Bathing at Binchester: creature comforts in the military north
The two bath suites at Binchester Roman fort were discovered almost 200 years apart. But while the first was found when a horse and cart pitched into a cavity, the second emerged during a major campaign of excavations. David Mason is our guide to the results, and the bathing facilities on offer at a northern garrison post.
Binchester – Roman Vinovia or Vinovium – was a vital link in the chain of forts strung out along the highway now known as Dere Street. Over the last seven years, excavations both within and outside this fort have brought life at this military base into ever sharper focus. We opened two large trenches, one over the south-east corner of the fort, and the other targeting the bustling extramural settlement or vicus that grew up along Dere Street, beyond the fort defences. Comparing and contrasting the archaeology on either side of the rampart is enabling us to build up a balanced picture of activity at a Roman fort (see CA 263 and 291).
A remarkable discovery in recent years is that the commercial premises within our vicus trench grew up around a bathhouse that can stake a claim to being one of the best-preserved buildings surviving from Roman Britain. The upstanding walls, still standing to the haunches of vaults in places, have revealed just how complex the structural history of such robustly engineered structures could be.
Plans are in place to erect a temporary protective structure, funded by Durham County Council, over the bathhouse so that visitors can continue to enjoy it for the next year or so. This move is just the latest chapter in a long history of placing remains on public display at Binchester. Local tradition has it that this can be traced back to 1815, when the ground suddenly gave way beneath a horse and cart crossing a field overlying the fort. This mini sinkhole was created by the collapse of a hypocaust in what proved to be a small bath-building lying alongside the commanding officer’s residence.
Rather than backfilling the void, the landowner arranged for a brick barrel-vault to be constructed in order to protect the remains. The mode of access to these would not be out of place in an Enid Blyton novel, with a trapdoor in the field opening to reveal a flight of steps leading down to the hypocaust basement. Unsurprisingly, the structure that had collapsed beneath the weight of the horse and cart was no longer especially arresting. The base of the party wall with a neighbouring room, however, was pierced by three impressive arched openings, which offered a view into the adjacent hypocaust. This was, and still is, completely intact up to and including the floor (suspensura).
The first systematic excavations took place in the late 1870s, directed by the Reverend Robert Hooppell. He targeted the area around the 1815 discovery and uncovered more rooms belonging to the baths. Unusually for the period, though, Hooppell also investigated the area outside the fort, beside Dere Street. He uncovered a line of ‘strip-buildings’ of the type commonly found in military vici. More recent work has sketched in further details, with digging in the 1980s revealing that occupation on the site of the commanding officer’s house commenced c.AD 80, and that for a time in the early 2nd century this area was seemingly used as a works depot.
Beyond the defences
Our trench in the vicus outside the fort exposed a 40m stretch of the latest surface of Dere Street, along with the outlines of three small, closely spaced strip-buildings. One of these had walls of neatly dressed masonry, but the rough-hewn blocks and boulders comprising the other two must have been sill-walls to support timber superstructure. Evidence of iron-working and the manufacture of jet or shale jewellery presumably indicates the sorts of wares the occupants of these buildings were selling. This activity continued well into the 4th century, and two of the buildings may not even have been erected until after AD 300. Such a late origin is in sharp contrast to a building partly exposed in the southern portion of this trench, which preserved remarkable traces of a very long and complicated structural history.
The building in question was probably the regimental bathhouse, where the cavalry soldiers could freshen up, although it may alternatively have been associated with a lodging house (mansio) for those travelling on official business. The bathhouse’s remarkable state of preservation – with walls still standing 2.1m or more above Roman floor level – was introduced in CA 291 and 307. As exploration has progressed, so too the remains have become steadily more impressive.
Two chambers belonging to the original bathhouse design were revealed during the recent excavations. At the northern end of the bathhouse was a large room measuring 10m by 6m, which was undoubtedly the changing room (apodyterium). This space would have been flooded with light via two large windows in the west wall, 1.3m above the floor. As the splayed embrasures for these faced Dere Street, it is possible that some travellers on horseback or in carts caught a glimpse of more than they bargained for as they approached the fort!
Once disrobed, bathers would have passed through a door in the southern wall of the apodyterium and entered a narrow corridor that was subdivided into two chambers. This passageway was initially heated by a hypocaust, but this was later filled in. Another doorway led from the corridor into another chamber to the south. Only a sample of the upper fills in this room was excavated, but this work revealed part of a window embrasure and in situ painted wall-plaster. The gaudy red, yellow, and white decoration survived not only on the lower edge of the window sill, but also on the small patch of adjacent wall-face that was exposed. It is possible that the decorative scheme survives intact throughout this chamber – and indeed in the rooms beyond – to a height of about 1.5m above floor level. Such preservation would be exceptional anywhere, but for Roman Britain it would be nothing short of astonishing.
Read more in CA 315, on sale now.