The mystery of a bath house buried beneath a former Roman fort has been solved in a jackpot-striking dig
Organisers behind the WallQuest project have spent years knowing that a Roman bath, containing a steamroom, cold and tepid rooms and a gym on the outside of the walls of Segedunum Roman Fort, was somewhere near the grounds of a demolished pub.
© Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
Extensive detective work by volunteers persuaded Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums to dig a hole at the old boozer.
“We dug some trial trenches at the end of May and we were pretty sure from what we found there that we were on the site,” says Nick Hodgson, the Project Manager.
“We enlarged the site and began to find traces of wall lines and so on, which confirmed that we were on the site of a major Roman building.
“We’ve seen enough of the remains now to be 100 percent certain that we have the site of the fort bath house.
“In particular, we’ve got a Roman cement-lined cold plunged bath, which absolutely puts the tin lid on it.
“We’ve only got a tiny fragment of it exposed at the moment - because of where it is we might never get the whole of it exposed - but it looks to be in good condition.”
Soldiers and civilians both used the baths, although it is unclear whether men and women bathed together.
“It was simply one of those longstanding mysteries. There is this reference in literature, an account of the discovery of a building that sounded very like the fort baths in 1814, when a coal wagon way was being constructed – the wooden supports were being put in to lead down to the river.
“There is a rather unhelpful description of it which doesn’t exactly describe it as baths but makes it sound like them to the trained eye. But of course it doesn’t say exactly where it was.
“The description made it sound as if it should be in the vicinity of the old Ship in the Hole, so when that was demolished and the site became available it obviously became a focus of interest.”
Hodgson says residents have played a vital role in the search.
“Local people have driven it,” he explains. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the volunteers – it shows what can be found out by mobilising the local community.
“We get people coming along who’ve just seen archaeology digs on the television and they want to give it a go.
“We’ve got people who worked in the shipyard and that sort of thing – they’re just fascinated that these Roman baths have come to light immediately next to where they used to work.”
One onlooker with memories was Iain Watson, the Director of the museums group.
“Twenty-eight years ago, when I worked in Wallsend, I occasionally had a sandwich at lunchtime in the Ship in the Hole,” he recalls.
“Little did I think I was sitting on top of a Roman bath house.
“When we ask ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’, one of the first things we come up with is the introduction of baths and central heating.
“The bath house really was a central part of Roman society, both civil and military. This is a fantastic find, particularly given the coincidence that it is 200 years since the remains of the baths were last seen.”
A full excavation is not imminent, but those volunteers will be busy above the bath this summer.
“The odds of actually hitting it first time are pretty remote. It’s very gratifying that we hit it at the first attempt,” says Hodgson.
“I think we’re very lucky, really, when you think we could have easily put our trial trenches in and just missed it.
“This is the first dig we’ve done at Wallsend and it’s hit the jackpot straight away.”
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