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, 17 March 2021

A Story of Swords

Few objects from history summarise power and status better than the sword. Throughout the middle ages, swords would be expensive, reserved for the wealthiest members of society, and rare compared to how widely the media portrays them today. By the era we associate with the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (the 9th to 11th centuries), the skill of sword-smithing had become a fine art, giving swords a near legendary reputation. This example is no exception.

The Viking sword from Bath

It was discovered in the 1980s, on its own, in a ditch outside Bath’s old city walls. It was allegedly still sharp upon discovery, a testament to the quality craftsmanship involved in making this weapon. The blade itself has a black patina which indicates an early method of protecting swords against corrosion, an issue anyone looking after a sword would have to deal with. 

Interestingly, there were small remains of leather and wood fused with the blade, including the scabbard it was buried in. Organic materials do not survive well in most climates, so this was a lucky find and can provide some indication of how scabbards were made in period.

The hilt of the sword; traces of the leather originally wrapped around the tang are still visible

One of the most striking features is the blade inscription. It may look like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Tolkien, but it is one of over a hundred and fifty such examples of inscribed blades from the 9th to 11th century. The most common inscription amongst this group of swords reads ‘the sword of Ulfberht’, which is why these swords are broadly referred to as Ulfberht swords. Other examples do exist, such as ‘the sword of Ingelrii’.  

Surely this is more than just a maker’s mark, perhaps becoming a workshop’s brand as the use of these inscriptions goes on for longer than any individual's lifetime. The runes on this particular blade do not seem to exactly spell ‘Ulfberht’, which could mean it is trying to mimic one of these prestigious blades, or it could just be a spelling error! It is unknown where they originate from, but one popular theory suggests the forge’s location was somewhere along the River Rhine in what is now Germany. To me, it represents how much value swords had in society. It gives a far more complex perspective of power, politics and artistic culture than many other objects from this period can.

Placement Student

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Roman Romance

What did the Romans know about love?

Venus took pride of place as the goddess of love, fertility, and marriage. One of her festivals, Veneralia, was held on April 1st and encouraged couples to respect ‘traditional’ values of romance. It was also a chance for people to ask for her help in granting love-related favours!

Denarius of Julia Domna depicting Venus on the reverse
Cupid is the next divine figure best linked with love in the Roman world. Cupid is likely the Romanised version of Eros, a key figure of Greek mythology. The fable of Cupid and Psyche is laced with the bizarre and fantastical; including Psyche receiving assistance from some ants that help her sort grain into piles during Venus’s trials to regain Cupid’s love. It shows no matter how weird, even amongst the gods love is never far from the Roman imagination.

Roman intaglio depicting Cupid, discovered at the Roman Baths

What did the real people of Rome say about love in their lives? 

The ‘ideal’ marriage occupied the hearts and minds of Romans in everyday life. Marriages were generally arranged by the paterfamilias (Father of the household). In upper-class society, marriage was commonly focused on alliance-forging, dowry exchange, or property gain, and romance is presented as an afterthought. It is easy to look at Roman marriages as cold, political, and calculated. Which, in fairness, is not wrong in some cases.

How reflective of wider Roman society is this? 

Whether it is the controversial Ovid, the amorous Catullus or the elusive Gallus, love poetry is a valuable insight into a far more general perspective of romance. Read them with a large pinch of salt because little is without agenda or exaggeration in Rome. These poems show love in all its colours, the good, the bad, and the peculiar. It is endearing to see that even two thousand years ago, love was still everything it is to us today.

Placement student

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Leading you through the History of Lead

Lead has been known to man since c.7000 BC in Western Asia and it was utilised by the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese. It is still prevalent in modern society. Despite its early discovery, it was not until the Roman period that lead truly became widespread. 

Amy leading you through the history of lead

‘Lead was to Romans what plastic is to us.’ (H.Eschnaver & M.Stoeppler, Wine – An Enological Specimen Bank, 1992)

This statement perfectly highlights the extensive and reliant use of lead by the Romans. It has a low melting point which creates an easy and cheap resource to utilise; it was desirable. In the written texts of the period and from archaeology we have distinguished that lead was used from plumbing to makeup and cookware – to name a few.

Roman pewter vessel discovered in the Spring

Surely the Romans didn’t know it was poisonous if they utilised it so much? Incredibly, they did know. Cato the Elder (3rd-2nd BC) recommended the use of lead lined/coated vessels for food preparation as well adding it to wine and food as a sweetener and preservative. It leaves a sweet taste because of the formation of ‘sugar of lead’. Even though Vitruvius (1st BC) reported the dangers of lead, it was continually utilised. 

Roman curse tablet describing the theft of a bracelet

One of my favourite uses of lead at the Roman Baths, are the curse tablets. Many curse tablets have been recovered from the Sacred Spring. These were small sheets of lead with inscriptions of names or wrongdoings, offered to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The weight of the lead would guarantee the curse would sink down in the water to reach the goddess, and it was cheap enough for most people to buy.

Papal bulla of Pope Joh XXII

The popularity of lead continued into the Medieval period. Some of its uses were: window came fragments, paint and alchemy. Some continued uses were weights, piping, and drink sweetening. One of the most interesting artefacts found in the Bath area is a lead bulla, a seal made of metal that would have been attached to a Papal Bull. On one side are the images of Saints Peter and Paul, on the other is the Pope’s name, Pope John XXII.
We move into the Post-Medieval period through to the modern day. Uses ranged from game pieces to paint, sweetener, and gasoline. Lead was still very prevalent in the 1600s-1800s and many people recorded poisoning from repeated exposure.

Lead crystal glass (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lead was still utilised to make vessels, yet rather than for its sweetness, it was used to compose crystal glass. First used in the 1600s, this is a variety of glass where lead replaces the calcium. This process makes it easier to melt and improved the appearance with clarity and ease of decoration. Likewise, lead is often still used in the home through piping and paint, despite laws against such use in the 1970s.
Millenia after the Romans began to use it, lead is still considered practical despite its poisonous properties. How long will it endure?
Collections Volunteer

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The Healing Waters of Bath

Caitlin presents the healing waters of Bath

The hot springs at Bath have long been considered to heal the sick. The Romans mainly used baths for leisure, but several writers, such as Pliny the Elder, Asclepiades and Celsus, talked about the therapeutic benefits.

In Britain, for about 1500 years the belief was that the hot water balanced the humours, which would make you healthy again. As the minerals gave it a dry taste and immersion made you urinate more, hot baths were considered hot/dry, which is odd, as you would think a hot bath would be hot/wet!

The four humours and their interactions

By the medieval period, the Church was against bathing, calling it a luxury. It considered the Roman baths to be immoral, so many baths fell into disrepair. Later, the Church condoned the use of bathing for healing/spiritual purification, and so in the 1100s the Kings Baths were built on the sacred spring by the Bishop of Bath at the time.

As the Baths became more and more popular, there were even some royal visitors such as King Charles I in the 1600s and Queen Anne in 1702 and 1703. By the Georgian period, people began to drink the water instead of bathing with the crowds. In 1706, the Pump Room was built for those who wished to drink the water, rather than bathe in it. Drinking the water became much more popular and trendier so the Pump Room was expanded in 1795.

Glass bottle for "NOTED BATH WATERS, 1894"

With more competition from other spa towns, like Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa, in Britain, new treatments were on offer at the Spa Treatment Centre in Bath, such as electrotherapy and needle douches. These new treatments boosted visitors, and by the 1890s, 100,000 people had visited the baths. It was also during this period that the remains of the Roman baths were revealed, although evidence of a Roman Bath house in the area had been known since 1755.

Spa treatment photographs. L: Man standing in needle douche; R: Man being lowered into the Hot Bath

The beginning of the 20th century brought new treatment innovations with the discovery of radon and radiotherapy, which helped keep the Spa Treatment Centre visitors numbers high. However, after the Second World War, visitor numbers declined due to fewer people travelling for leisure, and in 1948, treatment centre was under the control of the NHS. Treatments soon were only available to those with a prescription, and then in 1978 the Bath treatment centres were shut after spa treatment therapy was dismissed by orthodox medicine.

Collections Volunteer

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Ore-some Metalwork

The Roman Baths collection is full of amazing metalwork. In Roman and Iron Age Britain, lead, tin, copper and iron were mined and used for everything from tools to religious items.

Investigating an Iron Age coin at the Roman Baths

Imperial lead from the nearby Mendip Hills had several different uses at the Roman Baths. This malleable, waterproof metal was frequently used for plumbing — a word which actually comes from the Latin for lead: plumbum. Even now, the floor of the Great Bath is lined with Roman lead, which is still watertight after two thousand years!

The lead lining of the Great Bath

Lead could also be alloyed with tin (mined in Cornwall) to make pewter. Over 100 pewter curse tablets have been discovered at the Roman Baths, written and thrown into the Sacred Spring by victims of theft asking Sulis Minerva to punish the culprit. Pewter food and drink vessels were also tossed into the Spring as tribute for the goddess. Although these had a religious purpose, the Romans also stored wine in lead alloy vessels like these because it gave the wine a sweeter taste!

Roman pewter vessel discovered in the Spring

One of the curses is made from tin alone, and is an unusual circular shape. Perhaps it was once worn as a pendant before being thrown into the Spring, inscribed with a list of Celtic names.

Tin could also be alloyed with copper to make bronze. Copper was mined in Derbyshire and the Lake District. Since copper products are attractive and resistant to erosion, copper alloys were often used for delicate decorative items. My favourite example is the tiny bronze eagle figurine, once possibly attached to a vessel.

Copper alloy Roman eagle figurine 

Bronze and silver were used for coinage both before and after the Roman invasion of Britain. Iron Age coins were usually inscribed with pellets, crescents and lines, often making up the image of a head or triple-tailed horse. The Romans sometimes used orichalcum — an alloy of copper and zinc — in their coinage, too.

Iron Age coin showing stylised face on obverse and horse on reverse

Less attractive than copper, iron was used for more practical purposes. Iron ox shoes have been discovered in the farmlands north of Bath, and iron styluses were used for writing on wax tablets. Iron was mined in the wooded areas of the Forest of Dean and the Weald, where trees provided fuel for the charcoal smelting facilities.

Roman iron axe

Unfortunately, the acids and residues on our fingers cause metals to corrode, so they usually can’t be handled! However, we can still admire this ore-some metalwork from afar.

Collections Volunteer

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Baking Roman Bread

Learn about Roman bread with Laura!

Two things only the people desire: bread, and the circus games.” Juvenal

Have you ever baked your own bread? Maybe. Ground your own flour by hand? Less likely. Why not use the current situation and improve your skills, learn something new and connect to the past. Bread has been a staple food in many parts around the globe for thousands of years. The same goes for the Romans who indeed seem to have been quite fond of bread, but how do we actually know this?

Not only do we have recipe books and letters about diets but also architectural remains of granaries and baker shops as well as environmental samples from archaeological excavations that can be analysed. 

While milling became more industrial when the Romans arrived in Britain – a large army and urban population needs to be fed – many households would grind their own flour to make their daily bread. Around Bath, we have found rotary hand querns that were used for that task. 

A Roman rotary quern

While this was more effective than pestle and mortar, it was still a strenuous hours-long task. No milling means no flour. No flour means no bread. And no bread could mean starvation.

Bread has been staple food for so long because it is a sufficient source of energy. Flour contains starch which is broken down by enzymes into glucose. During digestions this ultimately results in our bodies being fuelled up to do what we love to do. 

Baking Roman bread

Have you ever wondered what makes bread rise though? Essentially, glucose is transformed into carbon dioxide (gas) which, trapped in the gluten network, expands and causes the dough to rise. If you feel like experimenting a bit, fill a glass half full with some warm water, add a spoon of caster sugar and a spoon of yeast. Stir, wait and watch what happens in the next hour.

The Romans in fact made many different kinds of bread, leavened and unleavened. They seemed to have been very fond of spices as well. Coriander or poppy seeds were particularly popular with bread. A commonly used grain was spelt. 

Why not have a go with this recipe?

Make your own Roman bread at home

Spelt Bread Recipe

500g of spelt flour
300ml of warm water
7-10g of salt
~7g of quick action yeast

  1. Mix the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, then add the water and knead the dough well for at least 5 minutes.
  2. Cover the bowl and leave to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
  3. Knead the dough thoroughly until smooth and leave to rise again.
  4. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C Fan), flour a casserole or loaf pan (make sure it is fit for oven use!) and put the dough into it.
  5. Bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes. (If baking in dish with a lid, leave the lid on for the first half, then remove for the second half).
  6. The bread is ready when it sounds hollow. Leave to cool down before removing it from the dish.

You can vary this recipe by mixing in honey, olive oil, herbs, seeds, dried fruits or chopped nuts.
Bon Appetit!          

Laura Opel
Learning & Programmes Placement

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

An Alphabet of Objects: C is for Clay

In the Sun Lounge next to the Pump Room is a display called ‘A-Z’ showing objects from the Roman Baths’ vast collections. Now the display has changed from B for bottles to C… for clay!

Katarina installing the new display in the Sun Lounge

The theme ‘clay’ covers many millennia and areas, as its use has developed over time dependent on peoples’ changing needs. As I found out when creating the display, clay objects can be used as a gateway to many different stories about human progress!

Roman cheese press

The object on the second highest step, is a Roman cheese press. It is possible that cheese was first discovered by accident, when milk transported in sheep, goat or cow stomachs, curdled due to the presence of the rennet-enzyme in the stomachs. 

Over time, cheese production changed. In the beginning, the cheese was soft and would spoil rather quickly. However, by using a cheese press made from clay, it was possible to drain more liquid from the cheese. This produced a harder product that lasted longer.

Roman brick with a dog's paw print impressions

Yes, it is a brick placed on the second lowest step! In the Roman period, bricks were made by shaping the clay, leaving them to dry, and firing them at 1000 °C. However, this brick is also part of the story about dog domestication, as while the clay was drying a dog walked over it.

While this topic is widely debated, most scientists believe it happened around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. How this happened is also a mystery. Some believe it was the result of a mutual need between hunters and wolves. Others believe that some wolves developed ‘cuter’ features over time, allowing them access to human food supplies.

C is for Clay, on display in the Sun Lounge at the Roman Baths and Pump Room

The most modern objects in this display are the clay pipes on the lowest step, dating from 1645 to 1900. Clay pipes were cheap and easy to produce but fragile, making them a common find in archaeological excavations. 

Due to rapidly changing fashions, clay pipes are easily dated by their style, shape and size. The pipes on display are placed chronologically, with the oldest at the top.

The A-Z display is free to see in the Sun Lounge during opening hours. Stay tuned for updates as we work our way through the alphabet!

Volunteer, Collections department.