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.

Familiar Looking

Always happy to be distracted from shopping, I had a wander down Quonians Lane to take a photo of a door (that’s a whole different post!).  Everyone loves Quonians Lane with its strange name and its carvings and plaques. Annette Rubery wrote a lovely piece about it back in May, which you can read here.  I love Quonians Lane too, although now my visits are tinged with sadness that the company, whose workers created these wonderful objects and many more across the city, the county and the country, is no more.

I saw the triangular roof of a small outbuilding above the brick wall and went to have a look, thinking it would be quite interesting in its own right. It was a lovely surprise to find these two marble statues stood in the doorways. If you want to see them for yourselves, go down Quonians Lane, and just after you get to the headless angel take a right, through the wall.

So the moral of this story once again is what I say in my ‘About Lichfield Lore‘ spiel.  “Go out and have a look at what’s around you. Then when you’ve done that, go back and have another look!”  I believe this more with each day I do this blog. I think that you can make new discoveries in the same place, depending on a whole range of things including the weather, your mood, what you’re thinking about at the time, the time of day or year or who you’re with. Actually I might change that to include having a smell/touch/listen too. Not sure about taste because I’m not sure I should be encouraging the kind of thing this young man got up to here…..

Anyway, today is a perfect day for me to bang on about this, as it’s the day we heard the news that around ninety further objects had been found at the Staffordshire Hoard site, three years after the original discovery was made. If that doesn’t convince you of the merits of having at least a second look, then I don’t know what will….

 

 

Everything From Shells

Despite the bitter cold, a large crowd gathered in the Museum Gardens around a figure enveloped in green velvet.

Once the poems, songs and speeches had concluded, local artist Peter Walker’s bronze statue of Erasmus Darwin was unveiled to applause.

Recently, I read a wonderful post by Susan Ward on her Staffordshire Bred blog which reminded me of the importance of the sense of touch, when connecting with something.  I was so pleased to hear that the scallop shell Erasmus Darwin holds in his left hand is not only an important symbol of his beliefs and his work on evolution, but is also there to be touched. This is not a hands off statue and I hope that people will touch it, that it will be a well-loved part of the city and that stories will grow up around it.

Those days are still ahead of us – the sun has not even set on the statue’s first day in the Museum Gardens yet (although judging by the temperature in the park today, I’m not convinced it actually rose in the first place!).

The statue belongs to the people of Lichfield, but today belongs to Erasmus Darwin and Peter Walker.

Can I borrow £18k please?

Ian, who often makes a great contribution to this blog via the comments section,  has spotted something intriguing on ebay.

For £18,000 you can buy a statue of a prophet, said to originally be from Lichfield Cathedral.

The statue's orginal home?

Get your bid in here! http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Stone-Sculpture-Lichfield-Cathedral-statue-/350449588131?pt=UK_Antiques_Architecural_RL&hash=item51986c57a3

So of course, I want to know the story of the statue and my initial thoughts & questions are:

It was discovered 3 miles from Lichfield – I wonder where?

Who took it there and why?

I’m a bit confused by ‘dates to 1650’. Do they mean the statue was sculpted at this time, or comes from the Cathedral of this time?

Are there any other parts of the ‘old’ Cathedral anywhere else? For example, we know that most of the damaged statues on the West Front were taken down in 1744/1749.(1) What happened to them all?

Can anyone lend me £18,000 as I think this would look great in my garden?

Huge thanks to Ian for this great spot and it would be great to hear any theories anyone has about this prophet.

 

Sources:

(1)  ‘Lichfield: The cathedral’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 47-57. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42342  Date accessed: 03 November 2011.