“Curses upon he who stole my towel!” The antiquities and grandeur of Bath’s Roman baths

by Heidi Obermeyer

Archaeology is a funny thing. You’re basically looking at the everyday objects of people from thousands of years ago, taken completely out of context and with only unimaginative sketches to guide you into thinking they’re actually interesting after all this time. The Romans though. THEY WERE SO GOOD AT LIFE. They can blow that whole boring thing out of the water with their fancy architecture and cool jewelry and everlasting impact on the world.

The Roman baths complex in Bath (har har!) is beautiful and intricate and amazing- from the outside, it looks like only the main bath makes up the site, but once you enter you find an extensive network of pools and rooms spread underneath that entire portion of the city. All this time I’ve been in Bath walking around on top of some incredible history (the baths are a UNESCO world heritage site) and am very glad I went to see what’s in the actual exhibits while I’m here. Just for clarification- they are a museum/archaeological site only, you can’t actually go swimming there.

One great things about pools- people lose stuff in them ALL the time. Not only does that make for what I imagine are pretty interesting finds for lifeguards in the modern day, but it also means that the baths in Bath are a treasure trove of Roman antiquities, including everything from jewelry to curses to gemstones. Besides losing possessions in the water while bathing, there was also a pool where people offered up sacrifices for the gods and curses to their enemies, carved into various thin sheets of metal, usually lead. It was fun to get to read through what people said in the heat of cursing a theft or other wrongdoing. Not too much has changed, actually- people are still pissed when someone steals their clothes from the proverbial locker room. Some of the rooms underground were heated from underneath for steam baths and other uses- you can see the stacks of bricks that held up the floor in one room above. There were also extensive drainage systems leading down to the river, many of which still function today, giving you a sense of just how well-built the whole complex is. At the end of the self-paced tour, you can drink some of the water, which is supposed to be pretty darn good for you. I can’t say it’s my favorite drink- the water has the aftertaste of iron, as though you had bit your cheek while drinking- but when in the Roman baths, do as the Romans did!

I’d like to go back to the baths again to try and listen to more portions of the audio guide- I didn’t get the chance to go through all the individual objects that they give information on since there were so many of them. Lucky for me, Bath Uni students get in for free (woohoo!) so maybe I’ll stop by during the few weeks I have left here. I’d highly recommend the baths if you’re ever in Bath (actually, they’re probably the reason you’re in Bath to begin with, so maybe I don’t have to state the obvious) so be sure to check them out if you ever make it to this cozy corner of Somerset.