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 July 2017

Way Back Wednesday: the Science of Skeletons

As well as organising the Science Week events at the Roman Baths, I was able to design a handling table. My topic of choice was human remains, as I have an interest in them and there is a lot they can tell you. One issue with this is the ethics of choosing to have human remains in public areas of the site as visitors may not wish to see human remains outside a case. This was overcome by producing a sign to warn visitors about the remains on show and to only have skeletal elements not whole skeletons out.

My research for the table was into how you could age and sex a skeleton from different elements. It was hard to condense the information down into language that the everyday reader would understand as there are lots of technical words such as diaphysis and epiphysis for the shaft and ends of long bones respectively.  This could have be why information sheets explaining how to do this have not been produced before.

Skull of a Roman Male

One common comment made about the table was about the condition of the teeth.  Teeth are the most common skeletal element found as they are resistant to chemical and physical destruction. The teeth which attracted the most attention belonged to a 25 year old Roman male, and the condition divided opinion. Some said they were well looked after and in better condition than the modern equivalent, while others said they were worn. The teeth could be in better condition due to the fact the Romans didn’t consume as much sugar as the modern population, as sugar wasn't available in Europe at this time. Instead, they were worn due to milling methods used to make flour leaving sand which in turn wore down the teeth.

The assessment of skeletal remains is very subjective, as this comment on the teeth wear shows, so even if you know the correct methods you might still be wrong, and if sexing you only have a 50/50 chance of getting it right!

Katharine Foxton

Bradford University Placement Student

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Saltford Festival: Musings on Metalwork

Roman Baths object handling at Saltford Brass Mill

At the beginning of June, our Collections and Learning teams packed up the van and spent the day at Saltford Brass mill for the Saltford Festival.

We took a selection of archaeological metalwork to fit with the theme of the location, choosing objects from the local area and that could showcase the use and preservation of different types of metal.

Copper Alloy

A pair of Roman tweezers found in Keynsham
As we were in a Brass mill, brass would be the most fitting metal to choose! However, archaeologists choose not to distinguish between brass and bronze, instead using the term ‘copper alloy’. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin and brass is a mixture of copper and zinc, and without scientific testing it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two.

You can recognise copper alloy from the tell-tale green colour caused by corrosion, sometimes called verdigris.


A selection of iron objects including an axehead from the site of the Thermae Spa in Bath
Again, iron is recognisable from the way it corrodes, producing distinctive red rust. As with all metals we do our best to slow down and prevent this process, keeping the objects as dry as possible in sealed containers with packets of silica gel to absorb any moisture.

The objects pictured are in particularly good condition. Archaeological metalwork is not always so lucky!


A piece of the lead sheets used to line the Great Bath

Lead from the Roman Baths has survived incredibly well and some Roman pieces are still in place, for example the sheets that line the Great Bath. We took a section of that lead with us to Saltford, and almost everyone commented on the incredible weight of just this one small piece!

You may question the use of lead, and rightly so. Today we know that it is poisonous, and we definitely wouldn’t use it to line our baths! However, the Romans didn’t know this and instead prized it as the perfect material for plumbing.


A silver coin of Julian II
There are a number of silver objects in the Roman Baths collection, and most of them are coins. The examples we took to Saltford included a Roman Imperial coin known as a siliqua of Julian II, made at the mint at Trier, Germany. 

Silver is a perfect choice for making currency, and even though this coin is well over 1,000 years old the design is as crisp as the day it was struck! 

Did you know?

The Latin for Lead is plumbum (also used for its chemical element symbol Pb), which is where the word ‘plumbing’ comes from!


Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Katharine’s Placement Reflection

When I first applied for a student placement with the Roman Baths Collections team over a year ago, I could not have imagined the experiences I would have and how quickly the 6 months would pass. During this placement I have learned about how much work goes on behind the scenes to keep a museum running and everything that needs to be considered when interpreting the collection.

One of my main projects was to catalogue the archive for the archaeological excavations at The Tramsheds on Walcot Street. This consisted of a large paper and archaeological archive of a variety of artefacts, including Roman pottery, clay pipes and tile. The first task for cataloguing was to arrange the paperwork into relevant sections and then number them accordingly. This task seemed like it went on forever due to the large number of photographs - about 1,050 in total! The cataloguing of 47 boxes of artefacts was completed by our amazing volunteers, so a huge thank you to them. Cataloguing this site has shown me how much information about the local area is stored in museums.

Katharine with her completed Tramsheds archive

As well as cataloguing, I helped with various events celebrating the history of Bath.  World Heritage Day showcased the wide range of artefacts in our collection showing the history of the Spring from the Mesolithic to the 20th Century. We also had a selection of spa equipment out and photos showing the different treatments you could have received. This was very interesting as I got to learn more about the history of Bath while explaining this to visitors.  The event at Saltford Brass Mill showed what an amazing collection is housed at the Roman Baths with a wide variety of objects of differing metals.

Susan and Katharine with the handling table at Saltford Brass Mill

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working at the Baths and will miss all my colleagues who have made the experience so special. One day I hope to come back, but who knows…

Katharine Foxton 
Bradford University Placement Student

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Roman Architecture

For my part of British Science Week, I was given the task of designing a display revolving around the topic of my choice, Architecture. Rather than focusing on arches specifically, I decided to broaden the information and open it up to many different aspects of architecture.  

As I am particularly interested in the topic, I learnt that focusing on the science side of architecture more difficult that I had first thought. I found that I had to first wrap my head around how the Romans actually managed to get their constructions to stand, and then concentrate on simplifying and limiting what I had gathered. The aqueducts were fascinating to research, as the Romans had a considerable grasp of how they worked and how to create the perfect speed of flow, ensuring even the smallest of towns received water! One of the most difficult things to grasp was the materials used by the Romans, as this was particularly scientific involving the Calcination of Lime creating Mortar, which was then used in essentially all of their constructions.

A Successful Architect

On the day, I had a number of visitors who were particularly interested in the materials used, and were fascinated by how light and porous some of the materials actually were (i.e. the Tufa block). As my table was located beside the Great Bath, I was able to point out where they could find these materials, which are hidden unless you’re looking for it!

The small collection of columns which showed the differences between the column orders was a particular interest to many, as the intricate details on the columns astounded many people. I was able to have a small piece of a column on display too, showing the details and thickness of the columns that were used by the Romans. It was especially impressive how much of the columns capital remained prominent, specifically for how heavy the item was and how damaged the bottom part of the piece actually is.

As it is not common practice to touch items on display, many people were hesitant to touch the materials I had out, and were even hesitant to touch the arch activity. After watching other visitors try, more people (not just children) began approaching the table and were particularly interested in trying their hand at being a mini architect!

Lucy Pidgeon, Bath Spa University 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Roman Baths investigates science

As part of British Science Week, the Roman Baths organised a number of events to allow visitors to find out about the science behind some of our museum objects, for which I was project manager. The week started with Science Busking which consisted of three tables explaining the science behind pottery, such as how the pot was fired; metals, what metals the Romans made and worked and bone, showing how you can sex and age a skeleton. These tables mainly were visited by adults however some children also visited the tables. The arch model was also set up and this attracted the attention with visitors of all ages. Over the three hour period this event ran it attracted 547 visitors. The BRSLI Science Cadets also had a variety of geology based activities in the education room to find out about Bath’s hot spring. 

 Our successful Science Busking event

Throughout the week hands-on tables ran next to Great Bath to allow visitors to handle some of the museum objects. These ranged from human remains, coins, mosaics and Roman architecture. A volunteer or placement student compiled the information and stood with their table to answer any questions the visitors may have had. The tables all attracted interest from visitors with numbers ranging from 90 to 220 visitors wanting to find out more. The most popular day was Thursday, with over 200 people wanting to find out about mosaics and to look and touch a real skeleton.

The final two events were Bath Taps in Science organised by the University of Bath. The penultimate event was held at the University and was to encourage children to be interested in science, the Roman Baths took the table top arch and some x-rays and objects. The children enjoyed building the arch and couldn’t quite understand how it stood up without anything supporting it. 

The final event was held at Royal Victoria Park, where the Roman Baths set up the aqueduct and arch model. Both proved extremely popular with 370 people engaging either on one or both of the activities. 
Overall, Science Week proved a success with all the events catering to all age groups and engaging both children and families.
Katharine Foxton 

Bradford University Placement Student

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

After Aquae Sulis

“Are you familiar with the Anglo-Saxons and what came after Rome?”

Unfortunately, unless an enthusiast or someone who has studied the period at University, your answer will probably be: no. The years AD410-1066 are hardly touched upon in school curricula and yet are some of the most formative in the history of Western Europe; helping us to understand everything from the formation of countries to why Bath is in Somerset rather than Gloucestershire. Not learning about it is equivalent to Americans not learning about Columbus. So that's why I chose to do this period for my handling table this summer.

map of the South West in Saxon times

When King Alfred (AD 871-899) founded his burh at Baðum (Bath) in the aftermath of his wars with the Vikings, he established a market town on a new street plan, next to an earlier English monastery within the decaying walls of Roman Aquae Sulis. The latter had been in long decline, beginning even before the end of Roman Britain. Iconoclastic Christians had cast down the pagan statues and altars for use in road surfaces, residential buildings were converted into workshops and tell-tale layers of organic material illustrate ever increasing agricultural activity within the walls. 

The ruins of Aquae Sulis as were immortalised by an early English Poet in the words of The Ruin:
Wondrous is this stone-wall, wrecked by fate;
the city-buildings crumble, the works of giants decay.
Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed

undermined by age.”

Bath, along with Gloucester and Cirencester, was conquered by the English in 577 at the battle of Dyrham, not far from Bath. In this era of squabbling petty kingdoms and Bath became the southern tip of the kingdom of the Hwicce, a sub-kingdom of Mercia, whose King Osric founded a minster in the city in 675. Bath’s Roman past and location on the Mercian/West Saxon border meant that it remained important throughout the period. 

Major towns had exclusive rights to minting and trade. This silver penny of Aethelred was minted in Bath and is in the Roman Baths Museum collection

Almost certainly concerned with the defence of his realm the powerful Mercian King Offa (757-796) effectively confiscated the land given to the church by Osric and as already mentioned, the ruined city was later chosen by Alfred for the site of a burh. Bath’s imperial connotations must also have been key in Edgar’s decision to be re-crowned in the city in 973.   

Part of a Viking sword found in the ditch of  the Saxon town on Upper Borough Walls, Bath 
Wil Partridge, volunteer

Friday, 2 September 2016

Tuesday Times Table: How did the ancients make pottery?

 Pottery is the most common archaeological find in most places, and the Roman Baths Museum has a great collection of pottery, from which various interesting points can be discovered. I focused on the techniques of making pottery and tried to connect pottery fragments with the processes of decoration and firing they had experienced.

 Prehistoric people collected clay from nearby, dried it in the sun, sieved and mixed it with water, and made ring-built or thumb pot vessels by hand. Firing was also quite simple. They use dried dung and brushwood on the ground and the firing process took only 30 to 60 minutes. Later people started to select the clay, remove impurities from it and then leave it to weather before using it. They also used several pools to wash clay and mix it with grit and sand for special use. Turntables were used in shaping and glazes were introduced as decoration. Various kilns and kiln furniture were designed to make firing more effective.
 Roman Samian ware from France compared to imitation Samian made in Britain

 In the activity, I chose different types of pottery to show the improvements in ceramic technology, from Iron Age coarse ware to modern fine ware. Many of them were manufactured in Europe while almost all of them were excavated in Bath, which shows the ancient trades of pottery. The spread of pottery techniques and the imitation of styles are my favourite points, thus I chose a British imitation of Samian. Compared with Samian made in continental Europe, this British samian is of grey and orange fabric, and its surface is variegated. This is due to the preparation of clay and the temperature in the kiln.

 During the display, people enjoyed feeling the decoration and glaze on the pottery, and many people were interested in the Roman finewares. Children were satisfied with their own pieces of clay decorated using stamps, sticks and ropes, just as the ancients did.

Chenxi Sun
University of Leicester MA Museum Studies
Placement with the Collection team







莱斯特大学 博物馆学硕士