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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, 20 April 2011

All that Glitters may not be Gold but........

33 carved gemstones (intaglios) were found on site in 1878. Discovered as a group, they were found in the Great Drain, just after the outflow from the Great Bath.

All the intaglios date to the latter half of the first century; most likely the Flavian period. It is unclear if the group was casually lost or given as a votive offering to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The position of discovery means that they could have been lost in the Great Bath or given as an offering into the Scared Spring (both of which expel water into the Great Drain).

The gemstones were probably cut by a continental gem cutter or gemmarius. The Romans wore these cut gemstones set into signet rings. By pressing the image into wax, it created a personal and individual seal for letters. These signet rings would have also been a desirable and fashionable item of jewellery.

Below are four of these beautiful gemstones with accompanying descriptions:

Image depicting a Roman maenad cut into blue surfaced nicolo (quartz). 10.5mm in length.

Roman maenad
Maenads were the female worshippers of the god Bacchus (the god of wine and festivity).This maenad has long hair and a hair band. If you look closely you will see she has animal skin pulled tightly over her left shoulder. This is one of fifteen intaglios found in the collection that come under the subject heading of 'deities and personifications'.

Image depicting a leaping lion cut into a pale yellow cornelian (quartz). 12.5mm in length. 
Leaping lion
This lion engraved intaglio is one of three depicting wild beasts in the collection. During the Roman period images of wild beasts represented the power of natural forces.

Image depicting a discus thrower cut into a deep orange cornelian (quartz). 12mm in length.

Discus thrower
The man cut into this intaglio is a discus thrower on tiptoe with a discus in his left hand and an outstretched right arm. In front of him is a vase containing a palm; this represents the health and success of athletes. This is one of five intaglios found in the collection that come under the subject heading of ‘amusement’.

Image depicting cattle under a tree cut into a dull green/grey chalcedony (quartz). 11mm in length.
Cattle under a tree
Portrayed in profile, these three cows are all facing a tree. Two are standing and one is lying down. Cattle were a popular theme; set to remind people of the peace and tranquillity of the countryside. This is one of six intaglios found in the collection that come under the subject heading of 'countryside'.

For more information and direct references for each stone (as well as a description for the others we hold in the collection) please follow the web link below:


For a general reference please use the book listed below:

Barry Cunliffe (editor), The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, Volume 2: The Finds from the Sacred Spring (1988), pages 31 to 52.

Helen Harman - Collections Assistant

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