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, 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

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Beauty in Bath: Ravishing Romans and Gorgeous Georgians

When I had the idea to explore some of the beauty regimes that the citizens of Bath endured in the past, it made sense for me to focus on the two periods that the city is most known for: the Roman and the Georgian.

I had my Roargian”, the roaring Roman-Georgian displayed: a figure of a woman half Roman and half Georgian. The left half, the Roman side, included gold jewellery, braided hair, and clothing including her stola and tunic. The right half, the Georgian side, included a beauty patch, a sack back dress, and lace gloves. Overall, the Roargian demonstrated that the Romans and Georgians had completely different clothing tastes!

I divided my table, like my Roargian, in to two halves; one side Roman and one side Georgian, with a beauty ingredient station for each describing makeup and skincare concoctions; this made me realise the differences, between the two periods and our own. The Romans used urine as mouthwash, whilst the Georgians used lead-based face powders which caused poisoning, neither of these ingredients are things we would use today!

As well as the ingredients, I also had related objects on my table. All my Roman objects were bronze, a popular metal of the time, and included bracelets, brooches, rings and tweezers, just like we use today. The Georgian objects included ceramic and metal wig curlers; wigs were the height of fashion in this period, so these would have been a must for the social climber of the time (or their servants).

Romans and Georgians desired to uphold social expectations of beauty and had a certain idealised look they were trying to achieve. The Romans were more holistic in their approach whereas the Georgian approach was based on achieving a certain aesthetic and they did not care about a daily bath!  Yet, there were similarities between the two in the beauty ingredients used: rosewater, lavender, urine, lead, crushed bugs, animal poo, and vinegar. Some of these ingredients are still used todayhopefully animal poo isnt one of them!

What I enjoyed the most about this project was how it ignited a dialogue about our beauty practices today. Has our culture really changed that much in its quest to look beautiful? Although I perceive the majority of the beauty rituals of the Romans and Georgians as odd, is our culture just as odd, if not odder? We live in a world where we can easily get an eyebrow transplant to mimic the eyebrows of Cara Delevingne, lip fillers to copy the lips of Kylie Jenner, and facial reconstruction surgery so we can have Angeline Jolies cheekbones. This leaves me to wonder if maybe we are the weird ones.

Codie Kish
Learning and Programmes Placement

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Reflections on my 2015 placement

Late November of last year I sent an email to the Roman Baths collections team, inquiring about student placements. Eight months later here I am writing my reflection, and I can’t believe how fast time has passed. Though my placement has been a relatively short five weeks, so much has happened and all of it is experience I can honestly say I will never forget.

The first week I began helping process coins from the Beau Street Hoard and though I’m sure coins are burned into the backs of everyone’s eyes, I was new to the project and quite keen. You can believe my excitement then when I was given the opportunity to design a display that would be exhibited at the nearby Radstock Museum for a month. I have always been into the arts, so putting this exhibit together was like combining my two loves: design and ancient history. Research into my display was also quite the eye-opener, and through hands-on experience with the coins I learned a lot. I also learned some important curatorial skills in regards to the public. I had to consider what would catch people’s interest and show them that this collection was not just ‘a bunch of old coins’ but something fascinating and historically important. I doing this I improved my skills in writing labels that would be accessible to everyone, keeping in mind that many visitors’ first language would not be English.

I was later able to apply these newly-acquired skills to my next and last project: my Tuesday Timetable. Tuesday Timetables, the fancy alliterated name for the Bath’s weekly handling tables, each have their own theme depending on the person running them. For my table I chose ‘Tools and Weapons’ since I feel this category would really catch the attention of children and adults alike. My hypothesis proved correct as during the table families crowded around and examined all the different artefacts (especially the hand-axe – with its size and weight it was a really fun object to pick up).

In all, my time at the Baths is something I won’t forget. Though this sounds cliché there is no other way to say it without sounding pretentious. This was my first opportunity to work in a museum and gain first hand experience and I will always look back on these few five weeks for the rest of my career. Who knows where I will be in five years?


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Roman Games of Chance and Skill

 Having just finished my dissertation on the topic of object handling in museums, I was thrilled when the Collections team asked me to design and deliver a Tuesday Times Table by the side of the Great Bath.

At the end of my first week here, I did a handling table for the Festival of Archaeology that involved a mix of touchable objects and objects in boxes. This worked well, but I was left wondering whether it was possible to have an entire group of related objects that were all touchable. As a result, I tried to pick a theme for which all of the items could be handled.

Gaming seemed like a good topic because all of its accoutrements were made of bone, stone, pottery, or robust glass, which made them perfect candidates for handling. However, these objects were not very interesting to look at, so I figured I needed to do something extra to encourage visitors to engage with them. I decided to experiment by allowing people to actually play with these Roman gaming counters. And, happily, Susan and Verity let me do it.
This meant that my handling table involved the usual sort of handling for several objects, such as Roman dice, knucklebones, and some decorative counters, while the experimental portion consisted of two laminated boards and twenty Roman gaming counters with which to play terni lapilli, which is essentially Roman Noughts and Crosses (or Tic Tac Toe, if you’re American like me).
Gaming in Action

Thankfully, my experiment was successful! Visitors of all ages enjoyed playing terni lapilli and were consistently surprised by the similarities of Roman and modern games, which was a great outcome for the table. We often make the mistake of imagining ancient people as totally different from ourselves, so it was fun to highlight that, in fact, the Romans played games very similar to the ones we play today, including variations on checkers, backgammon, and noughts and crosses.

Games provide a fascinating glimpse into Roman life because they were played by everyone – soldiers, civilians, adults, and children – and in many different places – homes, pubs, soldiers’ barracks, and bathing complexes. At Tuesday’s Times Table, visitors played one of these games in the baths, just like Romans would have done almost 2,000 years ago! 

If you are interested in finding out more about Roman games, see our blog post called “Roman board games at the Baths” http://bathsbloggers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/nicola-002board-games.html, written by intern Nicola Pullan in 2013.

Tory Wooley, Collections Placement Student

Monday, 17 August 2015

Roman Food

Everyone loves to know what the Romans ate, but do people really know where the Romans’ food came from?  For my Tuesday Times Table, I decided to focus on Roman butchery and hunting practices therefore many of my handling objects were in fact the excess or ‘off cuts’ of Roman food products.

The table layout itself followed the basic process of Roman food production, from hunting depictions on samian pottery, through butchered bone and marine products and then concluded with Roman cookware.

The three pieces of samian were excavated during the Spa excavations (1998) and on all of them are images of hunting. The first dates to AD 80-110 and originates from Southern Gaul (modern day France), and features the rear of a boar. The second piece is from Central Gaul, and dates to AD 125-150, and depicts an image of a panther being attacked by a hunter. The third piece is also from Central Gaul and dates to AD 160-190, and has two deer running towards the right. The interesting thing about these pieces of samian is that two of them (the boar and the deer) depict images of species eaten by the Romans, but the panther sherd shows an animal not indigenous to the UK, especially Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath) and therefore shows  that hunting was a recreational sport, rather than a necessity to produce food.

The butchered animal bone was next on the table. It featured bone from cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep (Ovis) and rabbit (Lepus). The majority of the bone shown was from the Spa excavations, and then I also chose three cow bones, a cervical vertebra, a knuckle bone and a long bone, from the Hat and Feather site excavation Bath, of 1992. Almost all of the bone showed evidence of ‘chop’ marks on the distal and proximal ends of the bone, which take the form of a deep ‘V’ shape, suggesting that the bone was cut for butchery purposes with a cleaver or large knife, due to the location of the cut. However one piece of cow long bone and been ‘carved’ parallel to the bone, and this would suggest evidence for the consumption of bone marrow in Aquae Sulis.

The evidence of seafood at the Spa site was extremely high. A multitude of mussel and oyster shells were found, probably originating from the South-East coast of England, along with 257 remains of fish bone, both freshwater and marine. This interestingly suggests the evidence for trade, not only across England, but also across the Mediterranean. It is likely that these marine fish (mainly sea bass) were transported in large amphorae (a large jar with handles) from different areas of the Roman Empire.  Snail shells were also found in abundance from the site, and the combination of all of these food types suggests that Roman delicacies were not too different to those we eat today.

I also wanted to display evidence for Roman cookware to allow the public to gain a concept of the process of Roman food products. From the Spa site was found a white flagon sherd with a rimmed neck, that would have held wine; a strainer spout, that would have been used to strain either food or infused drinks and a sherd of mortarium (used for grinding and mixing herbs) in which all of its stone inclusions had been worn down, creating a smooth surface, clearly showing evidence of high usage in the period. I thought that it was also useful to display a replica samian ware bowl and replica mortarium in which people could try grinding and crushing rosemary and black pepper corns in the same way that it was required to for nearly every Roman meal.

This Tuesday Times Table allowed me to research a topic that I had not encountered previously, and also meant that I was able to give a flavour of Roman lifestyle and food preparation that is not commonly thought about by many.

Ellen Wood

Roman Society Placement and student at the University of Reading studying Archaeology and Ancient  History.