York Roman Baths

York is probably the most history rich city in our region, if not the country. This month I am looking at a place dating back to its very early history – the Roman Bath Museum.
Wander into St Sampsons Square in the city and you will find inns galore. But one such pub has far more than beer in the cellar, the clue is in the name – Roman Bath Public House! In 1929 a fire broke out in the old Victorian building, completely destroying it. The decision was made to pull it down and rebuild what you see today. In order to start building, deeper foundations were needed and as they started to dig Roman stonework was uncovered. Archaeologists were called in who then excavated as much as they could within the remit of the old building.
What they found is fascinating – a Roman Bath house which would have been part of a much larger complex of probably 8 or 9 buildings. The stone used in the bath house has been dated to around the early 2nd century – so right at the start of York’s history. The remains that have been uncovered under the pub are of the caldarium, a hot room heated by a hypocaust system where hot air from a furnace was pumped into channels underneath the floor. This system has been traced under the building behind the pub too so we know that the baths would have been far larger than what can be seen today. The remains of the hypocaust are clearly visible – the stone blocks which would have supported the raised floor are still there.
This baths would have been used by the military only, probably the 6th and 9th legions who we know were in York, as it is within the walls of the old fortress. Pubic baths would have been located across the river.
As well as a place to bathe, the bath houses were rowdy, social places often involving drinking and gambling. Artefacts discovered during the excavation at York include playing pieces from a game similar to back gammon or chess. The process of cleaning in the bath house would begin with exercise to work up a sweat. The men would then enter the caldarium where they would scrape off the sweat and dirt from their skin using a stirgill. Following the caldarium were visits to the frigadarium and plunge pool, much cooler to close the pores.
The museum is well worth a visit, today you can go down into the basement and wander around the artefacts and see the remains of the hypocaust and caldarium. Around 20 years ago it was only possible to view the baths from a small viewing window in the pub upstairs so it is a real privilege to be able to wander around such an ancient place now. The museum guide is fantastic too, incredibly knowledgeable and friendly!

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