Romans Did All Sorts of Weird Things in The Public Baths—Like Getting Their Teeth Cleaned

For ancient Romans enjoying a day at the bathhouse, the list of items lost to drains includes jewelry, scalpels, teeth, needles and plates

Photo: Flyin Zi

What sort of things have you lost to a swimming pool drain? For ancient Romans enjoying a day at the bathhouse, the list of items  includes jewelry (which many women today can probably relate to), as well as less obvious items such as teeth and scalpels. A new study of objects dropped down old drains reveals the bathhouses as a bustling center for social gatherings, LiveScience reports, not just a place to get clean.

Back when the Romans controlled Europe, ornate bathhouses popped up around the continent. Ancient texts provide some vague details about the activities that went on in these establishments, but objects found in the tubs’ drains can reveal even more concrete evidence. Archaeologist Alissa Whitmore took a look at objects recovered from 11 public and military baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating from the first to fourth centuries and presented her results last weekend at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle.

Perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holing oils turned up aplenty. Less expected, however, were the scalpels and five teeth that appeared in drains, hinting that medical and dental practices may have occurred at the baths, too. Fragments of plates and bowls hint that visitors ate in the pool, and mussel and other shellfish shells hint at what those snacks might have been. Bones of cows, sheep, goat, pork, fowl and deer also show that the Romans were avid meat eaters.

People didn’t just eat, bathe and get their teeth worked on, however. They also played. Dice and coins hint at gambling in the water, and bone and bronze needles show that ladies may have partaken in textile work while relaxing in the spa’s dressing rooms or common areas.

The jewelry that turned up included hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and engraved gems.

Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen, Whitmore said.

Or perhaps vanity inspired them.

“It’s really a place to see and be seen,” Whitmore said. “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.”

Just like today’s surplus of earrings, belly rings and necklaces that accompany their fashionable owners into swimming pools, it seems the Roman ladies couldn’t resist a bit of glamour in the water.

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