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, 3 February 2016

Pipe-clay Puppy

Described initially as a “terracotta bear figure” on the finds list for the Beau street dig, the little pipeclay dog overcame his identity crisis and can now be found in the museum, and spotted just before you enter the Temple Precinct.

The figure was found during the 1989 excavations close to the Cross Bath in Trench IV, which was situated where the Thermae Spa can be found today. However, it is believed that both it and the other pipe clay ‘dog’ we have in the collection came from the Allier region in central Gaul. It is possible that traces of red/brown paint remains, and figures from this region are also known to be painted.

The fine clay used for the figure is similar to the clay used to create white clay pipes many years later, plenty of which can be found on archaeological digs in the area. Definitely not indestructible and usually found broken, the pipes were a disposable item that was fairly easy to make in high volumes. Although not as slender and spindly as a pipe, an effort probably would have been needed to protect the little dog from getting unrecognisably shattered if he was handled on a regular basis. He would have been produced in a bivalve mould, however only the front of him remains today.  Despite his ears breaking off at some point, his collar, and possibly a bell still remain, and he is certainly recognisable as a dog.

Dogs are common features in ancient art, often in reference to their contributions to hunting, and there are many instances of dogs on other items in the collection. It was even thought that dogs possessed healing powers. At an Aesculapius healing centre in Epidaurus, an inscription describing a miraculous cure from a growth at the hands (or rather tongue) of a sacred temple dog is found. We could theorise that this is why the little dog found its way here to Bath and the hub of healing; perhaps it was a personal talisman for attracting good health. There have even been many contemporary stories of dogs curing ailments, detecting cancer, and helping with physical rehabilitation. Dogs can even be found on some hospital wards as visitors for patients who benefit from the company of a furry friend. Our want to have dogs around us definitely has not faded from our collective consciousness.

We will never know the circumstances surrounding the little pup’s journey to Bath, perhaps that connection does lie with the therapeutic waters found here, or maybe his original owner understandably just really liked canine knick knacks.

Ella, Placement from New Zealand

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Repair, reuse, recycle…

Samian ware was highly prized Roman ceramic tableware, distinct for its orange/red colour and skilled craftsmanship. Imported and relatively expensive, your average (fairly) well-to-do Roman would have had the odd piece to show off their wealth. As it is, it was of such an expense that though you do find some quantity of samian on most archaeological sites, it was also a material that wasn’t thrown away with ease…

You’re doing the washing up and you accidentally chip the rim of your favourite bowl; most of us may hang on to it for a while, but eventually we would throw it away. The Romans weren’t quite so quick to dispose of their prized possessions.

When samian, being prized as it was, got chipped, the Romans had a novel (and presumably time-consuming) way of hiding the evidence. They would grind down the rim around their pot to produce a new unbroken rim, often having to remove a significant portion of material to achieve this.

Samian bowl with rim ground down

You knock your favourite bowl off the table and it’s lying in pieces on the floor; the Romans had a solution for that too!

Samian is sometimes found with holes drilled through it along the line of a break, evidence that the bowl has been put back together. Corresponding holes would be drilled on the two halves of a break, and a lead rivet would be put between them to hold the two pieces together.

Samian bowl with lead rivets

The Romans were not hesitant about using lead in conjunction with food, being (relatively) unaware of any issues with it, and as samian was about showing off your wealth, it would seem the distinct colour and decoration, was enough to distract admirers from the less appealing lead additions.

Samian spindlewhorl (used for spinning yarn)

And they didn’t stop there, when all you had was a sherd left, you could always chip it down, in to a rough circle and use it as a counter, or with a hole drilled through it, it could be used as a spindle whorl (for spinning yarn).

So you see concepts of recycling were nothing new, the Romans were at it long before us.

Look out for the objects pictured here in our current temporary display on samian, in the Sun Lounge at the Roman Baths.

Roman Baths Collections Assistant

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas in the Collections Office

Unlike the rest of Bath we in the Collections team breathe a sigh of relief when Christmas approaches: it means quieter days when the phone doesn’t ring, less emails come through the enquiries box, when half or more of our colleagues are away and even the buskers seem to be quieter: perhaps they are Christmas shopping as well.

The Baths are quieter (and in the early morning the Great Bath is wonderfully steamy); so we can do some of the glamorous parts of our job with impunity; dusting the inscriptions and models, checking silica gel in the cases (this is a dessicant which ensures that despite being damp outside, our cases stay dry and this protects all the metal objects) and checking the Roman monument.  We look forward to having a chance to do this during the dark January mornings and evenings.

With more than  36 volunteers and 5 placements working with us this year, its inevitable some mistakes are made: records have been left incomplete, things have ended up in the wrong boxes…..

On this year’s "to do" list is location checking: which is just like stocktaking in a shop: checking that objects are where the database says they are and that they’re in good condition.  We’ve started with photographs which were mainly taken by previous marketing teams.

Checking photographs is always fun, you never know what will turn up! An early photo of Swallow Street with sedan/bathchair hybrid and the Roman Baths in the background
We’ll be checking weights of the Beau Street Hoard coins ready for full publication of the coins to be published next year.

Verity's desk all ready (?) for Christmas 
And we have a chance to review and plan for the new year.  As a Museum Accredited with Arts Council England, we have a documentation plan that lists all the recording we have to do.  With over 64,000 records on our database, there’s only about 10,000 more objects to go!  A lot of this work will be done by volunteers so each object to be documented has to have its paperwork and history is ready for them.

So whilst you're munching on your mince pies, think of us ...

But we're looking forward to welcoming back our volunteers in mid January (a Collections Team is for life not just for Christmas)

Verity & Susan

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

New Keynsham Abbey display

About half way between Bath and Bristol is the town of Keynsham. Up until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries on the 23rd of January 1539, it was home to the Keynsham order of Victorine Monks. While some remains can still be seen in situ in the north corner of Memorial Park, much of the Abbey was removed during the construction of the Keynsham Bypass. You can read about the work that is being undertaken with the Abbey Collection in Verity's previous blog.

As Keynsham is part of the Bath and North East Somerset Council, the Roman Baths has taken up care of objects collected from the Abbey site, including a large amount of stonework, and collection of small finds. As Keynsham itself does not have its own museum, there are currently a selection of Medieval tiles, pottery and stonework also from the Abbey on permanent display at the Keynsham ‘One-Stop-Shop’ and library, and just last  week we have installed a new display case containing small objects from the Abbey site.

When I began planning this display, I not only knew next to nothing about Keynsham and its Abbey, but I also knew incredibly little about Medieval Monks and how they lived. Now about a month later, after a few visits to the town, and reading many books, I do feel slightly less at risk of being exposed as a total Keynsham fraud. Although, my knowledge is still very basic!

I think the reason I have really enjoyed putting this display together is the variety of objects from the Abbey site that I had to choose from, including a bone flute, many keys, and a decorative, albeit slightly worried looking carved face. When choosing the objects for display I tried to pick items that were not only pretty and interesting, but similar to objects we have in our lives today. The Roman Baths looks after such a diverse collection from the local area that most people wouldn’t expect. It has been such an experience to be able to handle and work with these objects that were a part of lives so many years ago, and I am really pleased with how it has turned out.

Lead ventilation panel from the Abbey

The display “Life at the Abbey” is currently located on the first floor of the Keynsham One-Stop-Shop/Library. Downstairs you’ll find the aforementioned displays of tile, pottery and stonework, as well as well as Roman material including the amazing mosaics from Durley Hill Roman Villa.  So if you’re ever in the area looking to borrow a book, you could also have a cup of coffee and a look around the building, and maybe learn a little about Keynsham as well. 

We are grateful to Cllr Charles Gerrish who contributed his allowance from the ward councillors initiative programme to pay for the display case. 

Ella, Placement from New Zealand

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Cataloguing Keynsham

Cataloguing museum collections is no mean feat. Back in 2011 The Roman Baths Collections team, helped by some hardy volunteers spent a number of days recording archaeological material held in the basement of Keynsham Town hall. These were objects excavated from three key sites in Keynsham’s history, the Roman villa discovered at Durley Hill, the Roman house at Somerdale and the Medieval Abbey (the remains of which are In Keynsham, Memorial Park). Excavated in the 1920’s the material from both Somerdale and Durley Hill had previously been held in the museum at the Cadbury’s site. The storage situation in Keynsham Town Hall was by no means ideal including stonework laid out as it had been excavated or would have been constructed originally. With the closure of the Town Hall and the demolition of the building imminent, the accessioning of the collections had to be done in unusual circumstances on a tight time scale, before being moved to where they are currently stored at our Pixash Lane Archaeology Store.

Window from Keynsham Abbey laid out in Town Hall basement

Since the collection was accessioned in 2011 work has been carried out on some of the collection to produce a more detailed catalogue of information, however this has not been comprehensive, and as such there are large portions of the collection that need further cataloguing.

The collection from Keynsham Abbey comprises some 2200 objects predominantly excavated in advance of the building of Keynsham Bypass in the 1960s. Many of these objects have only a basic identification, in order that the collection can be best made accessible, further information identifying each object is needed. The collection is currently organised by type of material, which makes dividing jobs quite easy; and so it was that in September a band of local volunteers started cataloguing the Medieval floor tiles. Barbara Lowe, the key excavator of Keynsham Abbey had published a catalogue of the tiles and to date the accessioning of the tiles had related to the tile design in the publication.

One of the Medieval tiles photographed by volunteers

Our local volunteers have valiantly begun photographing, weighing and describing the 34 boxes of Medieval tiles, using this publication as a reference; they’ve also been measuring stonework and accessioning even more tiles…and let’s not forget helping with an open day!


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Spiders invade St John’s Store

As part of our Heritage Open Week event at our St John’s local history store this year we had a trail looking at our pest management procedures, – not as dire as it sounds!

We positioned large dangling plastic spiders as clues to the location of pictures of pests and their food stuffs. Children had to connect the pest with what it eats and how we stop them from damaging our collection.

So for instance, one spider sat above our bath chair, and on its fabric lined seat was a picture of a clothes moth and a moth trap was placed nearby.  This fiendish device contains pheromones which attract then trap male moths so they can’t go and find females to mate with… 

Insect traps are in the forefront of our battle against the creepy crawlies: silverfish eat paper so visitor books, letters and posters are at risk, but as a non-flier it is easier to control. However, the inappropriately named woodworm, actually a beetle, are the greatest threat in St John’s with 39 pieces of furniture stored there. Again insect traps near windows and doors help.  Regular visual checks ensure none get their teeth into the wood.  If furniture is infested, treating with a special insecticide and then keeping them isolated from the rest of the store, ensures no beetle escapes.

The handy English Heritage guide to Museum pests

The number of nasty nibblers who love wool, carpets, and other fabrics are many.  But they were represented in our quiz by the carpet beetle, again caught by insect traps and vigilant checking. 

Rodents are always a concern in old buildings and St John’s is in an 1875 school, but, mercifully, all holes are blocked and we do not suffer.   But traps and poison are used in the other buildings where we also store collections.

Children seemed to be unfazed by the prospect of killing pests and were very matter of fact about the demise of mice at home.

Good housekeeping: regular checks and cleaning are important and when not open, we use Tyvek covers to protect the collection. And at the event we displayed these and some of the tools we use: from soft brushes, cotton buds, a hoover as well as protection for us, the cleaners: dust masks and vitrile gloves. 

Verity covering up the furniture in St John's after our event with Tyvek covers

The final question on the trail was whether spiders and humans were pests or friends.  Our young visitors quickly grasped the idea that although spiders catch flies, their webs make cleaning difficult and the sticky fingers and messy habits of humans are sometimes worse than the smaller pests!

Note: no pest (regretfully) was harmed during this event.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A Busy Heritage Open Week

Every October Half Term, Museums, Galleries and Heritage organisations in Bath and North East Somerset Council take part in Heritage Open Week, taking the opportunity to engage a wider audience with their sites. At The Roman Baths our Learning and Programmes team run family activities on site every weekday, this year’s it’s ‘Fabulous Feasts or Meagre Morsels’ looking at Roman food. They’re also running a family activity at Keynsham Library, ‘Marvellous Mosaics’, where you can investigate the fantastic mosaics from Durley Hill Roman Villa which are displayed there.

The Collections team will be busy as always, with not the usual two events, but three. This year Bath City Farm received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Sharing Heritage’ strand, which will enable them to produce a history trail around their site. As part of this, they are holding a number of open days, tied in to school holidays, centred around different periods of history. For Heritage Open Week  on Monday 26th October, 11-2, they are running ‘Medieval Madness’ which will give visitors a fantastic opportunity to learn all about the medieval period, try Medieval food and make a gargoyle. The Roman Baths Collections team will be there with Medieval objects from our collections to show off the splendour (and functionality).
Medieval cistern with an amazing stag decoration

St John’s Store, our offsite store on the Upper Bristol Road, houses our collection of oversize local history objects. These include everything from equipment from the Victorian spa of Bath, through historic furniture and even shop signs! Visitors young and old (and everywhere in between) can come along on Tuesday 27th October, 11-3, and learn all about how we care for these collections. Find out about the pests that might want to damage our objects, and how we protect our collections against these potential invaders…

A weighing chair from the Spa Treament Centre

At our Archaeology store at Pixash Lane, Keynsham on Thursday 29th October, 11-3, we will be running ‘Patterns at Pixash’, a chance to explore the amazing collections from Roman and Medieval Keynsham, as well as archaeological material from Combe Down Stone Mines. Keynsham Medieval Abbey, would have been a highly decorated building, from intricately carved stonework, to beautifully decorated tiles.  You can come and get a glimpse of the splendour of this Medieval religious establishment with our re-imagining of a Medieval tile floor. Kids (and grown-ups too) can take part in a number of activities based around these tiles, including making a two-tone tile.

One of the many floor tiles from Keynsham Abbey

If you want to know more about these and other events going on during Heritage Open Week, all the information can be found here at the following link, where you can also download a brochure: heritage open week

Verity, Collections Assistant, Roman Baths