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.

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Sunny days should be spent out and about under blue skies, not shopping for bathroom suites in Cannock. However, needs must and afterwards we made up for it by continuing the bath theme in much more pleasant surroundings, spending the afternoon at the Roman bath house at Wall. Although it’s only about three miles away from Leomansley, it’s a while since I’ve been to the ruins of the Roman settlement of Letocetum. My last visit  was in 2011,during an open day organised by the Friends of Letocetum for the National Archaeology Festival. Another visitor on that day, who sadly I didn’t meet, was the late Mick Aston (wearing a stripy jumper of course!), who had one of his first experiences of archaeology at the site as a young man under the guidance of Jim Gould FSA.

Remains of the guest house and bath house at the Roman settlement of Letocetum

Roman occupation at the site is thought to have begun with the establishment of a military site to protect this important route, later developing into a staging post where those travelling along Watling St could rest and recuperate at the guest house and bath house, (it is the remains of these buildings which are still visible) and eventually a small town.  You can see another Roman road, running between the remains of the two buildings on the site, with some of the original cobbles still intact.

Not quite on Watling Street scale, but a Roman road nonetheless.

After looking around the ruins, we followed the Wall Heritage Walk (available from the museum) which took us along more ancient routes – the greenways and sunken lanes that surround the village, thought to be old drovers’ roads.

I’m including this, not because I fancy myself as a wildlife photographer, but because I am grateful to the subject for being the only butterfly ever to have stayed still long enough for me to take a photo!

As well as enjoying the views and the wildlife of the hedgerows, I also couldn’t help looking out for buildings in the area that had used stone from the ready made quarry nearby!

Are these Roman stones I wonder?

One of the lanes runs past St John’s church. Built in the late 1830s, in comparison to the ruins it overlooks, it’s a young whippersnapper of a building. The architects were George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat, who it seems were also working on Lichfield’s new workhouse at St Michael’s around the same time.

One of the questions that seems to be subject to much discussion here is, could earlier places of worship once have existed on the site? There has been speculation that there was once a shrine to Minerva here, based on an account of a man who worked draining the lands around Wall. Asked if he had ever found anything in the course of his work, he told how as well as finding lots of old coins, he once found an earthenware figure that he described as being as big as a man, but not a man due to having a bust, and also not a woman as it had a queer dress and a man’s cap like a soldier’s helmet. And what did he do with this amazing find? Prepare to weep – he used it to mend a drain.

However, before getting too upset we can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that Jim Gould (who as well as working extensively at Wall explored and wrote about the archaeology of many of the other sites around here) was not convinced that the statue ever existed, the story being “from an unknown source, of the finding of an impossible statue, by an un-named man, at an unknown spot and date (1). A good lesson that no matter how appealing some stories may seem, they should be taken cum grano salis. 

Entry is free but the museum is only open on certain weekends so check first!

Thanks to archaeologists like Mr Gould and others, a great deal of the history and significance of the site has already been discovered, although it seems there are still plenty of crop marks and questions out there (including the relationship between Letocetum and what was to become Lichfield) to keep future generations of archaeologists busy. However, just as sunny days ideally shouldn’t be spent shopping on retail parks, places such as Wall ideally shouldn’t be explored through words and photographs along, but physically instead. The museum even has a collection of objects you can touch! Instead of using this post to further summarise the history of the site (especially as others will have done a far superior job elsewhere!),  I’d rather encourage you to go and have a look for yourself.  In case you need any further convincing, entrance to the ruins and the museum is free and the heritage leaflet I picked up there was worth every one of the 20 pennies I paid for it.

Slightly gratuitous photo of Roman army re-enactors, English Heritage Festival of History 2011

Sources:

(1) http://www.sahs.uk.net/Volume%20XXXIII.pdf

Wall Heritage Walk

Pastscape Record for Letocetum