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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.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

British Science Week: A Weighty Subject

To celebrate British Science Week 2019 (8th – 17th March) at the Roman Baths, several displays were set up around the museum on the Saturday to showcase some of the scientific aspects of Roman life on this ancient site. I set up a handling table, laid out with a selection of objects not currently on public display, to highlight the various different ways in which the Romans utilised lead.

Lead was used for a whole variety of things in the Roman period, such as slingshot missiles, make-up and anchors. The lead found here at the Roman Baths was mined locally in the Mendip Hills, where there is a large deposit of naturally-occurring ore. This was often combined with tin (from Cornwall) to form an alloy called pewter.

Bowl of a pewter spoon, missing its handle. Discovered in the Temple Precinct.

The majority of the Baths’ 130 curse tablets, all of which were published by R. S. O. Tomlin (Cunliffe 1988), are also composed of this alloy. Curse tablets were a means by which the victim of a crime – usually theft – could vent their anger and express their desire for revenge to be visited on the culprit, by writing a prayer to the goddess Sulis Minerva on the metal and throwing it into the Sacred Spring. 

A curse tablet was made by first melting some lead alloy, then leaving it to set after pouring it out. A thin sheet could then be fashioned out of the cool metal by hammering it, before the message was inscribed on the surface with a stylus.

Curse tablet inscribed with a list of names, originally folded five times.

A few examples were simply left in their original solidified state, resembling a smooth pebble, such as this:

Curse tablet inscribed with a list of names.

Pure lead was used as a sealing agent in more heavy-duty work. The Great Bath is still lined with the original lead sheeting laid down by the Romans to keep it watertight, a fragment of which was removed in the discovery of the Great Bath in 1871.

Lead sheet fragment from the Great Bath - deceptively heavy!

Thanks to its durability, a large quantity of Roman leadwork from the site has survived, allowing us a deeper insight into the Romans’ metallurgical practices.

Collections Volunteer

Cunliffe, Barry (editor). The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. Volume 2. The Finds from the Sacred Spring.  Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1988.

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