Intaglio gemstones lost down drain found in Roman bathhouse

Thirty-six Roman carved gemstones lost in a bathhouse 2,000 years ago have been found in Carlisle, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Discovered in the drain of the high-status bathhouse used by the elite cavalry unit garrisoning the Roman fort of Uxelodunum on Hadrian’s Wall, they were lost in the 3rd century. The intaglio stones were embedded in signet rings, but the vegetable-based glues used in the settings were weakened by the heat and steam of the bathhouse. The gemstones fell out and were washed down the drain, probably before the owners even realized they were gone.

Carved from semi-precious stones like amethyst, jasper and carnelian, the intaglio stones range in size from 5mm to 16mm and were artfully engraved with tiny images of Roman deities including Venus, Ceres, Fortuna and Apollo. Surprisingly for a garrison town, there are very few deities with a military connection among the stones. They were found alongside more than 40 women’s hairpins and 105 glass beads, 35 of them believed to have come from a single necklace. Pottery, weapons and coins were also discovered in the bath drains.

Archaeologists first unearthed the remains of a Roman bathhouse in 2017 during an excavation at the proposed site of the Carlisle Cricket Club’s new floodproof pavilion. The bathhouse was built around 210 A.D. on a massive scale. The brick walls were three-and-a-half feet thick. Entire rooms complete with flooring, water pipes, the pilae stacks (tile risers) of the hypocaust system and many artifacts were discovered, along with a highly significant inscription dedicated to Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla. It is the largest Roman building ever discovered on Hadrian’s wall.

Tiles branded with the IMP stamp indicate the bath complex was built by the Imperial workshop when Septimus Severus was in the area for a 208 A.D. military campaign in Caledonia. He died in York just 40 miles away from Carlisle in 211. The bathhouse was built for the use of the elite of the Ala Petriana cavalry regiment. One thousand strong, it was the largest regiment on Hadrian’s Wall manning the largest fort, and therefore had the largest bath.┬áThe discovery of the gemstones with such a high proportion of non-military deities suggest elite women also utilized the bathhouse.