Unexplored Roman building could be one of Britain’s earliest bath houses07 October 2019
A previously unknown building uncovered in Roman Silchester may be one of the earliest bath houses built in Roman Britain.
Archaeologists from the University of Reading investigating the public baths, long thought to belong to the reign of Emperor Nero, in the Roman town in north Hampshire this summer have discovered foundations underneath one of them that they believe pre-date it by up to a decade.
This means the earlier building could date back to the Claudian era of AD 41-54, making it one of the first buildings built after the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 and certainly the earliest known masonry building in Roman Silchester.
The team also discovered the Neronian baths were themselves almost completely demolished and their footprint built over with a larger bath house later in the first century AD. The reasons for this remain a mystery.
Professor Mike Fulford, Archaeology Director of the Silchester excavation, said: “The walls of the Neronian building would have been a metre wide and were made with expensive materials, so the decision to demolish it and start from scratch so soon after its construction is curious, and raises the question of whether the building was ever completed.
“Perhaps the population of the town had grown significantly, perhaps the townsfolk wanted to build bigger and better than any of their neighbours.
“We hope to shed light on this when we explore the remains of all three buildings in more detail next year. We particularly hope to pinpoint more accurately when the earliest building was built and what its purpose was.
“This first building is fascinating because it provides a window into an earlier period of Roman Britain than we realised. If it was a bath house then the fact it was one of the first buildings built in Silchester suggests bathing really was hugely important to the Romans.”
The team carried out a four-week excavation of the public baths in Silchester in June and July. They are seeking to better understand the building’s development over time and the materials used in its construction, as well as investigating everyday items dropped near it to reveal who might have used the baths, and how.
Three new areas of the second and third bath houses were excavated this summer: the corner of the palaestra (partly open-air exercise area), two tepidaria (heated rooms) on the west side and another tepidarium partially revealed on the east side.
Although the third building itself underwent many changes, the Silchester bath house remained in use until the end of the Roman period (AD 410) after which it was demolished and robbed of its building materials in the middle ages.
Pic caption: Two heated rooms (tepidaria) on the west side of the Silchester baths, newly excavated in 2019