Rare Roman gems found during archaeological dig in Carlisle

Video report by Tim Backshall

More than 30 semi-precious stones, lost in a Roman bath house 1,800 years ago, have been found as part of an archaeological dig in Carlisle

Experts think the gems would have fallen out of bathers' jewellery and ended up in the drains, lying there for centuries until they were discovered as part of the dig at Carlisle Cricket Club. 

The intricate designs once formed part of signet rings worn by Romans in Carlisle. 

The intricate designs once formed part of signet rings worn by Romans in Carlisle.  Credit: Anna Giecco

"They're made from jasper, carnelian, semi-precious stones, we have one that's amethyst," says Frank Giecco, the Director of Excavation for the dig.

"They're relatively soft so you can carve them and each one of these tiny little intaglio have something depicted on them, it could be a goddess or a symbol of good luck." 

Around 200 buckets of earth and rubble were taken from the dig site. It took volunteers more than three weeks to sift through all of that and while they were doing so they found 34 gemstones, which give new clues as to what life was like in Roman Carlisle. 

"A lot of these rings aren't military and the size of them we think most of these were worn by women so that's changed the way we think about this building," says Mr. Giecco. "It's not a military thing, it would have been used by lots of quite wealthy Roman ladies of Carlisle." 

Experts think the small gems would have fallen out of rings due to the temperatures inside the bathhouse. 

"They've gone into the saunas, the plunge pools, the hot bath, the cold bath and because of the changes in heat and humidity the vegetable glues they would have had to hold the settings in the ring fail and the settings just drop out and they get washed out eventually through the latrines into the drains." 

Councillors in Carlisle are among those excited by the discovery. 

"They're a real once in a lifetime find," says Carlisle City Councillor Stephen Higgs. "They're carrying on what has been a stupendous discovery for Carlisle and its history running over several sessions of digging now but the latest just a couple of months ago with the finds still being worked  through to make sure that we've found everything." 

This is one of the largest collections of Roman gems ever found in Britain and it's hoped they'll be able to go on display to the public.  

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...