A recent study of objects lost down the drains in the bathhouses of the Roman Empire reveals that the lavish pools were a rollicking center of social interaction and ladies of the era couldn’t resist wearing their finery in the water. Among the items discovered in the drains were decorative hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and intaglios (engraved gems).
This Roman intaglio dating from A.D. 212 and held in the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is similar to the intaglios found in Roman bath drains.
Archaeologist Alissa Whitmore studied objects recovered from 11 public baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating from the first to fourth centuries, and concluded that these often-lavish pools were far more than places to get clean.
“It was really a place to see and be seen,” the doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Iowa told Smithsonianmag.com. “It makes sense that even if you had to take off your fancy clothes, you would still show off your status through your fancy jewelry.”
Whitmore surmised that dips into hot or cold bathhouse water could have loosened jewelry adhesives and caused metal settings to expand and contract. As a result, some high-style Romans emerged from their leisurely baths minus their fine jewelry.
There also could have been a more practical reason for the bath bling. “Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen,” Whitmore said.
Vanity items found in the bathhouse drains included perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holding oils. Bathers were clearly allowed to eat snacks in the pool as Whitmore found an abundance of plates, cups, mussel shells and animal bones in the drains. Some less-expected finds included teeth and scalpels, which led Whitmore to wonder if dental work and medical procedures were performed in the bathhouses, as well.
Intaglio credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen. Roman bath credit: Flyin Z