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Visiting England: The Historic Roman Baths
History of the Roman Baths
The Roman Baths in Bath, England are a historical site excavated below modern street level. The site was originally established by the Celts as a temple to the water goddess Sullis; at that time it was a minimally improved hot spring. The water feeding it rises from deep in the ground, working under a similar mechanism to modern geothermal heating systems. The Romans, who invaded early in the first century, later adopted the temple complex (along with the goddess, who they identified with a deity of their own: Minerva.) and built it into something more like what is seen today: an elaborate social and religious community center. Throughout its existence people have bathed in and imbibed the sodium, calcium, chloride, and sulfate-ion rich waters for medicinal reasons. The site has given up numerous artifacts of the Roman occupied British era, including a bronze head of Sullis Minerva, thousands of Roman coins, and a collection of small curse tablets (most of which are directed at fellow patrons, for the crime of stealing one's clothes while indisposed at the baths).
Bath in British Culture
The site is an effective connection to pre- British culture, and in this way represents current British culture. Part of being British, I think, must be a function of knowing that there is a long history standing behind your flag, and not overlooking the rich history that led to these strange, strange days in which we now live.
When approaching the Roman Baths from the street, one might immediately notice that it is largely overshadowed by the adjacent Bath Abbey, which is a huge, striking and unusual example of Gothic architecture. It can be a little difficult, at least from the outside, to focus on what I was imagining would be a pool of dirty water when Gothic spires are filling the sky over you. Once I got inside, however, the sense of being transported to another time and place is pervasive, and I noticed upon leaving that I felt as though I had been gone longer, and travelled farther than I really had.
Impressions of the Roman Baths Museum
As mentioned above, the site is an excavation of a complex that was used by at least two ancient cultures and restored for modern purposes on a number of occasions: this lends itself to a certain disorganization. The artifacts are clearly marked, though, and there are models on display detailing the complex in its parts; this helps cut through some of the confusion, as do the omnipresent cell phone tour guides.
The most appealing part of this to me, as with many similar historic sites, is the connection that it allows me to feel with the ancients. I relish the idea that ancient Celts and Romans walked the same paths that I am standing on. They argued and cheated, made deals and thought about their next drink in the same places I am scratching notes from placards…and thinking about my next drink. I wonder if any of them paid the same amount of attention that I did when taking in the head of Sullis Minerva, or if it was just an everyday decoration to them. I wonder how far ahead they could cast their imaginations, and if the future they dreamed of was anything like the one that exists today. I know they would have been hard pressed to imagine a world that was anything but Roman, much as we have trouble remembering what a world without the United States was like. Maybe beyond archaeology there is a lesson here somewhere (besides “Don’t drink the water”).
The Takeaway (Not Fish and Chips)
I know for some people it would be hard to imagine making changes to a historical gem like the Roman Baths. I can’t help but wonder, though, if perhaps the tour might seem more authentic if it ended at the nearby modern baths, which are filled by safer, more recently drilled wells that are fed by the same waters (presumably because of little problems with the original, like the case of a young girl who died in the 1970’s of Amoebic Meningitis contracted from the emerald waters). I knew it was a terrible idea, but the whole time I was at the Baths I could barely resist the urge to jump in the water. For me it was a little bit of a let-down to go to a place that consists primarily of a giant pool and never get wet.
As far as my expectations before arriving at the Roman Baths, I’m not sure I really had anything but the vaguest notion of what to expect. Perhaps it is better to say I had a very clinical picture of the place and what it was about. I have never studied, at least to any notable depth, the Celtic or Roman heritage of this location. I was imagining it without the scary yet enticing water. I suppose I felt none of that necessary connection to the human beings that built and frequented it. It certainly qualifies as the type of place you need to see in person to fully appreciate what it has to offer. Without my visit to the Roman Baths, I would also have a less complete collection of fridge magnets and far fewer unsent post cards.