Our work at Jacks and the Mercury Theatre, although very different sites, both brought us face to face with an interesting and enigmatic subject – the fate of Colchester after the end of Roman rule. The Mercury Theatre site showed us the remains of what had been abandoned and derelict Roman houses. Jacks, on the other hand, provided us with another example of a major brick-and-stone Roman public building that stood for centuries in defiance of the weather only to succumb to the Norman builders keen for more building materials.
We have on offer in our Dig it! exhibition a video featuring a reading of The Ruin, a famous Anglo-Saxon poem written in the language of the time (Old English) four or five hundred years or so after the end of Roman rule. We are playing the video because it is very relevant here. Not only does The Ruin give us a contemporary description of a decaying Roman city but it even describes the state of what clearly had been a major Roman bath house. The city concerned was almost certainly Bath (Aquae Sulis as it was called) but much of the imagery conjured up in the poem could have equally applied to Colchester since it is of a large, once-grand place now in ruins and decay .
Listening to the poem
If you listen closely to the poem and read the subtitles at the same time, you will be able to recognise and pick out a few familiar words in it because of course what you hear and read is an early form of the English we speak today.
Here are three parts of the poem that you may like to look out for.
The first part is: this red-curved roof parts from its tiles of the ceiling-vault. This must refer one of the vaulted ceilings found in bath houses. Being made of brick and probably stone, these roofs would have been fire resistant (a wise precaution in these bath houses!). They would have been covered with roof tiles, all red in colour as was normal.
The second part is: ….a stream threw up heat in wide surge….. (This part of the poem has small bits missing.)
The water in the bath house at Colchester would almost certainly have been brought to town from some distance via an aqueduct. It would of course have been cold. Roman Bath on the other hand was very unusual and special. The baths there were fed not just from a spring, but one which was hot and where the water emerged under pressure. Hence in the poem are these words: ….a stream threw up heat in wide surge….. The ‘stream’ refers to the spring and the ‘surge’ refers to the way the water moves when it reaches the surface under the pressure from below.
The third part tells us what happened to the hot spring water after it arrived. Then they let pour…. hot streams over grey stone….. This sounds as if the water from the hot spring finds its own level in the pool or reservoir into which it rises and is then guided by pipes or channels of some kind so as to be discharged over stone floors and into various pools and plunge baths. In normal public bath houses such as Colchester, the water would have been heated in cauldrons over furnaces and then conveyed in lead pipes around the bath house to where it was needed.