Key objects of the collection | The Roman Baths
Image: Display of Roman curse tablets Image: Display of Roman curse tablets Show image info

Display of Roman curse tablets

Key objects of the collection

Find out more about some of the most important objects in the Roman Baths collection.

Minerva's head

Image: Bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva

The gilt bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva is one of the best known objects from Roman Britain.  Its discovery in 1727 was an early indication that the Roman site at Bath was not a typical settlement.  Gilt bronze sculptures are rare finds from Roman Britain as only two other fragments are known.

The head is probably from the cult statue of the goddess which would have stood within her Temple beside the Sacred Spring. From there she may have looked out across the Temple courtyard to the site of the great altar, the site of sacrifice, which stood at the heart of that sacred space.  The statue may well be an original object from the foundation of the site in the later first century AD, which means that it was probably well over 300 years old when it met its demise.

The head is slightly larger than life size, suggesting that the original statue was an imposing sight. Hidden in the hair line are several small holes which once held rivets that fixed her tall Corinthian helmet to her head.

Examination of the head has revealed that it has six layers of gilding.  The first two use a technique known as fire gilding whilst the four later layers are applied as gold leaf.  The head has a number of imperfections. There is corrosion which has affected it in parts where it lay in the ground for over a thousand years.  There is also a strange rectangular cut beneath the chin.  It is thought that this may result from a flaw in the original casting process in which a bubble on the surface may have been cut out and filled with an inserted plate.  When gilded over it would not have been visible.  This plate has subsequently fallen out as a result of corrosion whilst in the ground.

Temple pediment and Gorgon's head

Image: The temple pediment at the Roman Baths

This is the best known object in the Roman Baths collection and has fascinated scholars and the public since its discovery in 1790.  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 in the later first century AD. 

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.  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 helmet. 

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.  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.

Curse tablets
Image: Curse tablet

The Roman curse tablets are the personal and private prayers of 130 individuals inscribed on small sheets of lead or pewter. Believed to range in date from the 2nd to the late 4th century AD, the tablets were rolled up and thrown into the Spring where the spirit of the goddess Sulis Minerva dwelt. They are mostly from people who had suffered an injustice, asking for wrongs to be put right and for revenge. The prayers reveal the anger felt by ordinary people at the loss of what seem to us like modest everyday items, but which were very important to people who at the time had few personal possessions. In 2014, the curse tablets were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. They are the only objects from Roman Britain to receive this accolade. You can see some of the curse tablets on display in the Temple Worship area of the museum.