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.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Civilisations: A Humorous History

Today, we put a lot of trust in doctors who prescribe our medication, but how different was medical knowledge in the past? This blog focuses on the theory that dominated medical science until the 1700s: the Four Humours of the body.

The four humours are a medical theory that the human body is made up of four different liquids; black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm.  In a healthy body there is a balance or equal amount of all four liquids. In the body of a sick person, there is an imbalance (too much or too little) of at least one the humours.

The theory of the Four Humours of the body

This theory was developed by Hippocrates who suggested that it was a medical imbalance of the humours that affected bodily functions. Later, Galen classified the humours as hot/cold, wet/dry. He suggested that the humours could be rebalanced by treating the patient with its opposite. For example, if you were too cold, you would take hot baths and eat hot foods. As well as being linked to being hot/cold, wet/dry, the four humours were linked to the seasons, the elements, personality traits, and parts of life.

Blood was seen as being wet and hot. If a physician thought you had too much blood, they would prescribe bloodletting, where leeches would be attached to the skin to suck blood from your body! Blood was linked to air, childhood and springtime; presumably the spring brings a new lease of life. Out of the cold winter, brightly coloured flowers appear, and many animals have their young. Blood was linked with a ‘sanguine’ personality type, which describes people who enjoy taking risks, are enthusiastic, active and love to socialise.

What yellow bile actually consists of is still up for debate. Historians are unsure as to whether it is urine, vomit, or stomach bile. Yellow bile was seen as being hot and dry. It was linked with fire, adulthood, and the summer. Yellow bile was linked with a ‘choleric’ personality type, which described people who are independent and goal-oriented; they make great leaders and work things out logically.

Black bile was seen as being cold and dry, and is thought to be faeces. Black bile was linked to earth, old age, and the autumn. This could be because animal dung is used to fertilise land and so would have strong links to earth and soil. Black Bile was linked with a ‘melancholic’ personality type. This described people who were self-reliant, reserved, and strived for perfection.

Phlegm was seen as being cold and wet. It was linked to water, decrepitude/death, and winter. Phlegm was linked to the ‘phlegmatic’ personality type. This described people who were easy-going, peaceful and good at compromising.

The theory of the four humours was at the forefront of medical science even into the medieval period. As the church banned human dissections, the theories created by Greek physicians were seen as being completely accurate! 

Collections Intern

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Civilisations: Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

Continuing with our theme of Civilisations, I put together a handling table of Ancient Egyptian objects in our collection for the event day.

The theme of my table was the Ancient Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife, represented through funerary objects in the collection. The Ancient Egyptians believed that when someone died, their individual journey did not end but was merely transported from the earthly plane to the eternal plane.

This shabti is from Luxor. It is made from limestone and incised with text from Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead. It is from the tomb of Djhuthirmaktuf (meaning ‘Thoth is his protection’)

One of my favourite objects I used was the shabti figurine. As the Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a mirror image of their normal life, it was thought that they would still be called upon to do manual labour for the gods. Shabtis were intended to act as servants or minions for the deceased and it was believed the shabtis would magically come to life and do manual labour in their stead! They are often called ‘answerers’ as they carried inscriptions asserting their readiness to answer the gods’ summons to work.

Translation of Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead

Also in our collection, we have some small amulets, which often depicted deities and were believed to have protective and regenerative powers.

In Ancient Egypt, frogs were associated with Heqet who was the goddess of fertility. Every year when the river Nile would flood, thousands of frogs were born and the land would be incredibly fertile, which is where this link between frogs and fertility originates. These amulets would be placed in tombs as it was believed Heqet helped with the rebirth after dead.

This amulet is a representation of Heqet, the goddess of fertility

Also in the collection are small Osiris figurines. Osiris was well known as the god of the afterlife and resurrection, and was a key figure in the lives of the Ancient Egyptian people. He was killed by his brother Seth but brought back to life by his sister (and wife!) Isis. Osiris figurines were placed with the deceased in the belief that they would help to resurrect the dead in the afterlife.

Osiris is often depicted with a deep black beard and green skin, which symbolises the fertile soils of the river Nile.

I had so much fun researching and presenting my table during the Civilisations Festival and I think it was a great way to bring out objects from the collection that aren’t on display!

Collections Intern

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Gallop through History

The ability to complete hard jobs with minimal effort is an apt way to describe most technological innovations ever created by man.  For science week the decision to delve into the technology surrounding animal husbandry, in particular the Equus (horse in the language of the Romans: Latin.)

Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “The substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind.” 

This is certainly true, and although the day of the horse as the centre of many of our technological innovations is long past, I hoped to in some small way honour the creature that I consider man’s second best friend. 

When we first domesticated the horse, around 3500BC, it became quickly apparent that the creature would need proper treatment if it was to perform the heavy labour that was required of it.  Just as an army must have good boots to march many miles, the horse must also be provided with premium footwear.  Working in poor conditions caused horses to become lame, which was solved by the horseshoe; a sheet of metal hammered into the hoof to form a protective lining.  I hear all ye animal lovers cry out in indignation, but fear not!  The shoe, when fitted properly, only goes through the horse’s equivalent of a fingernail. 

Medieval Guildhall type horseshoe (left), post-medieval horseshoe (right)

Above you can see the evolution of the horseshoe from a medieval Guildhall type shoe to a later 17th century style.  The style changes to better fit the horse, the inner arch point disappears with time.  A further point of interest is the overall greater size of the medieval shoe, likely for a draft horse (a horse that would have pulled a heavy wagon.) 

17th-18th century rowel spur

Another noteworthy object in our beautiful collection is a 17th- 18th century rowel spur (albeit missing the rowel - the circular spinning part.  When the horse became a practical way for our ancestors to get around, and even later sit atop and charge battle, the spur was developed so that the rider could communicate more complex manoeuvres to his mount.  At first the ‘prick spur’ did little more than to jab the horse but later the rowel spur was developed to be more gentle. 

Through my journey into the Roman Baths Collection I have only deepened my already considerable respect for the horse and those who mastered it, as Churchill said, for the “progress of mankind.”