Major Roman bathhouses revealed in Carlisle

Who used this huge bathhouse is not clear, but finds including 34 carved intaglios, more than 100 hairpins, and fine glass beads within the drains, as well as vaulting tubes, hint at a rich, non-military clientele.

Ongoing excavations in the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club are uncovering two Roman bathhouses, providing new evidence of life – and opulence – on the edges of the Roman Empire.

IMAGE: Wardell Armstrong

The site was first discovered in 2017 during a three-day commercial evaluation that found a stone dedicated to Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211), and a hypocaust. Given these hints of an important site, a community excavation was quickly crowdfunded, and the ensuing investigation revealed the remains of two Roman-era bathhouses: one from the time of Hadrian (r. 117-138) and the other from that of Severus.

With the help of a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, a series of excavations was then carried out between 2021 and 2022. While large areas of 12th-century quarrying, as well as slipshod remodelling during the 4th and 5th centuries, made for a bit of a puzzle (as well as a good lesson in stratigraphy for the hundreds of volunteers who have worked on the site), the footprints of the two bathhouses have been slowly revealed.

IMAGE: Wardell Armstrong

The smaller Hadrianic structure, which appears to conform quite closely to other examples from this period with a well-made hypocaust system, seems to have been subsequently subsumed by a massive successor, possibly measuring 60m by 60m, in the Severan period. Who used this huge bathhouse is not clear, but finds including 34 carved intaglios (above), more than 100 hairpins, multiple gaming counters, and fine glass beads within the drains, as well as vaulting tubes (of a building style originating from North Africa), hint at a rich, non-military clientele. Around 30 imperial-stamped (IMP) tiles, very few of which have previously been found in Britain, were also discovered, suggesting ties with the emperor and possibly the Severan court (below).

IMAGE: Wardell Armstrong

While this discovery was completely unexpected, it should not be surprising. Located between Stanwix fort to the north-east and Carlisle fort to the south-west, with Milecastle 66 to the north along Hadrian’s Wall, this site would have been well fortified at the time, a ‘safe space’, perhaps, on the Roman frontier.

Excavations on the site have recently recommenced thanks to funding through the UK government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, and the team hope to find more evidence of the 4th- and 5th-century modifications to the building, when it appears to have been remodelled for military use before being partially rebuilt in timber. You can follow the discoveries as they happen on ‘The Diggers: Archaeology in Carlisle’ Facebook page.