This is the best known object in the Roman Baths collection and
has fascinated scholars and the public since its discovery during
the digging of foundations for the Grand Pump Room in
A missing block was found during excavations beneath the Pump Room
in 1982. As a work of art the quality of workmanship is
exceptional for Roman Britain and it is now generally recognised
that it is probably the work of sculptors from Gaul (now modern
France) in the later first century AD. Its discovery
confirmed that the Roman site at Bath was unusual and attracted
special interest to the site. Many other discoveries since
have now confirmed this view.
The pediment was supported originally
by four large, fluted columns. The very powerful central
image of the Gorgon’s head glowered down from a height of 15 metres
on all who approached the temple.
The pediment is full of allusions that
would have been understood by a well-educated person in the first
century. In the corners are Tritons, half men and half fish,
servants of the water god Neptune. In the lower left centre
ground is a face helmet in the form of a dolphin’s head. The
small owl tucked away to the lower right of the large central
roundel is also almost certainly perched at the top of another
The central head is held aloft by female 'Victories', on a shield
ringed with oak leaves. The Victories stand on globes.
The great head itself has snakes entwined within its beard, wings
above its ears, beetling brows and a heavy moustache. Above
all this, in the apex of the pediment, is a star.
What this collection of images means
has been keenly debated for more than two hundred years. The
significance of the name – The Gorgon’s head – is linked to a
particular interpretation that sees the snakes entwined within the
beard and hair of the central head as indicating that it represents
the head of the Gorgon, a mythical creature killed by the Greek
hero Perseus with the assistance of the goddess Athena.
Perseus then gave the head to the goddess and she bore it
thereafter on her breastplate.
As the Roman Minerva was the same deity as the Greek Athena, with
the same powers and attributes, this interpretation seems very
reasonable for a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis
Minerva. Where better to place an image of the Gorgon than
directly over the entrance to her temple. A problem with this
interpretation is that the Gorgon was female, and the character at
the centre of this pediment is most decidedly not. In this
interpretation the gender difference is explained by suggesting
that the carving of the Gorgon has been styled to reflect a
combination of Celtic and classical imagery.
An alternative interpretation sees the
central head as the image of a water god. It has similarities
with other depictions of water gods known from Britain, such as the
image of Oceanus on the great silver dish from Mildenhall.
Above and below: The Temple pediment showing the
Gorgon's head, with film projections re-creating
the original design and colour.
A carved owl on the pediment
A drawing of the front of the
The face of Oceanus on the great silver dish
Copy of a Roman inscription