Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


25.11.07
  What You Can Find in Cellars

Well, it depends where you live, but in places built on history, skeletons may be hidden down there (literally, in Göttingen) or remains of older buildings. Like parts of the Roman castellum bath in York, then known as Eboracum. The story goes that the owner of a tavern of long tradition and different names situated in St. Sampson's Square needed more storage space and wanted to expand his cellar. The poor guy soon found himself without any cellar at all, because what came to light when they played Little Hobbit Builds a Hole in 1930 were the remains of a Roman bath.

The owners of the tavern made the best of it and used their unique underground as advertising, and adapted the decoration of the interior with fake Roman murals and other more or less historical elements. In 1970, the name was changed to 'Roman Bath Tavern', and in 2000 the glass floor providing a view into the past was replaced by a little museum. Thus visiting the past today only takes ascending a rather steep staircase and passing the legionary at the entrance who charges a fee comparably low for British museums but a lot more than a visit to the baths would have cost a Roman. Public baths worked on subvention basis, and the soldiers in Eboracum wouldn't have paid anything.

Roman Bath York, reconstructed entrance to the caldarium

Contrary to Chesters where the bath is outside the fort down at the Tyne, or Vindolanda, Saalburg and Osterburken, where it is situated in the adjacent vicus, the military bath in Eboracum lies inside the south-eastern defenses of the Roman fortress. It was possibly erected sometime during the early second century AD. Chance is that the members of the 9th legion used it before they disappeared into the mists of legend and a few contradictory facts, and maybe the centurion who can be seen in the cellars of York, walking straight through the walls, is from that unfortunate legion. Anyone needs a paranormal plotbunny? :)

Roman Bath York, caldarium with one of the furnace openings.
The tiles indicate the position of pilae.

What remains today is the caldarium, the hot steam bath, with the adjacent plunge bath. The floor of this room was raised above the level of the foundations by about four feet, supported by pilae, or columns, made of clay bricks (a little Latin lesson: a pilum is a javelin, and the plural is pila; a pila is a column or pillar, and the plural is pilae - that's one of the things that makes Latin grammar so easy *grin*). That way, a space was created in which the hot air - hotter than for a hypocaust heating - from the furnaces could circulate under the floor. Since the flagstones got very hot, the visitors of the caldarium had to wear some sort of clogs. The hot air was then conducted through flues in the walls and expelled through vents in the roof. Leaning comfortably against the walls therefore wasn't a good idea, either.

Remains of the wall between caldarium and balneum to the left.
You can see the blackened layer on the stone where the hot air passed.

The apsidal chamber which contains the balneum (the XXL bathtub) was separated from the caldarium anteroom by a wall; the hot air was conducted through two parallel channels, and warmed a floor raised less high. Because of this filter, the floor of the balneum was less hot, so you could sit in the tub. The surface of the floor and lower walls was sealed with opus signinum, some sort of waterproof concrete made of ceramic fragments and lime. It doesn't get clear from the description, but I suppose the wall between balneum and caldarium was only as high as to form the semi-sunken tub, together with the outside walls of the apsis. There are still traces of the white layer of the opus signinum on the walls.

Apsis with remains of the balneum.
The white layer is difficult to see, but you can spot it on the three upper rows of bricks.

The charming little museum not only covers the remains of the bath, but also houses an exhibit of finds from the excavation, modern replica of a Roman soldier's equipment, and a number of tablets describing Roman life.
 
Comments:
Very interesting. Great pictures and explanations. I've been to York, but didn't spend much time there. I'll have to put this on my ever growing list of things to see when I go back. :)
 
Gabriele

But where does he keep the wine?

Great pictures.
 
Ann, you definitely should go back and have another look. :)

Hank, I have no idea. I suppose he rented space in a neighbouring cellar.
 
Great blog.

I'm from Yorkshire originally but haven't been in York for years - will aim to call in next time we're up. Saw Chedworth Roman Villa last year, and know Lullingstone - early place of Christian worship there.

Get up to Housesteads en route to Scotland, but not seen Vindolanda;
and have seen Bignor and other mosaics South of London.

Browsing interest rather than indepth knowledge!

All the best,and thanks for your contributions on Bernita's blog - mind expanding.

Julie
 
Hi Julie, thank you for your kind words.

South England - and Wales - are high on my list of places to visit.
 
Cool! More proof my ancestors weren't the grubby malcontents the other side of the family said they were.

Have you looked in the cellar of YOUR house, Gabriele? Just in case??

I love the books with the overlays that show how things looked when the baths were working. Engineering at its best. Now if I could just build one in my back yard...
 
I thought York had an entire ghostly Roman legion marching in its cellars? In the version I heard, the soldiers are only visible above the knee because they're marching on the level of the original road surface, which is a couple of feet down. I expect they're supposed to be the Ninth as well :-)
Great photos and explanation!
 
Lol Constance, the other side of the family isn't perchance a certain anonymous? :) My cellar is from 1960, and the only thing I find there is cobwebs. Lots of.

Thank you, Carla. Maybe the lonesome centurion is a deserter. :)
 
Interesting post, Gabriele. Not what you'd expect in your cellar. I always find the baths - the heating and plumbing - so fascinating. Very clever people.
 
I am so envious.
If I dug up my cellar all I would find is sub soil.
 
Shelley, the technology level of the Romans was amazing. If they had stayed longer, I bet steampower would have been discovered earlier. They already experimented with air pressure systems for catapults.

Bernita, well, not every cellar here is that interesting. ;)
 
Nice pictures :)

I think I'll go and check out my cellar. I might have a dead viking...
 
Or Hamsun, with penguin feet marks all over his body. :)
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction and Fantasy living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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