Interior decoration at Lincoln’s Roman baths

Bath houses are ubiquitously Roman structures – part of the suite of public buildings that defined a Roman town and indicative of an attitude to cleanliness and socialising that became one of Rome’s primary cultural exports. Only one public bath house is currently known in Lincoln, though it is possible that others await discovery. Excavated in the late 1950s, the complex is only partially understood and has never been published, but I want to focus here on the evidence we have of the interior decoration of the floors and walls of its various rooms.

The bath complex is located in the north eastern corner of the upper enclosure, just inside the defences and close to where the aqueduct pipe feeding the town entered and filled a large storage tank known as a castellum aquae, the outline of which is marked out on the floor in a garden off East Bight next to a surviving section of the wall.

baths location map

The location of the bath complex

Excavations at the site took place between 1956 and 1958 and the project is referred to as ‘Cottesford Place’, that being the name of the house whose demolition led to the opportunity being taken to investigate the site archaeologically. The project was led by Dennis Petch, then curator of the City and County Museum. The plan below shows the position of the excavated remains and the hypothesised position of other walls. The extent of the complex is not known and could extend further to the north, east and west. The southern limit is defined by a road, on which the main entrance is likely to have been and which was perhaps accompanied by shops. The portico marked on the plan is evidenced by a column base, which can be seen in the photograph below.

baths plan with room numbers

Plan of the excavations, from Stocker (Ed.) 2003 (copyright Historic England), with the excavator’s room numbers (in red) added by the author

column

Portico column

Although bathing complexes across the Roman world share certain consistencies and readers will no doubt be aware of the types of rooms and spaces often encountered – changing rooms (apodyteria), hot rooms (caldaria), warm rooms (tepidaria), cold plunge pools (frigidaria), and exercise yards (palaestra) – reconstructing the flow of rooms is not always easy. That is certainly the case with the Lincoln baths, where both the extent and layout of the complex are not known. The complex does seem to have been extended during its life, as the walls at the east of the site (rooms I and III) were constructed by digging through layers of previously deposited ash and charcoal. This suggests that the eastern side was where the fires heating the baths were located, and that the baths were extended in this direction at some point. The bath complex appears to have been established quite early in date, and was likely part of the initial suite of buildings provided at the foundation of the Colonia in the late AD80s or early AD90s. The baths serving the precursor Legionary fortress have not been located and the possibility remains that the origin of these baths lies even earlier.

It is to the evidence for the decoration of the baths that I would like to now turn, to the decorative schemes that adorned the walls and floors and, presumably, made the baths a desirable place to relax, play games and perhaps conduct business deals and entertain visiting guests or dignitaries.

Marble veneers

The most prestigious wall decoration discovered at the baths is in the form of marble veneers.  Thirty fragments of thin marble sheet were found and analysis (Peacock and Williams 1992) has shown that they originated from a variety of locations – stunning evidence of the trade connections provided by the Roman Empire. The sources of the marble included Turkey (Phrygia), Greece (Euboea, the Peloponnese and Thessaly), and northern Italy.

The marble veneers were mostly discovered in residual layers, making it difficult to associate them with specific rooms, but a number of fragments were discovered during the excavation of the suites of rooms believed to be close to the entrance to the complex, around rooms X, XI, XIV and XVI. This suggests that the expensive and dramatic marble veneers may have been used to emphasise the grandeur of the complex to those first entering from the street, and perhaps using various function rooms located there. Some fragments were found on the other side of the road, by the structures tentatively identified as shops. These units were likely to have been seen as part of the wider bathing complex and may have also been well appointed – luxury boutiques perhaps, selling all the oils and perfumes required for a relaxing visit to the baths.

It seems unlikely that entire walls were covered in marble, but we can perhaps imagine smaller panels of marble used for effect within painted plaster schemes or surrounding pillars or mouldings.

8_3_3

Selection of marble veneers from the Lincoln bath complex. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

The image below shows in situ marble inlays from the frigidarium of the baths at Sagalassos in Turkey, sourced from the same quarries in Euboea as some of the marble found at Lincoln and perhaps providing us with a suggestion of how the Lincoln marble may have appeared.

cipollino marble frigidarium sagalassos

Marble veneer at Sagalassos, Turkey. Image copyright Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

Tessellated pavements

Tessellated pavements are, of course, indelibly associated in our minds with high status Roman structures, and particularly with hypocaust underfloor heating systems. An essential element of the infrastructure of bath complexes, six hypocausts were discovered at the site (marked on the plan above). Loose tesserae were found across the site, but these are sadly impossible to reconstruct into their original designs.

tesserae F2 4_3 context 64

Tesserae from the bath complex. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

The majority of tesserae were either dark grey or white in colour, but this shouldn’t necessarily surprise us as black and white geometric designs seem to have been popular in baths. This is demonstrated by the fragment of mosaic excavated in situ in room VII showing black diamonds against a white ground. Designs similar to this may have been standard across the range of rooms in the complex.

mosaic in situ

Room VII tessellated pavement in situ

One interesting find from the site is worthy of mention here.  It is a piece of shaped stone with a flattened surface, coloured red most likely through the application of heat and measuring 7cm across. It was described in the original finds report as a possible grinding stone, but I wonder if it might also be a tessera. Hexagonal tesserae have been excavated at Lincoln Castle and are also known from a house in Insula XIII at Silchester. Although the shape of this piece is not as well defined as the castle examples (see the photos below) it remains a possible interpretation, and perhaps evidence of a more unusual mosaic somewhere in the complex.

tessera 18_1 p45

Possible polygonal tessera. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

lincoln castle hexagonal tesserae

Hexagonal tesserae excavated at Lincoln Castle. Image copyright Lincolnshire County Council

Wall plaster

Painted plaster is likely to have been used to decorate many of the walls across the complex, and multiple fragments were found across the site, many sadly in later demolition layers. The colour schemes on offer seem to have been typical of those found across Roman Britain – blocks and bands of predominantly red, white, green and black which would have been arranged into geometric panels across the walls, perhaps with more decorative scenes such as landscapes or mythological imagery inserted, though none of the plaster excavated at the baths showed any such artistic features. The image below shows some typical examples of the painted plaster from the site, including some with a speckled effect, perhaps designed to imitate marble.

plaster group

Examples of wall plaster from the bath complex. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

A small number of pieces demonstrate the use of an attractive blended green paint effect, as seen in the image below. I particularly like this piece as the individual strokes of the paintbrush and small air bubbles can be seen on the surface – we’ve all been there when decorating! This particular fragment was discovered at the eastern end of room II, a room which did not feature a hypocaust.

plaster a9_12 context 383 4

Blended green wall plaster. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

One piece of plaster from the site hints at the use of decorative mouldings, a fragment with a 110 degree angle found in a layer over the hypocaust bases in room VII. Although simple in form, it may represent decorative features at floor or ceiling height around the room. The image below shows two tones of red paint being used (look at the left hand side of the fragment), indicating that it was touched up at some point, perhaps from being scuffed by bathers.

plaster b7 context 98

Angled wall plaster fragment. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

Some fragments of plaster provide an indication of the construction of the rooms by preserving the impression of the wood onto which the plaster was applied. The fragment in the image below was excavated in the trench that revealed rooms VIII, X and XI but sadly the excavation records do not allow the context to be accurately plotted. Petch believed that the initial construction of the bath complex was timber, before being replaced by stone structures in the late 1st Century. Are these wooden traces evidence of this early phase, or simply wooden panelling used in some rooms of the later phases?

plaster a8_10 to 12 context 250

Plaster with traces of wood. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

The bath complex requires a detailed examination and interpretation of the unpublished 1950s excavations (and indeed further modern excavation) to better understand its layout and dating. Hopefully, in time, we will know more about this important building, integral to the social and economic life of the Colonia.


References

Peacock, D P S and Williams, D F. 1992. Imported Roman Marble from Lincoln. Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report 36/92

Stocker, D. (Ed.) 2003. The City by the Pool. Lincoln Archaeological Studies No 10. Oxbow

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