The Three Hundred Year Dig - The Discovery of the Roman Baths.
Report of a talk given by Stephen Clews on 10th April 2012
The title of Stephen Clews talk refers to the slow process of discovery that has revealed the extraordinary archaeology of Bath. Stephen is Manager of the Roman Baths and Pump Room and has worked there for the last 23 years.
By the seventeenth century the Roman content of the Baths was all but forgotten. Of course the hot springs still flowed and the water was valued for its curative properties throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. But the Roman material had been built over or was not recognised for what it was.
The lack of knowledge of Bath early history is shown by the fact that John Aubrey only accorded it five lines in his massive two volume work Monumenta Britannica compiled at the end of the 17th Century.
In the 1670s a doctor Guidot made some drawings of the three springs as they were at the time. Interestingly he also made a point of illustrating some Roman tombstones that had been taken up and built into the City walls and some Roman coins that had been unearthed.
The eighteenth Century saw the main period of Bath development although the process was slow to get going.
In 1755 the East Baths were built and a public square was developed to the south of the abbey. Until then the baths had been public but this was a private development and the work was extensive enough to expose a large Roman bath which consisted of a mortar floor and pilae to allow the circulation of heated air. Fashions were changing and there began a move to drink the health-giving water, rather than bathing in it. This led to the building of the celebrated Pump Room, which was completed in 1795. Awareness of Roman Bath was now such that the original design was changed to accommodate the new finds.
In 1808 a reconstruction drawing of the Roman site was published by Samuel Lysons which, although it was somewhat fanciful, at least served to show that an understanding of earlier occupation was beginning to emerge. The drawing offers a detailed depiction of he eastern range of the baths which is derived from the hypothesis that the baths were built using mirror image symmetry.
A plan dated 1870 shows little new discovery but in 1871 the second major phase of excavation of the Baths occurred. Work was undertaken by the City Engineer Major Davies, who was also a leading member of the Bath Society of Antiquaries. This revealed further discoveries which are recorded in the 1886 plan. The extent of the baths was shown to be larger than thought, cellars were dug out and quantities of lead exposed. As a spa Bath was in decline and Davies argued that recovering the Roman remains would generate sufficient interest to halt this process. Subsequently however Davies was involved in developing new spa facilities. This required the Roman levels to be sealed and preserved, which caused conflict within the Society of Antiquaries.
When a new Concert Hall was added on the north side of the Great Bath as an addition to the Pump Room it allowed access to the outside through a loggia to a gallery with a view over the pool. At this time the famous Temple Pediment was displayed with the gaps filled in by line drawings which had been suggested 100 years earlier. The same technique, but with the addition of colour, has been employed in a recent restoration.
Within the last ten years excavations in both the Cross Bath and the Southgate Development have revealed remains of a much earlier period in the form of mesolithic flints.
Stephen’s account of the finds that have been made over the centuries really brought the story to life.
In 1727 a new sewer was being laid and box flue tiles were found at some depth. These were obviously the remains of the Baths although they were not necessarily recognized as such at the time. These finds were described by a Belgian artist Bernard Lens. He also described the find of a Bronze Head. Identified as the head of Minerva, this remains one of only three pieces of bronze gilt statuary found in Britain. It was probably part of a whole figure rather than a bust. The find attracted much interest and the head was put on display in the Guildhall. More recent examination has revealed much of interest. It was made in separate parts and fitted together. The brow shows rivet holes and it is thought that these probably supported a Corinthian helmet. A rectangular patch under the chin is probably evidence of an early repair to some blistering which occurred during casting. The original patch plate is now lost. In 1982 the British Museum drilled a section through the helmet and revealed that there were six separate layers of gilding. Interestingly two different techniques had been used which raised the question of a possible significant time interval between the two processes.
In 1731 A Roman oculists stamp was found to the north of the spring in Abbey Church Yard. It was a small object with lettering on four sides, each one describing different cures or ointments. Fortunately a cast was made of the object, the original having been lost. The fourth side referred to a substance called phoebum which was elsewhere described as being for such cases as have been given up by the physicians. The intriguing interpretation of this is the implication of a two-tier medical system operating in Bath in Roman times, similar in a way to our GPs and alternative health practitioners.
In 1753 a stone altar was found with an Inscription which translates as this sacred place wrecked by violent hordes and cleansed afresh, Gaius Severius Emeritus, centurion in charge of the Region has restored to the virtue and deity of the Emperor. This may well be evidence of Bath being caught up in the unrest at the end of the Fourth Century when Christians rebelled during the reign of Julian the Apostate.
Baths iconic Gorgons Head was found during the construction of the Pump Room and caused much interest at the time. It almost certainly formed the pediment of a temple, further elements of which have come to light over the years.
in 1828 an object was discovered that Stephen describes as the most boring in the Museum. This turned out to be half an inscription that translates as: the son of Novantius had a vision. Superficially uninteresting perhaps, but it hints at further evidence of a very early origin for Bath as a centre of healing. The cult of Aesculapius involved patients in a cure that involved spending the night in a dedicated temple known as an Aesculapium. Any dreams experienced in the course of the night would then be interpreted by the practitioner and suitable treatment prescribed as a result. The inscription is suggestive that such a cult existed at Bath in Roman times.
Stephen also referred to the famous collection of curses scratched on to lead tablets which have been recovered from the baths. One particularly tantalising one is unreadable, although it is formed of recognisable letters. It is thought that it may be a representation of a Celtic language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of Britain in Roman times. If so, it would be the only known example of a contemporary written version of the language.
Classical references to Bath are few and far between, yet such is the quality of the remains found in Bath and so exciting the interpretation they allow us that Barry Cunliffe was moved to remark that: To visit the Roman Bath is to come close to the reality of the Roman World.
Stephen Clews recommendation for further reading on the Roman Baths is indeed a work by Barry Cunliffe: “The City of Bath” 1986, Alan Sutton Press.