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, 23 February 2011

Remembering Bath Abbey Vaults.

I’ve only ever visited Bath Abbey and its vaults on two occasions. The first time I was in absolute awe at both above and below ground; but I didn’t think to have my camera with me…….. Yes, I am that stupid. Fortunately the opportunity to return to visit; this time with my camera at the ready.

Bath Abbey Vaults
I have recently received the news that the museum held within the vaults is closed for redevelopment. Whether or not it will reopen is currently hanging in the balance. Personally I think permanent closure of the Vaults Museum is unthinkable.

Stone Cross - Bath Abbey Vaults
Many people spend so much time contemplating the sites they see, but they very rarely stop to think about what goes on behind or, in this case, underneath it all. Take the Roman Baths for example, the Great Bath and the head of Minerva are on most tourists ‘must see’ list but they too were once buried underground waiting to be discovered. It makes you think; How would they have looked standing new and proud, before nature took over?

Bath Abbey Vaults
Okay, so the vaults may not be the equivalent of a vast underground civilisation but, people remember small details too. I think back to the Lord of Rings film adaptation; I remember the dwarven city underneath the Mines of Moria and Sam’s words “Now there’s an eye opener, make no mistake.”

Then there is Balin’s Tomb and the skeleton that Pippin accidentally knocked into the well……. You only have to look at the photo’s I have uploaded for this blog to see what amazing artefacts were on display.

Medieval tiles - Bath Abbey Vaults
Again, I don’t know whether the vaults will remain closed permanently, but I hope not. These artefacts were on display for a reason; to be preserved, admired, to educate and not to be locked away and forgotten.


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Hot Dates.

Here at the Roman Baths visitors and staff have been enjoying a hot stuffed date beside the Great Bath to celebrate New Years Day on January 1st. The eating of dates was a Roman tradition to celebrate the coming of a new year.

Rosa and Flavia enjoying their hot dates
In 45BC Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, creating a new month, January. January is named after and was originally dedicated to the two-faced Roman god, Janus. Janus looked both backwards to the old year and forwards to the New Year ahead. The first of January became a day of celebration, gifts and vows. It also became a day where you could only say good things.

Part of the day’s celebrations was to eat hot, stuffed and peppered dates. The recipe that we used to prepare our dates comes from the Roman cook Apicius. Apicius has left us the most comprehensive guide to Roman cuisine. He lived during the 1st Century AD but his recipes were not collated into one book until the late 4th Century AD. This has led some people to believe that the cookbook attributed Apicius is in fact written by more than one person but under the same name.

Some of the recipes in his cookbook include, Milk-Fed Snails, Stuffed Hare, Hot Lamb Stew and Julian Pottage, which required, among other things, two cooked brains! The recipe for our stuffed dates can be found below.

Hot Dates Ingredients –

6 dates per person

Shelled and finely sliced almonds

3 tablespoons honey

To Prepare –

Stone the dates and stuff with the nuts. Heat the honey in a frying pan and fry the dates briskly then serve.

Hot Dates
For a more authentic Roman experience, add a little pepper to the almonds and roll the dates in a pinch of salt before frying in the honey.

Enjoy and Felix Anno Novo!


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Snails from the Great Bath

For hundreds of years the steaming waters of the Great Bath were enjoyed by human bathers. Now the warm water is home to several species of organism. Not only the Cyanobacteria (Blue-Green Algae) that give the water its green colour, but also, more surprisingly, snails. Not the large edible snails introduced by the Romans, but small fresh-water snails.

Physella acuta around the edge of the Great Bath
These tough little snails (Physella acuta) survive the warmth (up to 39°C, warmer than our body temperature) and the cleaning: several times a year our Staff empty the Bath and sweep the algae – and the snails – down into the Roman Drain that empties into the River Avon.

Physella acuta shell
The snails are not obvious, the biggest are only 11mm long, but many congregate at the edge of the water and in the splash zone, where it is still damp but cooler. Often they can be seen crawling on the top step of the Bath in water at 37-38°C, feeding on the algae: they rasp the surface and “hoover” up anything in their path, using a tooth-covered tongue-like radula.

This species is thought to have originated in North America, in the Carolinas, and in the last 200 years they have spread to 6 continents. How the snails arrived in the Great Bath we do not know. Darwin wrote of fresh-water snails being spread to new ponds on the feet of birds. Although mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), visit the Great Bath yearly, I think it is more likely they have been introduced by human agency.

1890s photograph of water lillies in the Great Bath
Photographs of the Great Bath in the 1890s show water lilies in the water of the Bath and if these were a warm water species introduced from North America, then the snails could have been on those plants.

Native British fresh-water snails are no longer found in the Great Bath, although after the Romans left, Lymnaea truncatula and Planorbis albus thrived in the marshy ruins of the Roman buildings. Physella acuta survive because they can live at temperatures up to 40°C, and because they breed rapidly. Only 6 weeks after hatching, an individual can start to lay eggs of its own. Like other snails, they are hermaphrodite, i.e. each individual produces both sperm and eggs. Usually 2 individuals copulate and exchange sperm, but a single individual can fertilise its own eggs. So just one snail, surviving the cleaning process, could, in theory, repopulate the whole Great Bath.

The snails were featured on television in The One Show in October 2009.

Next time you visit the Roman Baths, see if you can spot the snails – but do not fall in!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it.

Anyone remember that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa and Marge travel to the beach hoping to wash animals but end up cleaning rocks? That’s not as boring as they made it out to be. Cleaning finds is rather like how Forest Gump described life; “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”.

I’ve only been tasked with cleaning finds twice during my time here. The first time was mainly focused on bricks. They may’ve been all the same in the end but I did like the thought of uncovering a standout among a pile of similarities; even though the best I could find in the end was two brick remains sealed together with mortar.

Worked stone

Naturally, based on first impressions, I assumed I was just going to uncover the same thing when I was asked to wash finds discovered from excavations in the East Baths. But what do I discover in the end when I’m done? Bricks, yes; but far more than that: oysters, animal bones, stonework, pottery pieces, glass, and the occasional metal tool. I never thought for a minute these were the things I would uncover after washing off all that dirt; I honestly haven’t seen this many bones since the last time I made short work of my last KFC takeaway.

A mix of bone and stone

And after the cleaning’s done, the next fun part is identifying which period the finds may’ve come from, what animals the bones belong to, and what could the stoneworks have originally been a part of. Even when you’ve gotten rid of that last patch of dirt, you’re still trying to work out what exactly is it you’ve found.

Oyster shells and glass

These discoveries may not be gold or gems, but let’s not forget Indiana Jones: the Last Crusade where the Holy Grail was not one of the many golden, jewel encrusted goblets to choose from, but an aged artefact, probably no different that what we’ve had on display. Sometimes even the smallest and insignificant thing based on first glance can turn out to be a unique discovery.