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, 25 May 2011

The Curses Condensed

Curse Tablets
‘Curse tablets’ are inscribed pieces of lead, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence by supernatural means, the actions or welfare of persons or animals against their will. At Bath they mostly appeal to the goddess Minerva, although we do have one petition to Mars and another to Mercury.

In nearly all cases, both here and elsewhere, they appear to have been written in response to theft – here, most likely from the adjoining bath-house.

The Roman Baths has 137 curse tablets within the collection. They are described as being lead, but in most cases they have been made of lead alloy and are better described as pewter………

Of those 137…..

29 are written in capitals

80 are written in ‘cursive’, a script used for everyday documents and letters. Of these, 63 are written in Old Roman Cursive ORC and 17 are written in New Roman Cursive NRC (Indirectly NRC is the ancestor of the scripts used for present day handwriting in Europe.)

4 are written in illiterate texts - scratches made to imitate writing, or sometimes with no trace of writing at all.

5 tablets are un-inscribed.

7 tablets are still folded or otherwise illegible.

Between them all there are over 150 names mentioned.

2 are believed to have come from the same sheet of metal.

1 shows evidence of being copied.

1 could possibly have been written by someone with dyslexia.

Some are double sided, some have nail holes, some have been folded and some have not…….

The very writing of curses was manipulated for magical effect. Letters could be written in mirror-image form or the order of letters in a word, the words in a line, or lines in a text might be reversed. They are mostly written as one long continuous text without abbreviations. The writer might also change the direction in which words or letters were written in alternating lines.

Important comparative sites

Brean Down

For a nice compact website on curses in general please follow this link http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/beginners/

Helen Harman - Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A Cast of Little People

One of the most interesting aspects of my job recently has been my involvement in the Roman Baths Museum's Development Plan.

4th Century Model
In 2008, I was asked to draw up a "cast list" for the scale model of the site in the 4th century AD. The model maker (the artist Gerry Judah) asked for full descriptions; complexion, hair colour, stance, and even who each person was interacting with, even though the people were only ...mm high..

I tried to include many ordinary people in it; different ages, colours, fashions, visitors and workers. Local Aquae Sulis residents, like modern day Bathonians, familiar with the amazing buildings and seeing the baths just as a place to go on a wet afternoon. But to the foreign visitors, looking around at the colourful buildings, they were very Roman though so far from Rome, and with a twist of local interpretation.

Temple and Temple Courtyard 4th Century Model
If you look carefully you'll find children are playing behind the temple, in the large open air precinct. A woman with her washing gazes at a religious ceremony walking past.

A lot had to be guesswork. All the evidence of Roman baths and temple, the inscriptions and literary references, tend to be from the Mediterranean, so we don't know whether these were the norm everywhere else. When the nineteenth century excavators dug the baths, they didn't record what they found in each room. As a result, we're not sure whether women were in the east baths or the west, or whether mixed bathing was allowed; the Emperor Hadrian did ban it, but did the Baths manager obey this? How were the rooms lit? 100s of oil lamps or burning torches? Who knows if the staff (or were they slaves?) had uniforms, but we dressed them all in green tunics, so you can find them as they sweep, sell snacks or hand out towels.

West Baths 4th Century Model
In 2009, the model was installed. Apart from one drunk priest, a wayward ball player who fell over and had to be re-glued, and a purple alien who joined the religious procession, all the little people are still there in suspended animation. Next time you visit, take a closer look!

Susan Fox - Collections Manager

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

It’s All in the Mix

One of the best things about my role is that it is diverse and varied. I often come up against challenges and boy have I just met the newest!

One of the Roman Baths’ unique selling points is that the visitor has the ability to actually walk around and over the original Roman remains. Many people have commented on how this gives them a very personal interaction with the site and the people who used the baths many years ago. But it poses a very big question for the professional: how do we ensure public access is not detrimental to the remains of the Roman structure?

Recently reset piece of paving south east side of the Great Bath
We have a large amount of Roman secondary paving on site and, with general wear and tear, it is inevitable that pieces will become loose. When this happens, the pieces need to be reset – as quickly as possible - to ensure that the original position is not lost. This is not as simple as it seems - the technique of re-fixing the stones is an art.

Tools of the trade - pointing mix
The stones are fixed using a lime-based mortar mix, closely matched to the original Roman recipe in use on the site nearly 2,000 years ago. I have recently taken on the challenge of re-fixing the pieces (under expert supervision of course!). The mortar mix needs air to harden but also a damp environment to make sure this process doesn’t happen too quickly – a fine balancing act. It also needs to be protected for 2-3 weeks to ensure it has hardened both inside and out.

Colour matching the pointing to blend in with the surrounding stones
So if you see a piece of damp sack cloth covering any stone around the Roman Baths and a barrier protecting it, it will be because conservation is taking place- please be patient, we need to do it to ensure that you, the visitor, has the best experience.

If you would like to learn more about lime-based materials http://www.buildingconservation.com/  is a good place to start……

Helen Harman – Collections Assistant