Clean in Ancient Rome, Dirty in Modern England?

An Ancient Bathhouse in East Sussex

Beauport Park is the site of an Ancient Roman Bathhouse located in East Sussex, England. Roman bathhouses were a common feature across the Empire and could be found in most cities; they were used for bathing but also for relaxing and socializing. Generally, the bathhouses were accessible to all and were not exclusive to a certain social class. The closest modern comparison we have for a Roman bathhouse in England today would be a spa. Just like our modern spas, the bathhouses consisted of changing rooms, exercise rooms, heated rooms (that were different temperatures), swimming pools and more.

The Roman Baths in Bath, England. (Image available under the Creative Commons Licence).

The Beaufort Park site was originally discovered in the 1920s and first excavated by Gerald Brodribb, an amateur archeologist, in the early 1970s. Brodribb had seen a map that indicated that there was a site of ‘Roman Bloomery’ near his home. Bloomeries were Roman ironworks; this site was particularly well preserved as a result of the amount of slag that had fallen in a landslide effectively burying the site and which helped to preserve it. The site has links to Classis Brittanica, the Roman navy’s British fleet; the stamp of CLBR (Classis Brittanica) can be seen on many of the objects which would have been found in and around the bathhouse.

Brodribb excavated the Beauport Park with the help of a team of volunteers and the site gained notoriety and is well known from the television program Time Team where the Bathhouse and part of the excavation can be seen in the seventh episode of the sixth series.

Fast forward to modern day, where is the collection?

After their initial excavation, the artefacts were originally cleaned and catalogued by a group of volunteers. However, as time passed the volunteers were unable to continue the maintenance of the large collection and eventually the boxes were placed in storage and later rediscovered.

While the collection now belongs to the Bexhill Museum, it is currently on loan to be cleaned and catalogued by Bader College, the UK campus for Queen’s University (Canada) based at Herstmonceux Castle. Archeology students from Canadian Universities, including Queen’s University and the University of Waterloo, have crossed the Atlantic to clean and catalogue the collection in the effort to start the long and delicate preservation process of these ancient materials. This year’s cohort consists of twenty-two students, who have all played a significant role in this process. Over 100 boxes of material were delivered to the BISC in early May. While this year’s Archeology Field School has started the preservation process, there is still much more to be done, much more to learn and so much potential for the incredible collection.

The Overall Process:

While there are twenty-two students in the Archeology summer program, only two were working full time on the Roman materials, Carolyn Kane and Payton Smehurst, both 1st year ArtSci students from Queen’s University. The other twenty students spent most of their days digging and excavating a site on the Herstmonceux Castle estate property relating to a Second World War camp. The entire Archeology student cohort were a crucial part of cleaning the boxes and their contents. Many students also volunteered outside of the Field School’s set hours to clean the boxes.

When looking into the boxes the first thing to examine was their integrity. Initially the only boxes available to work with were boxes that were already provided with the materials inside. This meant that we could not simply pick a box, take the pieces out, and throw the box away. In choosing which boxes to work on first, we had to find a box that could withstand cleaning and was strong enough to be able to hold the pieces for several more years.

Our Step-By-Step Process:

  1. Pick a box that can withstand cleaning
  2. Remove objects from box and place on a clean and dry workspace
  3. Clean the box, using soap and water, and ensure that it is dry
  4. Clean the materials with a dry toothbrush or paintbrush with soft bristles only to ensure the pieces were not damaged. All bags that were placed in the boxes were not opened, instead the bag itself was cleaned. If a piece was so dirty to the point where we could not see the piece, we would get approval to clean it in water and then leave it overnight to dry.
  5. Cataloguing the material and interesting finds at the same time as cleaning using a shared Excel spreadsheet. Many boxes contained labels/paper slips of information that were dusted off and recorded.
  6. Once the material was cleaned, all materials were placed back into the boxes in which they came from, with the largest pieces at the bottom of each box.
  7. Each box is then given a new label which is recorded in the spreadsheet and then stored in a new area.

The time spent cleaning and cataloguing individual boxes depended on what we found in each one (usually a mixture of old labels, roman artefacts including ceramics, wood, building pieces, rock, and plastic bags containing smaller materials). For example, a box with a few loose pieces of material and many plastic bags would usually take much less time to clean and catalogue than a box full of loose pieces of material. This also, of course, depended on how large and dirty the pieces were. Since the objects had been in their plastic bags for so long, we did not take them out as we did not want to change the environment the artefacts had been stored in or accidentally disrupt any previous systems of organization.

Final Thoughts

This collection is a great example of the importance of cataloging and recording in archeology, there is no way of knowing why and how a collection has been organized without a proper recording that can be understood in the future. Without cataloging or recording, hard work has been put to waste and information has been lost in time.

Working on the collection has been an incredible experience to take on as undergraduate students, the potential of the collection is incredible. The Bexhill Museum is sure to create an incredible display for the collection as they have with all their other collections. Only time will tell what is in the future of this ancient collection.

Carolyn Kane, 1st Year History Major at Queen’s University (Canada).

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