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.

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

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Female Burial: The Specialist Studies

Continuing on from last week’s blog about my favourite lady, this week’s blog is about the specialist studies conducted on the two burials from Walcot Street. Stable isotope analysis and DNA studies were carried out on both individuals in order to learn more about these burials.

The excavation of my favourite lady

In order to learn about an individual’s diet, bone collagen can be used for isotope analysis. The term “you are what you eat” often rings true! Our body tissues have been formed using components from the food we have consumed over our lifetimes and these affect the ratio of stable isotopes in our bodies. These ratios can be measured to determine what food types a human consumed in their lifetime. This can reveal a huge amount of information about their diet and status.

The preservation of my favourite lady’s bone collagen was incredible and the results from the isotope analysis show that she was getting around 10-20% of her dietary protein from marine sources. The isotope analysis results were compared to the Romano-British population of Poundbury, Dorset where marine foods indicated high status. 

Although my favourite lady was obtaining around 10-20% of her protein from marine sources, that still did not place her within the ‘elite’ groups from the comparative site. She also was not placed within the ‘normal’ group of individuals so it can be assumed that her status was somewhere in between these. The results were compared to those at Poundbury because as far as we can tell, my favourite lady was Roman. However, ‘Roman’ covers a long period of time, and sadly we don’t have enough information to pinpoint her date more accurately.

Results from the isotope analysis of bone collagen from the male and female burials, created by M.P. Richards from the University of Bradford, 2001

The male from Syria is closely linked with my favourite lady as they were found at the same time. Studies were conducted into investigating whether these two individuals were related, and DNA analysis can potentially answer these questions. Teeth were extracted from both the Syrian man and my favourite lady in order to establish any kinship links through mitochondrial DNA (which is passed down from mother to child through generations). 

The result from these studies suggests that the male is from North Africa/Middle East and that my favourite lady has a maternal lineage of British/Scandinavian origin. It is emphasised in the report that these results only rule out the fact that these individuals are not related through maternal heritage, but does not rule out any other kinship links!

My favourite lady's teeth, used to study the mitochondrial DNA

Although we have been able to learn a huge amount of information about my favourite lady from her skeleton and specialist studies, there is still a sense of mystery surrounding her! Maybe one day these questions can be answered…

Dulcie Newbury

Collections Intern

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A female burial: The hobbled road to recognition.

Two burials, one male and one female, were discovered in 1999 during an excavation on Walcot Street undertaken by Bath Archaeological Trust. Both of these burials attracted a lot of interest from the public and media, including an episode of ‘Meet the Ancestors’ on BBC. One of these burials (the male from Syria) is currently on display within the museum; however the second burial is not.

I first became interested in these burials during my A Level studies; however since starting my placement at the Roman Baths my interest in the female burial has grown enormously. The female is often referred to as ‘the female buried with the Syrian man’. I dislike this term as I feel like it means the interest lies primarily with the male, and the female does not get the interest or recognition she deserves so I prefer to refer to her as ‘my favourite lady’!
The cranium of my favourite lady

A number of interesting things can be discovered through the study of the skeleton, and luckily 90% of my favourite lady’s skeleton is present. From looking at the pelvis there is no doubt that this individual is female and from studying the length of her femur it is estimated that she was roughly 5ft tall. The wear on her teeth places her between 26-45 years old, with a closer estimation of 30 years old.

The mandible of my favourite lady. The wear on the teeth was examined to estimate her age

The pelvis of my favourite lady, used to determine her sex

Another interesting aspect of this skeleton is the severe compound fracture on both her tibia and fibula which would have pierced her skin and caused a lot of damage. There is evidence for very minimal treatment of this injury, whereas today’s treatment for such a severe fracture would be urgent surgery, antibiotics to treat infection, and internal/external fixtures. It is incredible to think that my favourite lady had such minimal treatment on such a severe injury!

Left and right tibia of my favourite lady. The left tibia shows the extent of the compound fracture. Note that the bones have fully fused together but are still very wonky!

By looking at the fracture of her leg we can tell that this wasn’t the cause of death as the bones had enough time to fuse back together (albeit very wonky!) She went on to develop osteoarthritis due to the fact that her left leg was shorter than her right, causing her to hobble. Osteoarthritis is evident on bones as they take on a polished effect on the joint surface where two bones are rubbing together.

Left: A talus showing no signs of osteoarthiritis. Right: The talus of my favourite lady, showing polished bone

The image above shows a comparison between the left talus of an individual who shows no signs of osteoarthritis (left) compared to the left talus of my favourite lady (right). The joint surfaces on my favourite lady’s talus have taken on the polished effect which is common in osteoarthritis.

This is just scratching the surface of all the interesting things we can learn from my favourite lady. Next week’s blog will be looking at the results from multiple specialist studies conducted on her remains!

Dulcie Newbury

Collections Intern.