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, 18 September 2019

Words on Wednesdays: Numismatics

“Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money”

As part of my numismatic placement at the Roman Baths, I put together a handling table exploring different forms of money over time; this included coinage, bank notes, currency tokens and jettons. I began with the Iron Age and then went on to explore money in the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods, and the 17-19th century. I hoped to illustrate that money has never had a single form; for thousands of years, the label ‘money’ could be ascribed to any object or material with tradable value!

Visitors to the handling table investigate Iron Age coins

One of the most popular items on my handling table was a copper alloy dupondius, issued by Nero in 64-67 AD, which was found in the Sacred Spring at the Baths. The front, or obverse, of the coin depicts the head of Emperor Nero, and his head is surrounded by text which names his many titles. If we compare this coin to an English pound coin we can see that although the names and values of coinage have changed, what is depicted on coins is not too different.

Roman dupondius issued by Nero

To represent the 19th century, I chose to display 19th century bank notes. Like our modern bank notes, this note from 1841 has the statement, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of £5”, meaning that the person who held this note could take it into the bank which issued the note and exchange it for the equivalent price in gold coin. This £5 note would be equivalent to around £300 in today’s currency!

£5 bank note issued by Bath Old Bank

Tokens were produced throughout the 17-19th century in times of coin shortages where they acted as substitutes for pennies, farthings and shillings. They were used in both a commercial setting, such as in a shop or a warehouse, and in some cases they were used as gambling tokens! Tokens were in frequent use, and the Roman Baths collection holds examples that were used locally in Sydney Gardens, the Pump Room, and even the Crystal Palace Inn around the corner from the museum!

Bath Token from 1811

I really enjoyed talking to visitors about this forgotten form of money, especially when it had such a big impact on our economy. It was an excellent way to exhibit objects that are not permanently on display!

British Numismatic Society Student Placement

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Words on Wednesdays: Delicious Cakes

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience”

James Beard

In last week's blog I described cooking in the Roman period, but to provide the full experience at my handling table, I also did some Roman cooking!

Putting the finishing touches on my Roman cakes; a sprinkle of nuts and a drizzle of honey

From the bookshelf I pulled ‘The Roman Cookery of Apicius’ (De Re Coquinaria), translated by John Edwards.

Apicius was a Roman man who wrote a recipe book during the first century BC. It is not what we would call a recipe book today, with his recipes giving little to no indication of quantities or cooking time. We can assume his book was meant for the experienced cook who could use their own judgement.

Flicking through the book, many of the recipes didn’t seem so bad, pleasant even; pears cooked with cinnamon and wine, lentil soup, marinated pork chops. But there were some recipes that I wasn’t too keen to try; apples and calf’s brain casserole, liver, chicken and onion hors d’oeuvres.

I settled on the recipe for aliter dulcia (sweets), a rich sweet honey cake topped with nuts. YUM! John Edwards’ book provided a modern adapted recipe which I used to make the cakes. Wine and honey replace the sugars we use to sweeten our cakes and cinnamon and rosemary fill the cake with a burst of flavour.

Rich sweet Roman cakes, fresh from the oven!

Apicius recipe:

Mix pepper, nuts, honey, rue and raisin wine. Cook in milk and pastry. Thicken with a little egg and bake. Pour honey on top, sprinkle with nuts and serve.

Adapted Recipe: 

Rich Sweet Cakes

2 tsp cinnamon
½ cup almonds (chopped)
½ tsp ground rosemary (rue)
2 cups pastry flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ cup sweet raisin wine
1 egg
4 Tbsp honey or brown sugar
¾ cup milk

In a mixing bowl, put cinnamon, chopped almonds and rosemary (rue). Add flour, baking powder and mix. Next, combine sweet wine, well beaten egg, honey and milk. Blend and stir into the dry ingredients. Bake in 375°F (190°C) oven in a greased 9 inch round pan, for 30 minutes. Pour a little honey on top of the finished cake, garnish with nuts and serve.

From De Re Coquinaria (Roman Cookery of Apicius), translated by John Edwards.

Why not have a go at making them yourself?

Imogen Westcott
Collections Placement

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Words on Wednesdays: Delicious

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience” 
James Beard

Food is part of our everyday life, sometimes we even plan our days around food, eating it or cooking it! It’s not a surprise that the Romans did too.

My own love of food and cooking was the inspiration for my handling table. I wanted to learn about Roman cooking tools and methods, maybe even try a bit of cooking myself. When I began looking at the objects within the museum’s collection, I was stunned to find that much of the methods and utensils of cooking weren’t too dissimilar to those used today.

Getting up close and personal with the collection, visitors are encouraged to hold objects

The Romans increased the availability and variety of food in Britain, introducing new and exotic ingredients, especially for the wealthier classes. Food scraps found by archaeologists today, such as bones and shells, are evidence of food eaten by the Romans. Fish varieties were eaten widely and used to make garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a salty seasoning in cooking.

Butchery marks on animal bone tell us that people were eating and probably selling meat. The scratches and cuts in the bone require a closer look. A bone will splinter or shatter if broken; we know these marks are butchers marks because of the clean cuts into the bone, which can only be caused by a sharp blade.

Handling animal bone with obvious signs of butchery

Pottery was used throughout the kitchen for cooking, storage and serving. Large ceramic pots were used to cook stews and soups and could also be used to store food. Lighter, smaller cooking vessels, such as pewter or bronze pans were popular with soldiers but could also be used in the home.

Bronze patera found during excavations of the Sacred Spring, on display at the Roman Baths

My favourite object was the mortarium, a bowl-shaped vessel with grit embedded surface used as a grinding and mixing bowl. This ancient mortar and pestle was one of the most important tools in the Roman kitchen. The Romans liked food that was heavily spiced, possibly to hide the taste of old meat, and needed a tool to grind all these spices to a useable powder or paste.

Left: North Gaulish mortarium rim, Right: close up of maker's stamp

This particular mortarium is special because of the maker’s stamp near the spout (see image above). This stamp belongs to Quintus Valerius Veranius, with a date range of 65-100 A.D. His stamps have been found on mortaria in Northern France, western Belgium and Britain. This helps us trace the movement of the maker and their wares from workshop to country, which in turn helps us create a bigger picture of Roman life in Britain.

Imogen Westcott
Collections Placement

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Words on Wednesdays: Invisible

“The Roman remains were what they sought: medieval Bath was invisible”
Peter Davenport
Medieval Bath Uncovered

As a part of my week of work experience here at the Roman Baths, I was given the opportunity to organise a handling table for the Words on Wednesdays weekly summer event. I have always found medieval England interesting, so I decided to take advantage of the thousands of amazing artefacts here at the Roman Baths and take a closer look into medieval life.

Words on Wednesdays Medieval Handling Table

The focus of my table was the different elements of the home; I incorporated building materials such as floor tiles and window glass, as well as objects which would be found inside the home like pottery and cosmetic items. While the objects I used are more likely to have been found in the possession of someone of a higher status, and the tiles and glass in a cathedral, I wanted to create an idea of what life may have looked like in the medieval period.

A favourite object of mine, and of the visitors to my table, was the King John short cross halfpenny from 1205. The coin is a part of the Wellow Hoard, a group of 16 coins produced in the period 1180-1247. This is a great example to show how halfpennies were created 800 years ago, by simply cutting whole pennies in half!

Cut halfpenny of King John. Left: Obverse, Right: Reverse

Another group of objects that attracted a lot of attention were the 14th century cathedral floor tiles. These were found in the 1974 excavation of Orange Grove and have detailed designs including a griffin, 3 lions and an abbey. One of the designs particularly I liked was the griffin which symbolised the bravery of a lion combined with the intelligence of an eagle, and would have been a great addition to the floor of a cathedral.

Medieval floor tile. Left: Floor tile, Right: Reconstruction drawing

I greatly enjoyed putting together my table and getting to look at all the wonderful artefacts that the Roman Baths has to offer that aren’t Roman, and cast a light on a much forgotten era of Bath’s history.

Work Experience Student

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