Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit excavations of the Roman bath complex under Carlisle cricket ground, before they were covered over at the end of the dig. One of the archaeologists gave a fascinating tour of the site. Here is what I learned…
About the bath complex
The complex was discovered in 2017 when a trial trench struck one of the hypocausts (Roman ‘underfloor heating’ tiles). Since then, various digs have taken place, uncovering finds of national and international importance. Evidence suggests that the original complex was laid out at the time Hadrian’s Wall was built, and was probably used by the military. Some 200 years later, during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, it appears the baths were expanded to be used by the people of Luguvalium (modern-day Carlisle), and perhaps even the Emperor himself.
Still visible from the Hadrianic period was a drain, leading to a larger drain from the Severan period in which many fascinating artefacts had been found, including gemstones from rings which must have fallen out during bathing and been washed down the drain! There were also many freshly-minted coins, and two enigmatic stone heads (see featured image), whose date and function have yet to be determined.
This week, I visited the exhibition, ‘Uncovering Roman Carlisle‘ at Tullie House Museum. Here, I was able to see the fascinating finds from the excavations for myself. Here is a short photographic tour:
The Intaglios were carved semi-precious gemstones contained within rings of the Romans who used the bathhouse. 74 intaglios have been found on-site to date. The minuscule carvings reveal exquisite detail when magnified. More photos of, and information about, the intaglios can be found at anna_giecco_photography on Instagram. The above photos are my own from the exhibition.
The Tiles found on-site were used to form the hypocaust system which heated the bathhouse. 34 tiles were stamped with the Imperial seal ‘IMP,’ which suggests construction work carried out at the bathhouse was at the direct command of the Emperor Septimius Severus.
The dedication slab fragment discovered during excavations helped to date the bathhouse to the Severan period (3rd Century A.D.). The dedication includes the name Julia, probably referring to either Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, or Julia Mamaea, his niece. Severus and his family travelled to Britain in 208 A.D. and visited Hadrian’s Wall, which was being strengthened at the time. Perhaps this is when the bathhouse was commissioned!
The Stone Carvings which have been discovered include a delightfully playful-looking dolphin, and two massive heads carved from local sandstone. No-one knows their exact purpose, but I like to imagine them adorning the monumental entrance to the bathhouse. Some experts think they may have been stylised theatre masks, so perhaps there was a theatre on-site too! The darker red sandstone head is male, the lighter one is female.
Other finds from the site include coins, jewels, construction materials and bone hairpins, which suggest both men and women used the baths. It is fascinating to imagine the lives of the people who visited the bathhouse almost 2000 years ago. The exhibition is at Tullie House until 23 December. After this, the finds (which belong to Carlisle Cricket Club) may be sold, so there is no guarantee they will go on display again in future. This seems a terrible shame to me, but it is wonderful to have the opportunity to see them now.
Most recent excavation
A further exploration trench dug on the site last month revealed the remnants of a Roman road. Archaeologists are hoping to secure funding for further excavations. The building complex is the largest, and least well understood, of all the constructions along Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps more finds of international significance await discovery beneath the silent earth…
Fragments of a paved road (bottom centre) uncovered in the most recent excavation.