Finds in Roman Baths

This is yet another bit of coverage from this year’s AIA/APA shindig by Stephanie Pappas — and we should mention that this is the most press coverage of the meeting that I’ve ever seen in the sixteen or seventeen years I’ve been paying attention to such things. In any event, the focus this time is Alissa Whitmore’s work on items which bathers lost while bathing … here’s a bit in medias res:

Whitmore examined drain finds from 11 public and military baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating between the first and fourth centuries. Unsurprisingly, she found strong evidence of objects related to bathing, such as perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holding oils and other pampering products.

On the less-relaxing side of things, evidence shows medical procedures may have occasionally occurred in the baths, Whitmore found. Researchers found a scalpel lodged in one drain. And in the Caerleon baths in what is now Wales, archaeologists uncovered three adolescent and two adult teeth, suggesting bathhouse visitors may have undergone some dentistry, too.

Visitors also took their meals in the baths, judging by the fragments of plates, bowls and cups found swept into drains. At Caerleon, bathers snacked on mussels and shellfish, Whitmore said, while baths in Silchester, in the United Kingdom, showed traces of poppy seeds. Bones left behind reveal that Roman bathers enjoyed small cuts of beef, mutton, goat, pork, fowl and wild deer.

University of Iowa logo

University of Iowa logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Ancient texts talk about finger food and sweets, but don’t really talk about animals,” Whitmore said. “That was interesting to see.”

Archaeologists have also found signs of gaming and gambling, including dice and coins, in various bathhouses. Perhaps most surprising, Whitmore said, researchers found bone and bronze needles and portions of spindles, suggesting that people did textile work in the baths.

This work likely wouldn’t have happened in the water, she said, but in dressing rooms or common areas that had seating. The needles may have belonged to bathers who brought needlework to pass the time, or employees may have brought the sewing equipment, offering tailoring or other services at the sites while bathers relaxed, Whitmore said.

Lost jewelry

Among the sparkliest finds in the drains were pieces of jewelry. Archaeologists have found hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and intaglios, or engraved gems, in bathhouse drains. A number of these finds definitely come from pool areas, Whitmore said.

“It does seem that there’s a fair amount of evidence for people actually wearing things into the water,” she said.

Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen, Whitmore said.

Or perhaps vanity inspired them.

“It’s really a place to see and be seen,” Whitmore said. “It makes sense that even if you had to take off your fancy clothes, you would still show off your status through your fancy jewelry.”

Unfortunately, dips into hot and cold water would have loosened jewelry adhesives and caused metal settings to expand and contract. As a result, a number of unlucky Romans emerged from the baths considerably less bedecked than when they entered.

Whitmore reported her results Saturday (Jan. 5) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle. She plans to expand her analysis of bath artifacts to better compare changes in activities over time and in different regions. One constant she’s already found, she said, is the presence of women, even at baths on military bases.

… the article comes with a photo of a really nice intaglio, but it doesn’t seem to have actually been part of the presentation.