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, 19 August 2015

Roman Games of Chance and Skill

 Having just finished my dissertation on the topic of object handling in museums, I was thrilled when the Collections team asked me to design and deliver a Tuesday Times Table by the side of the Great Bath.

At the end of my first week here, I did a handling table for the Festival of Archaeology that involved a mix of touchable objects and objects in boxes. This worked well, but I was left wondering whether it was possible to have an entire group of related objects that were all touchable. As a result, I tried to pick a theme for which all of the items could be handled.

Gaming seemed like a good topic because all of its accoutrements were made of bone, stone, pottery, or robust glass, which made them perfect candidates for handling. However, these objects were not very interesting to look at, so I figured I needed to do something extra to encourage visitors to engage with them. I decided to experiment by allowing people to actually play with these Roman gaming counters. And, happily, Susan and Verity let me do it.
This meant that my handling table involved the usual sort of handling for several objects, such as Roman dice, knucklebones, and some decorative counters, while the experimental portion consisted of two laminated boards and twenty Roman gaming counters with which to play terni lapilli, which is essentially Roman Noughts and Crosses (or Tic Tac Toe, if you’re American like me).
Gaming in Action

Thankfully, my experiment was successful! Visitors of all ages enjoyed playing terni lapilli and were consistently surprised by the similarities of Roman and modern games, which was a great outcome for the table. We often make the mistake of imagining ancient people as totally different from ourselves, so it was fun to highlight that, in fact, the Romans played games very similar to the ones we play today, including variations on checkers, backgammon, and noughts and crosses.

Games provide a fascinating glimpse into Roman life because they were played by everyone – soldiers, civilians, adults, and children – and in many different places – homes, pubs, soldiers’ barracks, and bathing complexes. At Tuesday’s Times Table, visitors played one of these games in the baths, just like Romans would have done almost 2,000 years ago! 

If you are interested in finding out more about Roman games, see our blog post called “Roman board games at the Baths” http://bathsbloggers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/nicola-002board-games.html, written by intern Nicola Pullan in 2013.

Tory Wooley, Collections Placement Student

Monday, 17 August 2015

Roman Food

Everyone loves to know what the Romans ate, but do people really know where the Romans’ food came from?  For my Tuesday Times Table, I decided to focus on Roman butchery and hunting practices therefore many of my handling objects were in fact the excess or ‘off cuts’ of Roman food products.

The table layout itself followed the basic process of Roman food production, from hunting depictions on samian pottery, through butchered bone and marine products and then concluded with Roman cookware.

The three pieces of samian were excavated during the Spa excavations (1998) and on all of them are images of hunting. The first dates to AD 80-110 and originates from Southern Gaul (modern day France), and features the rear of a boar. The second piece is from Central Gaul, and dates to AD 125-150, and depicts an image of a panther being attacked by a hunter. The third piece is also from Central Gaul and dates to AD 160-190, and has two deer running towards the right. The interesting thing about these pieces of samian is that two of them (the boar and the deer) depict images of species eaten by the Romans, but the panther sherd shows an animal not indigenous to the UK, especially Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath) and therefore shows  that hunting was a recreational sport, rather than a necessity to produce food.

The butchered animal bone was next on the table. It featured bone from cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep (Ovis) and rabbit (Lepus). The majority of the bone shown was from the Spa excavations, and then I also chose three cow bones, a cervical vertebra, a knuckle bone and a long bone, from the Hat and Feather site excavation Bath, of 1992. Almost all of the bone showed evidence of ‘chop’ marks on the distal and proximal ends of the bone, which take the form of a deep ‘V’ shape, suggesting that the bone was cut for butchery purposes with a cleaver or large knife, due to the location of the cut. However one piece of cow long bone and been ‘carved’ parallel to the bone, and this would suggest evidence for the consumption of bone marrow in Aquae Sulis.

The evidence of seafood at the Spa site was extremely high. A multitude of mussel and oyster shells were found, probably originating from the South-East coast of England, along with 257 remains of fish bone, both freshwater and marine. This interestingly suggests the evidence for trade, not only across England, but also across the Mediterranean. It is likely that these marine fish (mainly sea bass) were transported in large amphorae (a large jar with handles) from different areas of the Roman Empire.  Snail shells were also found in abundance from the site, and the combination of all of these food types suggests that Roman delicacies were not too different to those we eat today.

I also wanted to display evidence for Roman cookware to allow the public to gain a concept of the process of Roman food products. From the Spa site was found a white flagon sherd with a rimmed neck, that would have held wine; a strainer spout, that would have been used to strain either food or infused drinks and a sherd of mortarium (used for grinding and mixing herbs) in which all of its stone inclusions had been worn down, creating a smooth surface, clearly showing evidence of high usage in the period. I thought that it was also useful to display a replica samian ware bowl and replica mortarium in which people could try grinding and crushing rosemary and black pepper corns in the same way that it was required to for nearly every Roman meal.

This Tuesday Times Table allowed me to research a topic that I had not encountered previously, and also meant that I was able to give a flavour of Roman lifestyle and food preparation that is not commonly thought about by many.

Ellen Wood

Roman Society Placement and student at the University of Reading studying Archaeology and Ancient  History.