Archaeologists Discover 2,000-Year-Old Carved Gems in Drain of Roman Bathhouse
UK archaeologists have recovered 34 intricately carved gemstone intaglios from the drains of an opulent Roman bathhouse that operated in Carlisle, England, more than 2,000 years ago.
The intaglios, which were carved from amethyst, jasper and carnelian, were likely worn by wealthy bathers linked to the nearby defensive fortification called Hadrian’s Wall on the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire. Little did they know that the vegetable-based glue used to affix the intaglios to their rings would degrade when exposed to heat and moisture.
"They are beautiful miniatures pieces of art dating back to the 200s AD," Frank Giecco, technical director of engineering consultancy Wardell Armstrong, told the BBC. "They were set with a vegetable glue, and in the hot and sweaty bathhouse they fell out of the ring settings."
The Roman bathhouse had been discovered in May 2017 during excavation work to move the Carlisle Cricket Club's pavilion after it had been damaged by Storm Desmond in late 2015.
The colorful intaglios ranged in size from 5mm to 16mm, and were adorned with images of Roman deities dedicated to war, the sun, commerce, luck and fertility.
"The craftsmanship to engrave such tiny things is incredible," Giecco told The Guardian.
According to Smithsonian.com, citizens of Ancient Rome would press their intaglios into clay or wax to create a seal, which they used to authenticate documents. It was equivalent to a modern-day signature.
In total, more than 700 items, including glass beads, hairpins, pottery, weapons and coins, were pulled from the bath drains.
Giecco told the BBC that the recovery project had received additional funding and his team will be back at the site in May.
"Carlisle was very much at the center of the Roman frontier and we are very excited to go back on May 22 for more amazing finds, as it is the site that just keeps giving," he said.
According to Artnet.com, intaglios turning up amid the ruins of Roman bathhouses is not a unique occurrence. Similar items were found in Caesarea, Israel, as well as Bath, England.
Bathhouses were an important part of Roman culture. It was common for men of all social classes to mix freely at the baths after their work day was done. To the Romans, the baths represented their superiority and power.
Giecco anticipates that all of the recent finds will become part of an exhibit at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. He also acknowledged the Carlisle City Council and the numerous volunteers who assisted in the recovery effort.
Credits: Images courtesy of Anna Giecco.