Reach for your towel… it’s a bath house!

Archaeologist Alec Wade in Shaft C standing on the top of the foundation of the stone bath house.

Major Roman towns across the Roman Empire shared the same suite of public buildings and services. We already knew that Roman Colchester had a theatre (two in fact), many temples, a forum, a circus, a stone town wall with gates, a pressurised water supply, and a robust public drainage system. To this impressive list, we can now add – wait for it – a public bath house!

Most Roman cities had at least one set of public baths. These places were very popular being centres for bathing and exercising as well as for such things as meeting friends, playing games and reading. At the heart of the typical Roman public bath house was a series of three bathing rooms each maintained at a different temperature so that bathers could work their way through them from cold to hot and back again. Hot air from a furnace circulated under the floors of the heated rooms and rose up flues set in their walls to keep the floor and wall surfaces hot according to the temperature required.

Our bath house stood on the east side of town immediately south of the famous Temple of Claudius where we know several other public buildings existed. We’ve been working on the site of the recently-closed Jacks, a small much-liked hardware shop which is being renovated by the Colchester Borough Council. Clearly Jacks is in an area of high archaeological sensitivity so the groundworks for the renovations were designed by the Borough Council to be as minimal as possible. Our job was to record any archaeological remains which would be at risk by the buildings works. In the event, we were asked to excavate six shafts which, when we were finished, would be filled with concrete to form foundations to support the timber-frame of the historic building.

The shafts were deep, some reaching down to 3.5 m, so the sides had to be shored to prevent them collapsing inwards and each of our archaeologists had to work with a wire harness attached to his or her back.

Masses of smashed Roman-period building debris plus a substantial foundation testify to the presence of a major stone building here in the past. The predominance in the remains of broken flue tiles shows we were working on the site of a hot room (called caldarium) or the warm room (tepidarium) of a public bath house.

But we’ve only excavated a tiny part of the building. For example, there would have been a cold room (frigidarium), furnaces, a large exercise hall, an ‘undressing room’, a latrine, and a hot dry room (a sweat room), various plunge baths, and a large pool. The whole complex is likely to have included a second set of baths so that both genders could bathe at the same time but in different places.

Example of a large Roman bath house. This reconstruction is of the bath house at Weissenburg in west Germany.  The image is courtsey of www.cyark.org.  [Creative Commons image. Site attribution: www.cyark.org. Weissenburg Reconstruction.jpg]
The earliest archaeological levels reveal that the stone bath house was not the first building on the site but was predated by a building which was destroyed by fire during the Boudiccan Revolt in AD 61. There are indications that this too was a bath house but our excavations were too limited to tell either way. The Roman town was created out of an earlier legionary fortress and the position of the bath house in relation to the fortress invites the thought that perhaps the pre-Boudiccan building started off as a bath house for the Twentieth Legion (the unit that built and occupied the fortress).

However a lot more work in future will be needed to recover and understand the origin, development and layout of the buildings on the site but, thanks to Jacks, we at least are now sure that what stood immediately south of the famous Temple of Claudius was a major public bath house.

Want to find out more? Then please come to our new temporary exhibition Dig it! at the Roman Circus Centre. It opens this coming Tuesday. More news very soon….