Archaeologists Find 2,000-Year-Old Gemstones in Drain Beneath a Roman Bathhouse

The stones, known as intaglios, likely fell from the rings of wealthy bathers

Two of the gemstones discovered at a Roman bathhouse
Two of the gemstones discovered at a Roman bathhouse in Carlisle, England Anna Giecco

Down a drain beneath the murky waters of an ancient Roman bathhouse in Carlisle, England, near Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologists have discovered a trove of gemstones lost by bathers 2,000 years ago.

More than 30 gems—including amethyst, jasper and carnelian—have been found so far during excavations at the site. Wealthy bathers likely dropped them back in the opulent bathhouse’s heyday in the second or third century C.E.

“It’s incredible,” says archaeologist Frank Giecco, who led the excavation, to the Observer’s Dalya Alberge. “It’s caught everyone’s imagination. They were just falling out of people’s rings who were using the baths. They were set with a vegetable glue and, in the hot and sweaty bathhouse, they fell out of the ring settings.”

The collection of ancient Roman gemstones
The team found more than 30 gemstones at the site. Anna Giecco

The pieces feature deities dedicated to war, the sun, commerce, luck and fertility. The largest were around 0.6 inches, and the smallest were just under 0.2 inches. Their small size would have made the carvings particularly difficult, requiring the expertise of an advanced craftsman. 

“You don’t find such gems on low-status Roman sites,” Giecco tells the Observer. “So they’re not something that would have been worn by the poor.”

Still, the Carlisle site isn’t entirely unique: In the past, similar gemstones have been found in the drains of other bathhouses during archaeological excavations. 

Roman bathhouse
Similar gemstones have been discovered at other Roman bathhouses in the past. Mike Kemp via Getty Images

The small, semiprecious engraved gems are known as intaglios, which were first produced some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Owners would press their intaglios into clay or wax to create a seal, which they used to authenticate documents (similar to a modern-day signature).

“Their material, size and color would reflect the wealth and taste of the patron,” writes G. Max Bernheimer, Christie’s international head of antiquities, on the auction house’s website. At one point, he adds, it was in fashion for Romans to wear intaglios featuring the likenesses of their favorite philosophers.

“The intaglios can be seen on many levels,” Giecco tells Artnet’s Min Chen, “from pieces of art to connections to the individuals who owned them.”

In addition to the gemstones, the team at the Carlisle bathhouse found over 40 women’s hairpins and 35 glass beads in the drain. Hundreds of other artifacts—including pottery, weapons and coins—have also been uncovered at the site, according to BBC News

The researchers are planning a new dig at the site later this year. Eventually, the discoveries will most likely go on view at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.

“Carlisle was very much at the center of the Roman frontier,” Giecco tells BBC News, “and we are very excited to go back … for more amazing finds, as it is the site that just keeps giving.”

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