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, 28 August 2019

Words on Wednesdays: Invisible

“The Roman remains were what they sought: medieval Bath was invisible”
Peter Davenport
Medieval Bath Uncovered

As a part of my week of work experience here at the Roman Baths, I was given the opportunity to organise a handling table for the Words on Wednesdays weekly summer event. I have always found medieval England interesting, so I decided to take advantage of the thousands of amazing artefacts here at the Roman Baths and take a closer look into medieval life.

Words on Wednesdays Medieval Handling Table

The focus of my table was the different elements of the home; I incorporated building materials such as floor tiles and window glass, as well as objects which would be found inside the home like pottery and cosmetic items. While the objects I used are more likely to have been found in the possession of someone of a higher status, and the tiles and glass in a cathedral, I wanted to create an idea of what life may have looked like in the medieval period.

A favourite object of mine, and of the visitors to my table, was the King John short cross halfpenny from 1205. The coin is a part of the Wellow Hoard, a group of 16 coins produced in the period 1180-1247. This is a great example to show how halfpennies were created 800 years ago, by simply cutting whole pennies in half!

Cut halfpenny of King John. Left: Obverse, Right: Reverse

Another group of objects that attracted a lot of attention were the 14th century cathedral floor tiles. These were found in the 1974 excavation of Orange Grove and have detailed designs including a griffin, 3 lions and an abbey. One of the designs particularly I liked was the griffin which symbolised the bravery of a lion combined with the intelligence of an eagle, and would have been a great addition to the floor of a cathedral.

Medieval floor tile. Left: Floor tile, Right: Reconstruction drawing

I greatly enjoyed putting together my table and getting to look at all the wonderful artefacts that the Roman Baths has to offer that aren’t Roman, and cast a light on a much forgotten era of Bath’s history.

Work Experience Student

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Festival of Archaeology: Roman Death and Burial

As part of the Festival of Archaeology the Roman Baths Collections team were in Sydney Gardens exploring the theme of Roman death and burial.

Burials are a major source of information that helps us to understand life in Roman Britain. Burials provide evidence about physique, disease, social organisations and religious beliefs and rituals.

Emily preparing the Death and Burial display at Sydney Gardens

So how can we tell a burial is Roman?

In Roman Britain you were typically buried in one of two ways, either cremation or inhumation. A cremation burial is the burial of cremated remains in an urn or pot and inhumation is the burial of body in a grave or tomb.  

Cremation with grave goods became more widespread following the Roman invasion in 43 AD, but later gave way to inhumation with fewer grave goods, possibly as other religions, such as Christianity and Mithraism grew in popularity.

Roman coarseware jar containing cremated remains, on display at the Roman Baths museum

What is a grave good? 

An object buried with the body, mostly of inorganic material such as pottery, jewellery, weapons and toys. Organic items would have been deposited with the body, but have since decayed. Grave goods can help us date a burial as well as provide insight into the life of the individual. Grave goods often reflected the wealth or status of the individual, or their family.

They were also ritual objects, with pottery at a burial site often being a sign of ritual feasting. Feasts were held as the deceased was buried, or sometimes days after. Food was also left as an offering for the deceased. These practices explain why we find food and beverage vessels at different levels at a burial site. 

Selection of grave goods: Clockwise from top left to right; flagon rim, samian sherd, jar base, rim sherd, iron brooch, commemorative bronze coin of Septimus Severus with funerary pyre depicted on the reverse, selection of hobnails

What would they be buried in?

The first materials to decompose are organic such as wood, food, and clothing. This leaves us without much knowledge of what clothing a person was buried in. Items such as pins, brooches and hobnails are the only remaining clues for a person’s clothing. Pins and brooches were used to hold together a shroud or toga.

Hobnails are common remaining fragments of a Roman shoe. This tells us the individual could have been clothed when they were buried or that the shoes were placed as a symbolic grave good in or outside the coffin. The nails would have been screwed into the sole of the shoe, similar to a modern football boot.
Female skeleton excavated at Batheaston with hobnails found in situ at the soles of the feet

What do you think would survive in a burial today that could tell us about life in 2019?

Imogen Westcott