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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Buried treasure - Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

Few visitors to London, walking along Lower Thames Street, would realise that some of the City’s best Roman remains lie beneath their feet. The Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, in the basement of a 1970’s office building, are not usually open to the public. But during the recent Festival of British Archaeology, experts were on hand to welcome the public to this rare, hidden treasure (left).

The house was possibly an inn or private residence and dates from the 2nd century AD. The baths were added later, perhaps because of customer demand. It’s a rare example of a building in use until the early 5th century AD. Being by the Thames, it was probably frequented by sailors, traders and visitors. Bathers would alternate between cold, warm and hot rooms before cooling down with cold water and massaging oils into their skin, then scraping off the excess. It seems to have been a budget, rather than a luxury, establishment – the floors were covered with basic tiles, not costly mosaics.

After the Roman legions withdrew in 410 AD, business declined. The buildings were eventually abandoned and gradually disappeared from view. They were rediscovered in 1848 by workmen building the new Coal Exchange, and the complex became one of the country’s first scheduled monuments. It wasn’t excavated properly until the late 1960s, when the road was widened and the current office block built on the site. This summer work has been going on to prevent further damage from water in the sub-soil and stabilize the remains. On the two days the site was open, a steady stream of visitors descended the narrow staircase to the basement, where a viewing platform provided a good view of what has been uncovered: the baths and the north and east wing sections of the house.

At first, under the glare of fluorescent lights, it was hard to distinguish the different features among the jumble of bricks and stones, but a model (above) showed the baths as they were.

And archaeologists who’d worked on the project, such as Jane Sidell (left) were there to explain the layout and what had been achieved.  It’s hoped more people will be able to visit the site in the future - when the present building is demolished, its replacement is likely to allow better access to this fascinating glimpse of the past. In the meantime, the complex may be opening during Open House Weekend on Sept 17 and 18.

There’s a blog about the excavation:

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