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, 22 April 2020

Ore-some Metalwork

The Roman Baths collection is full of amazing metalwork. In Roman and Iron Age Britain, lead, tin, copper and iron were mined and used for everything from tools to religious items.

Investigating an Iron Age coin at the Roman Baths

Imperial lead from the nearby Mendip Hills had several different uses at the Roman Baths. This malleable, waterproof metal was frequently used for plumbing — a word which actually comes from the Latin for lead: plumbum. Even now, the floor of the Great Bath is lined with Roman lead, which is still watertight after two thousand years!

The lead lining of the Great Bath

Lead could also be alloyed with tin (mined in Cornwall) to make pewter. Over 100 pewter curse tablets have been discovered at the Roman Baths, written and thrown into the Sacred Spring by victims of theft asking Sulis Minerva to punish the culprit. Pewter food and drink vessels were also tossed into the Spring as tribute for the goddess. Although these had a religious purpose, the Romans also stored wine in lead alloy vessels like these because it gave the wine a sweeter taste!

Roman pewter vessel discovered in the Spring

One of the curses is made from tin alone, and is an unusual circular shape. Perhaps it was once worn as a pendant before being thrown into the Spring, inscribed with a list of Celtic names.

Tin could also be alloyed with copper to make bronze. Copper was mined in Derbyshire and the Lake District. Since copper products are attractive and resistant to erosion, copper alloys were often used for delicate decorative items. My favourite example is the tiny bronze eagle figurine, once possibly attached to a vessel.

Copper alloy Roman eagle figurine 

Bronze and silver were used for coinage both before and after the Roman invasion of Britain. Iron Age coins were usually inscribed with pellets, crescents and lines, often making up the image of a head or triple-tailed horse. The Romans sometimes used orichalcum — an alloy of copper and zinc — in their coinage, too.

Iron Age coin showing stylised face on obverse and horse on reverse

Less attractive than copper, iron was used for more practical purposes. Iron ox shoes have been discovered in the farmlands north of Bath, and iron styluses were used for writing on wax tablets. Iron was mined in the wooded areas of the Forest of Dean and the Weald, where trees provided fuel for the charcoal smelting facilities.

Roman iron axe

Unfortunately, the acids and residues on our fingers cause metals to corrode, so they usually can’t be handled! However, we can still admire this ore-some metalwork from afar.

Collections Volunteer

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Baking Roman Bread

Learn about Roman bread with Laura!

Two things only the people desire: bread, and the circus games.” Juvenal

Have you ever baked your own bread? Maybe. Ground your own flour by hand? Less likely. Why not use the current situation and improve your skills, learn something new and connect to the past. Bread has been a staple food in many parts around the globe for thousands of years. The same goes for the Romans who indeed seem to have been quite fond of bread, but how do we actually know this?

Not only do we have recipe books and letters about diets but also architectural remains of granaries and baker shops as well as environmental samples from archaeological excavations that can be analysed. 

While milling became more industrial when the Romans arrived in Britain – a large army and urban population needs to be fed – many households would grind their own flour to make their daily bread. Around Bath, we have found rotary hand querns that were used for that task. 

A Roman rotary quern

While this was more effective than pestle and mortar, it was still a strenuous hours-long task. No milling means no flour. No flour means no bread. And no bread could mean starvation.

Bread has been staple food for so long because it is a sufficient source of energy. Flour contains starch which is broken down by enzymes into glucose. During digestions this ultimately results in our bodies being fuelled up to do what we love to do. 

Baking Roman bread

Have you ever wondered what makes bread rise though? Essentially, glucose is transformed into carbon dioxide (gas) which, trapped in the gluten network, expands and causes the dough to rise. If you feel like experimenting a bit, fill a glass half full with some warm water, add a spoon of caster sugar and a spoon of yeast. Stir, wait and watch what happens in the next hour.

The Romans in fact made many different kinds of bread, leavened and unleavened. They seemed to have been very fond of spices as well. Coriander or poppy seeds were particularly popular with bread. A commonly used grain was spelt. 

Why not have a go with this recipe?

Make your own Roman bread at home

Spelt Bread Recipe

500g of spelt flour
300ml of warm water
7-10g of salt
~7g of quick action yeast

  1. Mix the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, then add the water and knead the dough well for at least 5 minutes.
  2. Cover the bowl and leave to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
  3. Knead the dough thoroughly until smooth and leave to rise again.
  4. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C Fan), flour a casserole or loaf pan (make sure it is fit for oven use!) and put the dough into it.
  5. Bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes. (If baking in dish with a lid, leave the lid on for the first half, then remove for the second half).
  6. The bread is ready when it sounds hollow. Leave to cool down before removing it from the dish.

You can vary this recipe by mixing in honey, olive oil, herbs, seeds, dried fruits or chopped nuts.
Bon Appetit!          

Laura Opel
Learning & Programmes Placement