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.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Textiles to Dye For!

Textile production was a major part of the ancient economy and clothing was used to give a visual message about the wearer’s rank, wealth and sometimes their profession. Despite the fact that textiles very rarely survive in archaeology, there are some artefacts which can at least tell us about how they were made

Hannah's handy diagram showing the basic stages of textile production: collection of raw materials, spinning and weaving.

Using this sophisticated diagram of my creation and a selection of spindle whorls and loom weights from the museum’s collection, my Tuesday Times Table explained how an item of Roman clothing would have been made. As an added treat (and my favourite object), I also brought out a replica warp-weighted loom to show how the weaving process worked. Weaving a piece of cloth on a loom like this was a very long and slow process, especially when making a Roman toga. They were made of a single piece of cloth which measured up 
to 6ft in width and 12ft in length. That’s a lot of weaving!
Hannah with her table

As well as spinning and weaving artefacts, I also showed some examples of natural dyes used in Roman Britain. The most commonly used dyes were madder (red), yellow (weld) and woad (blue) and these were relatively cheap. The most expensive dye of all was purple, knows as Tyrian or Phoenician purple. It was so expensive because it was made from the mucous of tiny Murex sea snails. 1000s of these snails were required to make enough dye just to trim one garment! Because of this, purple was associated with the emperors and is still associated with royalty today. 
Dyes used in Roman Britain: madder (red), weld (yellow), woad (blue) and alkanet (lilac). Green could be made using a mixture of weld and woad.

The most surprising thing about my handling table for many visitors was the bright and varied colours of the dyes. We often think of the Romans wearing only white togas, perhaps because colour from the ancient world has generally not survived well. It is easy to forget that almost all of the pure white marble statues and friezes we see in museums today would have once been painted in bright colours, which would have more accurately shown what Roman clothing looked like. In short, the Romans and their clothes were much more colourful than we imagine!
MA Placement student 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: Writing Like A Roman

Just like we do today, the Romans used many different writing materials. Everyday writing was usually done using an iron or lead stylus on a wooden tablet spread with wax, or a thin sheet of wood. More important documents were written with a pen and ink (made of soot and resin) onto wood, papyrus or parchment. At the Roman Baths, we have our famous curses, which were inscribed onto small sheets of lead. Graffiti was painted or scratched onto walls. Gaming counters, made of pottery or bone, were sometimes marked with a stylus or knife on one side to play particular games.

Emily showing visitors how the Romans wrote at her Tuesday Times Table

For my Tuesday Times Table, I chose two of our nicest iron styluses, two bone gaming counters and three of my favourite curse tablets. I also picked seven pieces of inscribed pottery from the depths of our vaults.

The Romans wrote on pottery for lots of different reasons. Sometimes the owner would write their name on a pot to show who it belonged to, like you’d put a name sticker on a lunchbox. Sometimes they would write what was in the pot, like “olive oil” or “fish sauce”. Sometimes they would even use broken bits of pottery like we would use scrap paper, to make a quick note before they threw it away.

Dice cup fragment showing 'X' on base

My favourite piece is a fragment of a small beaker, with an “X” carved into the base. It is possible that this was a dice cup for playing games or gambling. Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck, and her symbol was the wheel. Scratching an “X” onto the circular base of the dice cup made the shape of a (very vague) wheel, which made the cup lucky!

The most popular thing on my table, however, wasn’t an artefact at all. I used pictures of the letters from one of the curse tablets to create a handwriting or cursive Roman alphabet, which lots of people were very interested to see. It was easier to learn your ABCs in Ancient Rome, because they only had 20 letters. K, Y and Z were added to spell Greek words, but J, U and W weren’t used until much later.

The Roman alphabet

Have a go at writing like a Roman! What would you have written on a curse tablet?

Collections Volunteer

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: Marvellous Medieval Metalwork

On 1st August, I took eight different objects to the Great Bath area for visitors to handle. These objects were all under the theme of medieval metalwork to show the public a different side of the Roman Baths collection.

Vicky with her Tuesday Times Table

The tweezers were especially popular as they look so similar to modern day ones, but my personal favourite had to be the Papal Bull Seal. The Papal Bull was a formal proclamation from the Pope at that time, which was sent out to the countries whom it was relevant to. This would have been sealed with a lead bulla, which is unique to that Pope. Papal Bulls were first used in the Sixth Century, but were not officially known as Papal Bulls until the Fifteenth Century. At this time one of the offices of the Papal Chancery was named the ‘Register of Bulls’, though the term itself has been used from the Thirteenth Century.

Left: front of Papal Bull seal. Right: Reverse of Papal Bull seal

At first sight, it looks like a plain circular piece of stone, though on further inspection it can be seen that it is made of lead, which due to its property of corrosion resistance means that a lot of the pattern is still intact. On the front, there are two visible faces, and on the back is barely decipherable writing, though it can be identified as being a Papal Bull from Pope John XXII. 

This narrows the timeline down to 1316 – 1334, which in comparison to the other items on the table (where only general periods could be provided) is a lovely precise date. Sadly we do not have the Papal Bull itself, as it was made of parchment so hasn’t survived, meaning we cannot know the exact declaration which this seal was attached to.

For me, the most interesting part of this object is how it was found. According to our records a Mr. Symons was casually digging up his turnips and suddenly he found a Papal Bull seal in the ground in Freshford, Bath. Luckily, he knew it was important and not a useless circular stone and now it remains in the Roman baths collection. If only I was so lucky with my gardening!

Roman Society Placement

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tuesday Times Tables: The Idyllic Iron Age

When the Romans invaded Britain they found a country divided into tribal territories, some of which offered staunch resistance to the Roman advance. But this was not always the case. The Dobunni, who controlled the Cotswolds and northern Somerset, capitulated to the Romans and may have even surrendered before the army entered the South West. The goddess Sulis-Minerva, who was worshipped at the Temple in Bath, was a combination of Roman and British mythology and may have been a Roman tribute to the peaceful locals.

Bath has a relatively high concentration of nearby Iron Age hillforts, defensive structures that dominate the skyline, and yet remarkably few weapons, limited to a handful of iron spearheads. Instead, the artefacts that we have found in the area are more suggestive of a peaceful and pastoral landscape. The hillforts perhaps acted as meeting places or food distribution centres, with the lower slopes covered with cultivated fields and farmsteads.

The ramparts of Little Solsbury Hillfort

Carbonised grains of Emmer wheat, an early form of domesticated wheat and very important in Iron Age life, was found in a hearth in the Little Solsbury hillfort. The wheat could be made into porridge, and sherds of the courseware pots it was cooked in have also been found.

There are also indications of cloth making. Spindle whorls made of stone and bone were used to spin the fleece of local sheep into yarn. A large lump of Bath limestone with a hole drilled through it was used to weigh down threads on a loom to create woollen textiles. A fine bone pin would push the weft threads together to create a tighter concentration and a finer cloth.

Iron Age coin showing horse and wheel on reverse (BATRM1980.316)

 The archaeology around Bath shows there was a preoccupation with ritual and belief. Two bronze spoons were deposited in a stream in Weston. They are decorated with beautiful curvilinear designs. Pairs of spoons like these are found infrequently across Britain and always in ritual contexts, in water or burials. Coins like the one pictured were discovered in the Sacred Spring at the Roman Baths, and indicate the importance of the waters before the arrival of the Romans. Many were minted by the local Dobunni tribe, but others were from the tribe south of Bath and may show tribal interactions were good-natured in the area.

These artefacts were brought out for visitors to investigate Iron Age Bath as a landscape of domesticity and mystery as part of our programme of Tuesday Times Tables, so join us next week to find out how they continue!


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Festival of Archaeology: Baffling Bones!

Last month, we decided to assemble a table of animal bones and activities for the Festival of Archaeology, which was held at the Roman Baths on Monday 17th July. This involved sorting through and selecting an appropriate variety of animal bones, that were suitable for the public to handle and use for the activities.

Once we had chosen the bones, we then had a task of identifying what part of the skeleton they came from and what animal it belonged to (this could be hard, especially if they were broken!) After going through 5kg of assorted animal bones and fragments, we had a huge mixture, that ranged from a pig’s vertebrae (part of the spine) to a horse’s tibia (upper back leg bone) and a cow’s mandible (jaw).

Vicky and Maddy with their 'Baffling Bones!' handling table

We also set up an activity called “Baffling Bones!”, the aim of this was to see if people could identify the bones provided, and try to figure out which animal they came from. For the younger children, there was a game, where they were given a picture of a cow’s skeleton, and they had to put the labels of bones in the correct places to win a sticker!

On the table, we also had a cow’s skull which was found in the Temple Precinct (thought to be medieval) and photos of the Temple Precinct under excavation. 

I brought the bones out again for Tuesday Times Tables the next day, and had a total of 96 visitors in 2 hours!

If you missed the Festival of Archaeology or the start of our Tuesday Times Tables, don't panic! Handling tables continue every Tuesday evening until the 29th of August.

Placement Student