Saturday, 6 September 2014

Soaking in the Springs of Sulis

The Splendours of Roman Bath

The legendary prehistoric prince Bladud, banished as a leper to being a swineherd - noticed the wonderful effects the thermal waters of a steaming swamp had on the warts and sores of his pigs.  Plunging into the Sacred Spring ... he emerged without a blemish ... his skin as soft and silky as a baby's bottom ... and so began the story of a legendary city.

LONG before the Romans came to what is now Bath, in Somerset, their celebrated Aquae Sulis, the Celtic peoples saw the importance of the hot thermal springs that bubbled out of the Mendip limestone.  SULIS was indeed the goddess of this sacred spring - a deity so respected that the Romans identified their own MINERVA with her qualities and combined the two as a deity to which to dedicate their temple.  Interesting the way they were reluctant to simply destroy the established culture! The temple to Sulis Minerva was one of the great buildings of Roman Britain - worthy of Rome itself - and we are only just beginning to understand it ...

In fact, the temple of Sulis Minerva was only part of a massive complex surrounding the Roman baths.  It is hard to believe looking at the Great Bath nowadays - that until comparatively recently it lay buried under layers of thick mud and was all but forgotten ...

Above the pillar bases, the surrounding stonework looking over the great Bath is 19th century.  It was in the last years of that century that this magnificent pool - constantly fed by water at a temperature of 46 degrees C, was gradually uncovered.  The baths were believed to be at their finest around 75AD, some 30 years after the Roman occupation and following the defeat of Boudica. Perhaps the city was established as a place of reconciliation and healing after the traumas of the Boudican rebellion.

The Great Bath was fed by waters from the Sacred Spring.  Nowadays it is open to the air - but back in 75AD it was spanned by a spectacular arched canopy making it one of the tallest buildings in Roman Britain.  We can only imagine what the British people would have made of such grandeur!

Today it is an amazing experience to walk in the footsteps of bathers who would have used the Great Bath for gossip, trade, political discussion and decision making.  The hot water is 1.5 metres deep and the pool is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead - as watertight today as it was in 75AD.  

This model of the baths complex shows the temple of Sulis Minerva - the courtyard - and the baths behind on the left.  More and more of this area is being uncovered and understood by archaeologists.

Roman engineering was complex and built to last.  Here is the perfectly preserved overflow taking the hot iron-rich waters of the sacred spring into an elaborate system of drains.  The red staining, due to iron, is typical of the thermal waters in Somerset and this has added to their sacred reputation ... their sense of mystery ...

So how did the discoveries at Bath begin?  Well - before 1790 all was hidden ... but the ambitious Georgians wanted to channel the water for various uses themselves.  When building their own pump room foundations they accidentally hit on this magnificent head or shield carving depicting what is believed to be a gorgon - although unlike the Medusa it is quite clearly male.  There is a look of Neptune about the face - never mind Father Christmas - as I heard one visitor remark!  

By studying Roman architecture and uncovering other fragments, archaeologists have been able to piece together part of the great temple pediment that looked out over the courtyard of the complex. The gorgon-like shield has been seen on images and statues of Sulis Minerva but its significance and purpose is till not fully understood.  The gorgon was the centrepiece of the pediment: a magnificent sight it must have been ...

Other artefacts since discovered beneath the streets of Bath include this 'theatre mask' head.

And many tombstones have also revealed themselves.

As well as some wonderfully preserved mosaic floors ...

Here's another tombstone - this time depicting a lurcher chasing a hare.

This important image depicts Sulis Minerva - and if you look carefully, the head of the gorgon - identical to the giant shield - can be made out on her stomach - no doubt the established symbol of this unique city.

Another building in the temple precinct was decorated with the head of the goddess Luna. The moon can be seen behind her head and she holds awhip for driving her chariot across the night sky.  Was the gorgon the sun god, perhaps?

The finds in Bath vary from astonishing to bizarre.  This well endowed little dog was thrown into the Sacred Spring as a gift or symbol to the goddess.

Here, far below the streets of modern Bath - is the actual courtyard that the Romans will have gathered in - with the steps on the left up to the great temple of Sulis Minerva.  The great head of the gorgon will have looked down on the scene.  This is an awe-inspiring place.

A pillar base of the temple and the steps leading into it.  An incredible piece of archaeology.

Look at the last photograph again and then at this computer generated image.  This is how it would have looked towards the end of the first century AD.  

And here's how the baths themselves looked - with the impressive arched canopy over the Great Bath as a centrepiece.

The head of Sulis Minerva, found during excavations, is one of the great treasures of Roman Britain.  Made of bronze - it was probably the head of a statue from the main courtyard and there is evidence that it was deliberately damaged long before being hidden by layers of mud.  

On the poolside of the Great Bath.  Alcoves were built into the side for bathers to relax away from the splashes of others.  Algae caused by the heat of the water and exposure to the open air gives the water a greenish cast - though there's a beauty about it too.

A view across the Great Bath to one of the alcoves on the opposite side.

The tepidarium or warm room was where the Romans would sweat it out before taking to the great Bath - then finish with a dip into the cold plunge pool.  This is the hypocaust or underfloor heating system.

The only people who saw the underfloor system would be workers who had the job of clearing out the soot from the great furnaces.

Bath Abbey and the Victorian buildings and pillars tower over the Great Bath - but strangely enough do not look out of place.

Towards the end of the Roman occuapation - Aquae Sulis fell into decay.  Flooding made maintenance of the drains increasingly tricky.  The number of bathers declined and eventually the raids of Barbarians from Europe and continuous flooding reduced the city to a marshy swamp, into which the great buildings crumbled ... having been stripped of much of their stonework.  It's amazing that the Great Bath is once again uncovered for us to experience again .. and this is without doubt one of the greatest historical wonders of Europe.  If you've never been ... put it on your bucket list!

And finally - here is the centre of it all - the Sacred Spring of Sulis, from which water is pumped into the great Bath.  Even before the Great Bath was re-discovered - this was used from early medieval tmes as the 'King's Bath' when the water was up to the level indicated by a change in colour at the top of the steps.  Now it is back to its Roman level - and it was into this spring that the Romans would throw gifts and messages to the goddess: thousands of coins, vessels, statues and inscriptions have been found in the bubbling hot waters of the spring.  Perhaps most startling of all were the 'curses' where people wrote messages on tablets of lead or pewter such as 'Julius is getting on my nerves.  Can you make sure he has no sleep for the next few months?'

written and illustrated by Stephen Oldfield

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