For anyone who’s lost a ring down the drain, there’s hope in history. Archaeologists in Carlisle, England, recently discovered a remarkable trove of ancient gems that likely belonged to wealthy patrons of a lavish bathhouse on the remote fringes of the Roman Empire. The researchers uncovered a stone-lined drainage system containing dozens of engraved agates, jaspers, and other gemstones that once graced fancy rings in the third and early fourth centuries A.D.—until the heat and humidity of the baths loosened their glued settings and sent them tumbling into the drains.
The 36 intaglios present a unique snapshot into the beliefs of the period’s Roman elite, says Frank Giecco, lead archaeologist on the project. Some found at this military frontier site depict Mars, god of war, while others bear likenesses of the goddess Diana, who protected women during childbirth, or Fortuna—luck.
Fortuna may have made a more monumental appearance at the baths with the discovery of two colossal sculpted heads at the site, one of which may also represent the goddess of luck.
Archaeologists are currently excavating the southern portion of the bathhouse, where additional sections of the drain may yield even more finds. Giecco says he’s especially fond of the mouse intaglio, but “it’s hard to pick a favorite,” he concedes. “I’ll probably find another one in a month’s time.”
A version of this story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.