interest them in small pieces of clay pipe!

Post-medieval clay pipes are an extensive part of the collection here at the Roman Baths, and while they may not seem it, pipes hold an unprecedented importance to archaeologists, and the dating of sites. Pipe smoking was brought to England in around 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh, and at the time no one had seen people smoking from the mouth - that was the stuff of dragon stories. In fact, rumour has it that when Raleigh first landed in England, proudly smoking his pipe, the moment was ruined by one of his own servants who having never seen a man smoke, and assuming his boss to be on fire, doused him in water to put him (and his pipe) out!

Diagram showing the phases of clay pipe design development from around 1585 to 1900

Despite the efforts of Raleigh’s servant, smoking and pipes caught on. So much so that a whole new style of pipe, the churchwarden pipe, was created. These pipes had stems of around 10-12 inches long, and were made originally for the sole purpose of allowing the churchwardens to smoke without the smoke blowing into their face and blocking their view. Unsurprisingly, this caught on, as it also meant no one had to stop smoking for tasks such as reading books or newspapers, talking to friends, or writing.

My table allowed visitors to become the archaeologist, dating examples of clay pipe and identifying them from brief descriptions. I had interesting examples of how pipe design varied as well, how pipemakers put their own artwork on their pipes. These include a pipe showing a figure seated on a rock, or a more intense scene showing one man begging for his life as another points a shotgun at him - all taking place in a picturesque location under a tree! The most popular pipe, however, was the only one that couldn’t be handled; a beautiful pipe where the bowl is shaped like a lady’s shoe. It is an incredibly unique pipe - there aren’t many examples of similar designs.

Top: pipe bowl shaped like a lady's boot. Middle: pipe bowl showing shooting scene with the shooter, the tree and the victim. Bottom left: pipe bowl showing a figure seated on a rock. Bottom Right: particularly ornate pipe bowl
I had a great time researching and presenting my table, who would have thought small pieces of clay pipe could be so interesting and tell us so much!

Beth Light

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: Sulis has a Spring in her Step

Having toured the Baths for the first time in a number of years it struck me that although the Baths might have been a place to relax and socialise, religion had an enormous presence in the cultural understanding and use of the site. In order to study and interpret the religious aspects and traditions of the Baths, I sourced some artefacts that had been found in the Sacred Spring, thrown into the waters to win the favour of the residing goddess, Sulis Minerva.

Izzy with her Tuesday Times Table
The complexity of the goddess can be seen in the variety of objects found in the spring:  curse tablets, intended for revenge, a souvenir pan from Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps dedicated as a precious object for the eventuality of good health, and silver feathers from a helmet, for success in a military campaign.

As a mixture of long-term taboos and superstition, religion came to play a huge role in Roman culture with pietas (religious duty) becoming a principle that any Roman would fear to reject in light of the wrath of the gods. Sacrifice, prayer and worship were activities carried out by the devout for personal and collective gain in divine appeasement. Animals would be chosen for their sex, age, fertility and colour (depending on the god/goddess being sacrificed to), slaughtered and its vital organs burnt so that queries might be answered or divine support obtained.

Finds from the Spring. Top: A bronze patera dedicated to Sulis Minerva Bottom: A curse tablet describing the theft of six silver coins

Another prevalent aspect to a religious Roman society was priesthoods. These had a dual purpose to Roman culture both in religion and the state, as did the emperor as head of Rome and its religion (as pontifex maximus). Priestesses were also a vital part of the religious system and contrary to the religious appeal that women should carry out acts of worship in private, the Regina Sacrorum and the Flaminica Dialis had similar privileges to their male counterparts – an interesting attribute to a traditionalist system.

The proximity of the temple complex and tholos to the baths acts as a physical reminder of the purpose of the baths and what these buildings represented to their people. Religion in Bath seemed to play a large part in its society, with the idea of unification through commonality in myth being evident. Through the hybridisation of Sulis and Minerva, a community of Celts and Romans arose and with the further expansion of their empire, the Romans continued to achieve harmony with compromise.

What would you throw into the Spring and dedicate to Sulis Minerva?


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Shining a Light on Ancient Greece

Είναι όλα Ελληνικά για ‘μένα. It’s all Greek to me… Not something I imagined myself saying while on placement here at The Roman Baths. Yet here I was, tasked with putting together a handling session for my Tuesday Times Table and being drawn to my Greek heritage. Some of the Greek pottery was brought to my attention, and it immediately peaked my interest. I decided to bring out the Baths’ small collection of ancient Greek oil lamps.

Hilariously (and embarrassingly), at first glance and having only seen photographs of the top of the lamps, I thought they were some form of ancient tea pots! With a bit of research into the collections database, I was happily surprised to discover they were oil lamps, or lihnaria (λυχνάρια, sin. λυχνάρι). Thus, my session became all about how the Ancient Greeks used these tiny pieces of pottery to illuminate their lives.

Tori with her Tuesday Times Table
I picked four lamps that could be handled, and had various replicas to show the difference between styles of lamps and the difference between Roman and Greek lamps. All of the Greek lamps that were displayed are mould made. The first two lamps are anthropomorphic, and date possibly between late 3rd and late 2nd century B.C. These two were the most interesting to me because they had human-like faces. 

Anthropomorphic lamps
The next lamp is possibly from the 3rd- late 2nd century B.C., and has two distinctive Corinthian heads on either side. The last lamp has been a little bit trickier to date and understand, because it is missing its nozzle. It seems that it comes from Athens, but it could possibly be Roman dating from when the Romans invaded Greece.

Lamp with Corinthian Heads and Possibly Roman Lamp
The way the lamps were used was to pour oil in the centre hole, and then grab some material for the wick and place into the spout until it touches the oil. Then it could be lit, and could stay lit for a few hours. Through my research, I discovered that there were many types of lamps and some lamps even had multiple spouts to provide more light. However, these lamps used up a lot of oil and burned much faster.

Overall, this was a really fun experience and I am really happy I got the chance to bring out these ancient Greek oil lamps. This was an excellent way to bring out parts of the Baths’ collections for everyone to see. I cannot wait to see what future Tuesday Times Tables are in store!

At the end of Tori’s table, people got to make their own lamp to take home!

Placement Student

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Textiles to Dye For!

Textile production was a major part of the ancient economy and clothing was used to give a visual message about the wearer’s rank, wealth and sometimes their profession. Despite the fact that textiles very rarely survive in archaeology, there are some artefacts which can at least tell us about how they were made

Hannah's handy diagram showing the basic stages of textile production: collection of raw materials, spinning and weaving.

Using this sophisticated diagram of my creation and a selection of spindle whorls and loom weights from the museum’s collection, my Tuesday Times Table explained how an item of Roman clothing would have been made. As an added treat (and my favourite object), I also brought out a replica warp-weighted loom to show how the weaving process worked. Weaving a piece of cloth on a loom like this was a very long and slow process, especially when making a Roman toga. They were made of a single piece of cloth which measured up 
to 6ft in width and 12ft in length. That’s a lot of weaving!
Hannah with her table

As well as spinning and weaving artefacts, I also showed some examples of natural dyes used in Roman Britain. The most commonly used dyes were madder (red), yellow (weld) and woad (blue) and these were relatively cheap. The most expensive dye of all was purple, knows as Tyrian or Phoenician purple. It was so expensive because it was made from the mucous of tiny Murex sea snails. 1000s of these snails were required to make enough dye just to trim one garment! Because of this, purple was associated with the emperors and is still associated with royalty today. 
Dyes used in Roman Britain: madder (red), weld (yellow), woad (blue) and alkanet (lilac). Green could be made using a mixture of weld and woad.

The most surprising thing about my handling table for many visitors was the bright and varied colours of the dyes. We often think of the Romans wearing only white togas, perhaps because colour from the ancient world has generally not survived well. It is easy to forget that almost all of the pure white marble statues and friezes we see in museums today would have once been painted in bright colours, which would have more accurately shown what Roman clothing looked like. In short, the Romans and their clothes were much more colourful than we imagine!
MA Placement student 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: Writing Like A Roman

Just like we do today, the Romans used many different writing materials. Everyday writing was usually done using an iron or lead stylus on a wooden tablet spread with wax, or a thin sheet of wood. More important documents were written with a pen and ink (made of soot and resin) onto wood, papyrus or parchment. At the Roman Baths, we have our famous curses, which were inscribed onto small sheets of lead. Graffiti was painted or scratched onto walls. Gaming counters, made of pottery or bone, were sometimes marked with a stylus or knife on one side to play particular games.

Emily showing visitors how the Romans wrote at her Tuesday Times Table

For my Tuesday Times Table, I chose two of our nicest iron styluses, two bone gaming counters and three of my favourite curse tablets. I also picked seven pieces of inscribed pottery from the depths of our vaults.

The Romans wrote on pottery for lots of different reasons. Sometimes the owner would write their name on a pot to show who it belonged to, like you’d put a name sticker on a lunchbox. Sometimes they would write what was in the pot, like “olive oil” or “fish sauce”. Sometimes they would even use broken bits of pottery like we would use scrap paper, to make a quick note before they threw it away.

Dice cup fragment showing 'X' on base

My favourite piece is a fragment of a small beaker, with an “X” carved into the base. It is possible that this was a dice cup for playing games or gambling. Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck, and her symbol was the wheel. Scratching an “X” onto the circular base of the dice cup made the shape of a (very vague) wheel, which made the cup lucky!

The most popular thing on my table, however, wasn’t an artefact at all. I used pictures of the letters from one of the curse tablets to create a handwriting or cursive Roman alphabet, which lots of people were very interested to see. It was easier to learn your ABCs in Ancient Rome, because they only had 20 letters. K, Y and Z were added to spell Greek words, but J, U and W weren’t used until much later.

The Roman alphabet

Have a go at writing like a Roman! What would you have written on a curse tablet?

Collections Volunteer