Bath Time

Although the waters at the Roman Baths in Bath were once known for their healing powers (the mythological Prince Bladud and his pigs are said to have been cured of leprosy after wallowing here in 863 BC), the water is now considered unsafe and is strictly off limits. This didn’t bother me in the slightest as I’d much rather be issued with an audio guide with commentary from Dr Alice Roberts than a fluffy white bathrobe.

The Great Bath at Bath

The Great Bath at Bath

The great bath is fed by a hot spring rising here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres a day and a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. For our ancestors, the warm water gushing from the ground was the work of the gods. Even though I know the cause to be natural rather than supernatural, there was still something magical about watching vapour swirling up out of the bubbling, green-hued water into a torchlit, grey November afternoon. And it seems I’m not the only one the place has that kind of effect on. When the Romans arrived, the local goddess Sulis was already being worshipped here so they named the place after her, and built a new temple honouring both her and her Roman counterpart Minerva alongside the sacred spring.

Alongside the curing, a fair bit of cursing went on. One hundred and thirty prayers inscribed on sheets of lead or pewter were thrown into the spring between 200 and 400 AD. Many invoke the help of Sulis Minerva in seeking justice and revenge for heinous crimes such as the theft of a bathing tunic or gloves. The majority are in vernacular Latin, but one as yet untranslatable text is thought to be the only surviving example of an ancient British language. I quite like the thought that the only physical trace of something spoken thousands of years ago was not left by kings or queens but by one of the plebs like us, most likely complaining that their swimming costume had been nicked.

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

In 1727, the gilt bronze head of a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered yet it’s not the face of the goddess which has become the symbol of Roman Bath but the face of the ‘gorgon’ found on the pediment outside her temple. And I have the fridge magnet to prove it. Re-discovered in 1790, and debated ever since, the ‘gorgon’s head’ is surrounded by a sea of symbolism including Tritons, a dolphin head shaped helmet, a star, an owl and two Victories. The ‘gorgon’ interpretation derives from the association of Minerva with Medusa and the supposed presence of a couple of snakes in the beard. Yes this ‘gorgon’ has a beard, which highlights the main problem with this explanation – gorgons are female whereas this is obviously the face of a man. It might be another example of the Romans combining a local god with of their own e.g. a classical gorgon and a British water god or could perhaps even be Neptune or Oceanus.

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I'm not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I’m not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

Other more easily identifiable gods found here include Jupiter and Bacchus whose images once formed part of the great altar where sacrifices were made. Post-sacrifice, the entrails of the animal were consulted by a haruspex (literal translation: gut-gazer) and we know there was one here in Aquae Sulis because the inscription on this stone reads ‘To the goddess Sul, Lucius Marcus, a grateful Haruspex, donated out of his devotion’. This is the only evidence we have of a priest in Britain who practised divination in this way, so it’s something of a rarity.  It has been suggested that whoever carved the stone wasn’t all that competent, originally missing out the ‘O’ from ‘Memor’ and also having to squeeze the letters ‘VSP’ after ‘the abbreviation HAR’. You’d think Lucius might have forseen these problems in the intestines.

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

Hopefully, all this talk of Romans at Bath will have whetted your appetite for something a little closer to home but just as exciting. Not only does our Roman site at Wall have carvings every bit as mysterious as those at Bath, evidence of Christianity in the area prior to St Chad’s arrival (in the form of  bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol which you can see and read about here) and even rumours of our own statue of Minerva said to have been as big as a man, but not a man as it had a bust but also not a woman because it was wearing a soldier’s helmet. Unfortunately, it was used to fix a drain. If it ever existed in the first place that is.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don't know but it is fun speculating.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don’t know but it is fun speculating.

You can access the site of Letocetum all year round during daylight hours and the museum is open 11am to 4pm the last weekend of every month plus Bank Holidays between March and October. This Winter, the Friends of Letocetum have arranged a series of talks at Wall Village Hall starting on Wednesday 9th December with Dr Mike Hodder who will be talking about his own personal experiences as an archaeologist at Wall.

Further details of this and all other upcoming talks and events plus lots of other information about Letocetum can be found here on the website or there is a Facebook page here and you can follow @FndsofLetocetum on Twitter.

For anyone who would like to see the Gorgon’s Head but isn’t able to get to Bath, it will be coming to a lampost in Leomansley shortly along with a wobbly lobster. Details on request. And should anyone pinch it, I’ve got a curse ready.

Up Letocetum

Wall, located just two miles to the south of Lichfield, is an incredible place to visit at anytime of the year. This Sunday (19th July) however, the Friends of Letocetum will be bringing the remains of the Roman settlement here to life with their annual open day, held in conjunction with English Heritage and the National Trust.  Entrance is free and the event runs from 11am to 4pm, during which time you’ll be able to experience life as a Roman soldier, get creative with a Roman artist and explore what everyday life would have been like at Letocetum.  A group of Saxons are also setting up an encampment at the site and for literature fans there will be a Saxon book binder and storyteller.  Children can take part in a range of games and activities* and there will also be a stall selling Roman games, perfumes and beads.

Wall-Open-Day-

Roman style bootcamp at last year’s open day

John Crowe, chair of the Friends group and Wall Parish Council said, “Last year we welcomed over twelve hundred visitors. The whole village comes together each year for our annual open day, and we want people to come along and have fun, whilst learning more about the significance of this major Roman settlement, situated at the crossroads of two of the most important roads at the centre of Roman Britain. The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered just one mile to the west of the village, and other finds from the local area suggest that Christianity may have been established at Letocetum prior to St Chad’s arrival in Lichfield”.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

This stone, one of several found built into one of the walls at Wall, is just one of the many fascinating artefacts on display at the museum. It is thought to be Romano-British and features two carved heads with horns and what has been interpreted as a shield.

“The church of St John, built in 1837 and designed by William Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott, will be open to visitors, and refreshments will be available in the village hall. There will also be volunteers on hand in the museum to talk visitors through the fascinating collection of artefacts discovered at the site, so please do come and join us for what will be an enjoyable and informative day”.

Life at Letocetum...se if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site...

Life at Letocetum…see if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site…

*there is a small charge for these activities to cover costs

The Watchers of the Wall

Wall is one of the most interesting, if unimaginatively named, villages around these parts. Of course, the Romans who built the eponymous walls knew the place as Letocetum, which may sound more exciting but is actually thought to translate as just another description of the surrounding landscape – a romanized version of a Celtic place name meaning ‘grey wood’.

wal

Every year, thousands of visitors come to explore the remains of the bath house and mansio at this former military staging post on Watling Street and discover some of the incredible archaeological finds in the on-site museum. This is only possible thanks to the Friends of Letocetum, a small army of dedicated volunteers who are hoping to swell their ranks for the 2015 season. If you are able to give a couple of hours a month, or even a year, or could help out during the annual open day on Sunday 19th July 2015, please get in touch with them via their Facebook site, email wallromansite@gmail.com or leave me a message and I’ll pass it on. Gratias!

 

Heads and Tales

Just outside of Lichfield, in the village of Wall, are the remains of the Roman settlement of Letocetum, a latinized version of an Iron Age place name meaning ‘grey wood’. The foundations of the bath house and guest house (or mansio), established here to provide rest and recuperation and a change of horses to those travelling along Watling Street, are still visible.  As you’d expect, some fascinating archaeological finds have been unearthed at the site, giving us a glimpse of what life in Letocetum was like almost two thousand years ago. Many of these are displayed in the site museum, including my favourite – a carved stone, discovered built into the foundations of the mansio, along with seven others, which I suspect not many people even realise exist.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

Carved stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what’s thought to be a shield.

The carving seems to show two horned heads facing each other, with a circular object, interpreted as a shield, to their right. Heads also appear on some of the other stones found alongside it.  One depicts a figure with a club in one hand, and a severed head or skull at its feet. Another features a head in what may be some sort of niche and a fourth has a head with an open mouth, that may suggest it is screaming.

Carved onto a fifth stone are two ‘warrior’ figures with shields, stood side by side. A pattern of sorts around their legs has been interpreted as representing water. A second pair of figures, enclosed in a frame or box of some sort lie at right angles to these ‘warriors’. Two further stones have inscriptions, or at least partial inscriptions CUINTI…CI and DDBRUTI, and on the eighth stone is a carving which resembles a Christian cross, although it may be a pagan symbol representing the sun.

All but one of the stones were built into the foundations of the mansio in an inverted position, and there is a theory that they were originally part of a Romano-British shrine dedicated to a native god or gods (the names of whom may be recorded on those inscripted stones), which was demolished sometime around the building of the mansio. The reason for the shrine’s demolition at this stage is unclear, but it has been suggested that it may have been replaced by a yet to be discovered temple dedicated to a Roman god built elsewhere on the site. Incorporating the stones upside down suggests that the native gods represented by the carvings were still respected, and perhaps even feared by the builders of the mansio – I understand that inverting an object was thought to neutralise its power.

There is also a ninth carved stone, found separately from the others, in a hypocaust in the north east of the mansio. It appears to depict a phallus, and was inserted after construction to provide additional protection for the building.

Unfortunately, the stone with the ‘cross’ has disappeared and no photographs appear to exist. The other stones are kept at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but photographs of them can be found in the eleventh report of excavations at Wall, included in Volume XXI of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society transactions for 1979-80. Along with all of the Society’s other transactions, this is accessible online to members (it’s well worth joining if you are interested in the area’s archaeology).  I haven’t got around to asking for permission to use the photographs here, and so in an attempt to stay on the right side of copyright law, whilst trying to give a better idea of what the carvings on the stones look like, here are some drawings I did of them. Apologies to archaeologists and artists everywhere.

Carved stone 1

carved stone 2

carved stone 3

carved stone 4

I’m not drawing the ninth stone. You can probably work out what that one looks like for yourselves….

This all fits quite nicely (albeit unintentionally!) with the theme of ‘Hidden Histories’ for this year’s heritage weekend in Lichfield (20th/21st September). If you are interested in finding out more about the story of Wall, and hearing about some of the other archaeological discoveries made here, there is free guided walk around the village led by the Friends of Letocetum on Sunday 21st September.  The walk is free and open to everyone, and will be starting out from the the village car park at 10.30am.

 Sources

Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions for 1979 -80 Volume XX1