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South West Roman Baths, Bath, Somerset

The Roman Baths are probably the most impressive public building from Roman Britain. They played an important social function. As well as bathing they were a place to meet and socialise.


As well as the actual baths and hot spring, they also included a temple to Sulis Minerva and a tholos, a small round temple surrounded by an open colonnade of pillars, and the only one known in Britain.




Rain falling on the Mendip Hills percolates down through the limestone to a depth of 2700-4300m. Geothermal energy raises the temperature of the water to 69-96˚. Under pressure the hot water rises up through cracks in the limestone forming hot springs. These hot springs have long been known to have medicinal properties.

There is a legend that Bladud, a C9th BC prince had contracted leprosy. He had been banished from court and became a swineherd. He noticed that when his pigs wallowed in a steaming swamp they were cleared of all their warts and sore spots. Bladud also wallowed in the swamp and was cured of his leprosy.

In the 1st century BC, the Dobunni ruled the area and dedicated the healing springs to the goddess Sulis. The Romans arrived and identified Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva. A temple was built on the site between 60-70AD. Hot spring water was channelled into a lead-lined chamber, the Sacred Spring, which formed a reservoir for the baths as well as a settling tank to prevent sediment blocking up the pipes feeding the network of other baths.


An overflow drain was built to take away excess water.



Over the years, a full-scale bath complex grew around it, complete with plunge pools and exercise hall. Originally bathing was mixed, but later bathing was segregated with women and children using the east baths and men using the west baths.

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The Baths were covered by a series of domed vaults constructed of hollow bricks to reduce weight and also improve insulation.



The Roman Baths in Bath are unusual for their size and complexity, as they had a curative function as well as just hygiene. As well as the Sacred Spring, there is a large communal bath, the great bath, with alcoves for people to sit and relax, along with separate east and west baths, all fed from the water from the sacred spring.


With the introduction of Christianity into Britain in the C2nd AD, the temple fell into disrepair and was covered over. The baths continued to be used until the end of the Roman era in the C5th when they fell into disrepair and were eventually lost due to silting up and flooding. They were gradually covered by later buildings.

The hot springs were still known for their curative properties and people continued to visit Bath hoping they would cure them of their ailments. The King's Bath was built over the site of the Sacred Spring in the C12th century with the Queen's Bath added in the C16th, after visits by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I

In the C18th ‘taking the waters’ became fashionable and a Pump Room was built next to the baths. Three glasses of water were drunk for their medicinal benefits before bathing.

The Roman Baths were ‘rediscovered’ in the late C19th after a leak was discovered in the King’s Bath. Digging through its bottom revealed the Roman Sacred Spring below it, still with its water filled reservoir. Surrounding buildings were bought and demolished to reveal the extent of the Roman Baths beneath them.



They reopened to visitors in 1883


A competition was held to launch the rediscovered baths. This included a colonnaded walk above the great bath, complete with statues of Roman emperors and an impressive facade which now houses the ticket office and museum built over the remains of the Roman temple and tholos which contains artefacts found during excavations.

The baths continued to be used until closed in 1976 after concerns about the safety of the water. The green colour is due to the growth of algae in the warm waters.



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The Roman Baths are in the centre of Bath, near the Abbey and fronted by an impressive C19th building with an equally impressive domed entrance hall.


This leads out onto the terrace above the great bath. Originally covered, the great bath is now open to the sky and there are stunning views of the Abbey from here.



Before entering the museum, the tour looks down on the Sacred Spring which is overlooked by the buildings of the Pump Room. Water can still be seen bubbling up into the pool.


The museum is partially built over the courtyard with the remains of the temple of Sulis Minerva and the tholos.



Part of the temple pediment has been found and re-erected in the museum. The image at the top is thought to be the Gorgon’s head which was a symbol of the goddess.


Next to it is a model of what it might have looked like.


A gilded bronze head of Minerva has been found from the statue that would have stood inside the temple.


There is part of a sacrificial altar with its carved cornerstone, which would have stood outside the temple. One of the carved ends is lying on the ground by it.



After an animal sacrifice, the temple haruspex would remove the organs onto a special stone and study them to predict the future. He was often consulted before an important event or proposed action.


There is also a carving of Luna. This, along with the sun god Sol, would have decorated one of the buildings of the temple precinct. Behind her head is the moon and she holds a whip for driving her chariot across the night sky.


Beyond the temple site is the source of the Sacred Spring. The surrounding stone is stained red from iron compounds in the water.


After the museum, the tour enters the great bath, at the centre of the complex. The large rectangular bath is surrounded by a broad paved walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax. The bath was lined with lead and is just over three feet deep. Steps led down into the water.



Hot spring water water flows constantly into the great bath at one corner.



It drains out at another.


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The great bath was the main bathing pool, but there was a series of other baths and rooms on either side of it. The eastern range was the larger and was used by the women and children. It contained changing rooms.



There was a series of increasingly hot rooms, headed by underground hypocausts



There was a large tepid swimming pool (natatio).


There was a semi-circular immersion warm pool, which was probably used for treatment.


Finally there was a large circular plunge pool.


The west baths would have been similar, although there is less left of them - a semi-circular pool and large circular plunge pool.



The original oval arched Roman viewing windows in the west baths overlook the Sacred Spring.

On the way out is a small spa water fountain to sample the waters, which contain over 43 different minerals. Surprisingly, they just tasted like water....
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The Museum

As well as models and information about the Roman Baths, the museum contains artefacts found from around the site giving an insight into life at the time.

People came from across the known world to bath in the curative hot baths, seek guidance and worship at the temple to Sulis Minerva. Many erected small altars here.


There are also many tombstones displayed in the museum. Many highly carved, like the one of a man with a dog chasing a hare.



This head of a wealthy lady would have been part of a tombstone.


Many people threw offerings in to the sacred spring for the goddess. Many coins and spoons have been found


Others left pewter items like plates or jugs.




This lovely piece of bronze work was probably part of a priest’s head dress.


The tin mask was found in the Sacred Spring and was probably used in temple ceremonies. It may have been mounted on a wooden frame rather than actually worn.


Many messages to the goddess written on lead or pewter have been found. Many are curses asking the goddess to punish a wrong doer

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Beads and jewellery have been found.



There are also many small carved gemstones which would have been part of a ring. They may have been thrown into the spring by a grateful jeweller of gem cutter. Alternatively, the warm water could have softened the adhesive causing them to fall out.


There are also examples of perfume bottles that may have contained sweet smelling oils rubbed into the skin after bathing.




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The Museum cont...

Other items have been found, not specifically connected to bathing, like these pottery cooking vessels


These clay moulds would have been used to make pewter objects.


There are keys


And small household gods.


There is also a small piece of mosaic flooring.


There are examples of cremation urns. Cremation was common until the 3rdC when burials became more common.


There is a skeleton, complete with lead lined coffin below.


The Beau Street hoard was found close to the site of the Roman Baths and was hidden in leather bags. The coins date from 32BC to 275AD and it is one of the largest Roman coin hoards to have been found in a Roman town.




There are information boards around the site and there is an audio guide included in the ticket price. Allow plenty of time for a visit as there is a lot to see and read.


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