Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bath I: Bath Abbey & the Roman Baths

The BCA took us on another excursion this weekend, this time to lovely Bath. The weather cooperated without a fuss, and our early-autumn afternoon felt more like a lazy, August day. We were given a quick walk-around of the abbey by our study abroad director, Sandy, and instructed to stick together until our mid-morning tea started. Naturally, we all spread out and started taking photos of this great Gothic structure. According to a barrage of web pages and the abbey's official website, the building started as a monastery in the 7th century, was nearly destroyed in the time of William the Conqueror, rebuilt in the 1100s, and again in the 1500s after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries (and melted down the bells and lead tiles on the roof for scrap-metal). If there are any anachronisms in there, please correct me. This is kind of a mish-mash of information and suppositions.

The front of the church features (as far as I can tell) the 12 kings of Israel, St. Peter, Jesus, and a multitude of angels. The bits on the side might be Jacob's Ladder, but I really wasn't 100% sure on that one. It's one of those lovely, symmetrical designs with flying buttresses, spires, and arching stain-glass windows surrounded by eroding carvings. All in all, a rather imposing structure. I opted not to tour the abbey, but we were in town when they rang the bells for something or another, and they sounded great. I was surprised to learn that the abbey has 10 bells - that seems like quite a lot, doesn't it? I mean, Notre Dame only has 5 or 6, right? Then again, the bells in Bath don't have cool names like "Emmanuel" and "Petite Marie," so I guess we'll call it a draw.

The Roman baths felt a bit anti-climactic. We were clearly in a Roman structure, but with all of the 19th century arches and artifacts removed it felt a bit redundant. The baths themselves were great - we broke the rules and stuck our toes in the water; they weren't kidding about the spring being hot! But most of the tubs were drained, the steam baths looked like holes in the floor, and all that remained of the mosaics were their supporting brick pillars. They elevated the floors about 2 feet with a series of stacked tiles so that the heat from the furnace could circulate under it and warm the rooms. Clever, those Romans.

I think my favourite must have been the plunging pool; whatever they did to light it really works in its favor. In ancient times, they filled it with cold ground water and the braver folks in the steam baths jumped in and out quickly if they felt like getting a great big bitch-slap from reality. The Romans tossed coins into the plunging pool, or so they say on the sign next to it. Personally, I think it may have been a ploy to get tourists to treat it like a wishing well. Hold on a minute, I bought a book about the artifacts found at the site - I'll check and clarify. Incorrect. The Romans dropped offerings into the sacred spring opposite the plunging pool, but I guess I forgive the World Heritage Organization this time. It wouldn't really be appropriate for tourists to toss coins into the Roman's sacred shrine. As it was, they would barely let us see it.

We had to stand on a metal rail and lean out two small, semi-circular windows to get a good look at it. During the Roman occupation, the room was almost entirely sealed off except for a few small windows and a single door. Three columns supporting a pair of marble beams created the illusion of a temple front when patrons looked in from the windows (probably the same ones we were looking through, in retrospect) and two statues of the bath's patron goddess, Sulis Minerva, stood on either side of the pool. Worshipers seeking healing, blessings, or trying to curse someone would look into the dark, steam filled room (its walls most likely covered in flora), get the impression that the Goddess was walking around on the water, and toss in jewelry, coins, and pieces of lead inscribed with their desired curses.

OK, there's no point in hiding it: my Archaeology of Roman Britain class basically wrote that last paragraph for me. But it's all true (I think)!

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