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, 30 May 2012

Connecting Collections – Furniture

St. John’s Store is home to a wide variety of objects including furniture, retired models and spa equipment. This three part series will look at the history of the building, the spa related objects and the furniture collection.

Part 2 – The Furniture

Not many people know that St John’s store is home to wonderful pieces of furniture. Some have simply appeared in the collection over the years, others donated but mostly it is made up of funiture acquired for council buildings to be used as functional objects rather than collected for their beauty….

Five Seat Rout Bench
This mahogany rout bench was made specifically for the Pump Room, and named after the formal evening parties held in the late 18th Century. Its prototype was designed and made by William Birchall of Queen’s Square, who was employed by Bath Corporation in 1777 to make a pattern settee ‘as a model’ for others to follow. The central design depicts the Bath City Coat of Arms in mahogany veneer and satinwood. The bench seat was originally covered in crimson check.

Bath City Coat of Arms

William Morris Secretaire Bookcase (1894) and William Morris Display Case (1895)
Until recently these beautiful mahogany and satinwood pieces were used to dress the Victorian Scene in the Fashion Museum’s Panorama Room. Both pieces came into the collection via a bequest from the Henderson family. They were made in London towards the end of William Morris’s life. Born in Walthamstow in 1834 William Morris became famous for his work in the visual and decorative arts. His work included book design, calligraphy, furniture, paintings, drawings, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, and wallpapers.

BATRM 2006.31 and BATRM 2006.28 William Morris Pieces

Card Table
This 19th Century Dutch ornate marquetry card table is inlaid with birds, scroll foliage and playing cards. The veneer has faded over time and would originally have been much brighter. Playing cards was a popular pastime in Georgian Bath.

BATRM 2006.278 Card Table

Mahogany bench from the time of William IV (early – mid 19th Century).
The design reflects a new taste for classical simplicity, symmetry and elegance, in the style known as neo-classical, which appeared during the late Georgian period.

BATRM 2006.21 Bench

The store is open to the public several times a year, with the next store open day on Saturday 9th June 2012 from 11am until 3pm. Please do come along and visit us – for more information and directions please follow this link http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/whats_on/events/behind_the_scenes_tours.aspx

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Connecting Collections – St John’s Store

St John's Museum Store
St. John’s Store is home to a wide variety of objects including furniture, retired models and spa equipment. This three part series will look at the history of the building, the spa related objects and the furniture collection.

Part 1 - About the Building

In 2006, Bath and North East Somerset Council took over a third of the building to house its large social history collection and create a spacious, accessible store. The collection is primarily made up of large pieces of historic furniture and some weird and wonderful spa treatment equipment. The building is currently shared with Mobile Libraries, Weston Day Centre, and acts as Trading Standards stationary store. Before its modern use, the building served as St John the Evangelist School. The school was built in 1875 and sits in the Parish of Weston. It was built as part of the movement towards public education, which first began in the previous century with the creation of Sunday schools.

Prior to 1800, there were very few schools. Most of those that existed were run by the church, for the church, stressing religious education. In 1814, compulsory apprenticeship by indenture was abolished. By 1831, Sunday school in Great Britain was ministering weekly to 1,250,000 children, approximately 25% of the population.

The Elementary Education Act of 1870 (The Forster Act) was a milestone in the British school education system. The act made it compulsory to provide education for children between the ages of 5 and 10. An extension to the Elementary Education Act in 1880 insisted on compulsory attendance for children aged from 5–10 years. The Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 raised the minimum leaving age to 11. Later the same year, the act was extended to cover blind and deaf children. This act was amended in 1899 to raise the school leaving age up to 12 years.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of the history of St John’s school is limited. We know it closed in the 1970’s but could you help? Do you know anything about St John’s School?

We are looking for information, if you know of anyone who used to go to school here or who might know anything more about the building, please leave a comment or contact us on 01225 477779; susan_fox@bathnes.gov.uk

The store is open to the public several times a year. The next store open day is Saturday 9th June 2012 from 11am until 3pm, so please do come along and visit us – for more information and directions please follow this link http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/whats_on/events/behind_the_scenes_tours.aspx  or check out our Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/296443413763889/

Helen Harman - Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Coins from the Sacred Spring

New display - Roman Baths, King's Bath Corridor
The redisplay of a timeline showing Roman coins found in the Sacred Spring has prompted a lot of coin-related questions from visitors, with most people wanting to know why the coins of some emperors outnumber those of others so greatly. In modern Britain, where we are used to the same face appearing on all the coins all of the time, this is an idea that might take some explaining! Lots of factors to do with the coins themselves and how people used them go into explaining why the number of surviving coins from emperor to emperor can vary so greatly. First off, the really obvious answer: some emperors had really long reigns, so it stands to reason that their coins are going to outnumber those of other emperors who ruled for a shorter period of time! For example: Hadrian’s 20 year reign meant that the overall amount of coins he issued dwarfed the number issued by other less long-lived emperors. With that in mind, it makes sense that the number of surviving Hadrianic coins is so great in proportion to some other emperors.

But we shouldn’t think that emperor x will be well represented in museum collections and archaeological finds just because he minted lots of coins. One good explanation could be that some emperors’ coins were more debased than those issued by their predecessors, which reduced their value. What does this mean? It means that when an emperor found himself strapped for cash, he would order that base metal be added to the precious metal used to mint the coins. This is exactly what Claudius (of I, Claudius fame) did when he found himself short of silver. By diluting the precious metal mixture with iron and bronze, he could produce more coins from technically the same amount of metal. Geddit? It’s a little like how the gin lasts longer when you dilute it with tonic water, but with far less tasty and appealing results. Over his 13 year reign, Claudius’ mints churned out these debased coins possibly in their millions – and the Romans weren’t impressed! What seems to have happened is many people stashed away older less debased coins of previous emperors but continued to use the new Claudian ones for day to day stuff. The result was that the older more valuable coins had an increased chance of survival, while the Claudian ones got lost, broken, or were chucked into the melting pot. It is also probable that Nero (the next emperor) systematically withdrew and melted down Claudius’ less valuable coins to make sure that people did not continue to pull the nicer coins out of circulation and into their savings. This is why Claudius is very underrepresented in terms of coins, despite reigning for the same amount of time as Nero (whose coins survive in abundance).

Also, we can’t forget that the supply of coins to different parts of the empire was sporadic and fluctuating. Let’s take Britain as an example. Immediately following the conquest of the island in the 40s AD, the supply of coins from the continent is thought to have been minimal and intermittent, but picked up by the middle to late 100s AD. What does this mean? Well, it means that while Nero minted extensively throughout his entire reign, we are less likely to find him represented in coins from a British site because his reign comes so early on in the history of Roman Britain. On the other side of the coin (pardon the pun!), coins of Antoninus Pius and Hadrian appear on many British sites in greater numbers than Nero or earlier emperors who minted just as extensively. The reasons for such inconsistent supply are varied – war and conflict could disrupt the reliability of supply lines, and the demand for coins in a specific place may have had a large part to play in whether coins were shipped there in great numbers.

I hope that makes the issue a little clearer! The reason that some emperors have more surviving coins than others is more complicated than whether they minted lots or not!


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

It's all About..... Weapons and Tools

During Science Week at the Roman Baths, visitors were invited to look at and handle some of the artefacts from the museum collection. Our visitors were encouraged to consider how tools were made during the Mesolithic to Neolithic period (c. c.10, 000 BC to c.3, 200 BC); the Bronze Age (c.3, 200 BC to c.700 BC); the Iron Age (c.700 BC to c.100AD); and the Romano-British period (43AD to c.400-500AD).

My ‘handling table’ held replica flint hand tools and two Neolithic flint arrow-heads – one from Yorkshire and one found at the Baths during excavations of the King’s Bath / ‘Sacred Spring’ in 1979. Visitors enjoyed handling the replica flint hand tools, which included a hand axe, a flint knife, a flint saw and some flint scrapers that were used to clean animal skins.

Me at my handling table
Next to the flint tools, visitors handled a replica cast of a Bronze Age ‘socketed’ axe head that was discovered in Bristol and examined a Bronze Age ‘flanged’ axe and a spear head from the Museum’s collection.

Our visitors were also able to handle lumps of metal working waste which were excavated from the Bath Easton bypass in 1990. There are a number of Iron Age settlements in the Avon valley and on the hills surrounding Bath, such as the camp at Bathampton Down.

Finally, the handling table held a photograph of the bronze ballista washer that is on display in the Roman Baths Museum. This circular piece of cast bronze looks a “bit like a plug”, according to one of our visitors, and it does! It was made to sit, with three others, on the four corners of the heavy wooden frame which made the front piece of a Roman ballista.

Roman ballista washer from Roman Baths collection BATRM 1983.13.b.1
A ballista was a siege weapon a little like a very large crossbow, which fired arrows, or bolts that were between six inches and up to a foot long. The bronze washer was also found during the excavation of the Sacred Spring in the King’s Bath in 1979; and when it was found, archaeologists thought that it belonged to the modern pump they were using to pump water from the King’s Bath so they could excavate! Our visitors were also told that similar ‘washers’ were found in Italy and Iraq, and experimental archaeology has shown that the size of the washer tells experts the size of the ballista weapon they came from – ours is one of the smallest, so probably came from one of the smaller weapons.

It is interesting how the washer came to be in the Sacred Spring along with other Roman offerings. Perhaps the washer was thrown into the Sacred Spring by a Roman artillery soldier as an offering for thanks for or a prayer for luck in a coming battle? What our visitors found most intriguing is that the ballista washer was found close to the Neolithic flint arrow-head that was with the flint tools on display! Archaeologists think that the site of the Sacred Spring was important before the Romans came to Bath, and maybe the flint arrowhead was thrown into the spring as an ‘offering’, or a votive, to whichever gods were believed to have been there thousands of years before the Roman goddess Minerva or Aquae Sulis came to Bath.

Tony - Collections placement

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

It's all About..... X-Rays

National Science and Engineering week gave us an opportunity to look at some of the more unusual topics in archaeology, and one that has always been a mystery to me is X-radiography. We’ve all heard of X-rays – most people have had some part of them X-rayed for medical reasons – but it turns out that they are also a really helpful analytical technique for archaeologists!

Zosia at the X-ray table
X-radiography is a form of electromagnetic radiation that allows us to create images showing features and details invisible to the naked eye. It is important to X-ray metal objects to create visual record of how an artefact was made, as well as its shape and condition. X-rays can also help with identification if an artefact is hidden by layers of corrosion or concretion, and are an excellent means of scientific examination without affecting or destroying archaeological finds in any way.

For these reasons, artefacts are often X-rayed as part of the conservation process. The examples used for the handling table are all from the excavation of the Thermae Spa in Bath city centre, and were chosen because the archive contained copies of their X-rays.

X-ray of a Roman coin from the SPA98 excavations
In general almost all metal objects should be X-rayed, although it is less effective on very large examples or lead alloys. It is a useful technique because it can reveal small implements trapped within corrosion, and can often expose identifying marks on coins that have lost their surface detail. Fragile or complex finds tend to be lifted in a block of soil, and X-rayed to view and pinpoint the contents for more careful excavation in a laboratory. For example, X-raying a soil block containing a coin hoard could provide information about how it was deposited, as the image would reveal groupings or layers.

Decorative surface details such as inlay or enamel can also be seen through X-ray, and non-ferrous coatings become visible due to the difference in density between the metals.

The English Heritage guidelines on the X-radiography of archaeological metalwork (http://www.helm.org.uk/upload/pdf/X_Radiography.pdf?1331775979  ) has a number of beautiful examples that show exactly how valuable X-raying metal artefacts can be, including images of inlay details and coin identification. I really recommend browsing through it, even if it is just to marvel at the lovely pictures!

Zosia - Collections Intern