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Roman Baths and the Water Technology
of Ancient Rome.
By Sam Cole
The baths of Rome were a spectacle to behold. Contemporaries marveled at their
dimensions and technology, and even today the structures impress us. The Romans
managed to invent floor and wall heating and figured out ways of efficiently moving
water from faraway wells and streams. The baths were much more than a place to get
clean, relax, and socialize. Many of the larger bath complexes had small amphitheaters,
eateries, even libraries. In the baths even Romans who did not have a lot could bask in
the power and luxury of the Empire. The Romans were ruthless and killed thousands in
the name of the empire but they also contributed to the world many technological
innovations. These ranged from massive buildings to aqueducts and sewer systems. The
technology employed in the baths would remain the most advanced in its field for
hundreds of years to come.
I was drawn to this subject matter for several reasons. As a student of Latin I
gained an interest in Roman society and technology. A trip to the baths of Bath, England,
last winter stirred my curiosity about baths in particular. Baths were so central to Roman
culture that wherever they went and conquered Romans built these complexes. Last
summer I spent three weeks in Italy pursuing this topic. In Sicily I visited several bath
sites, including one in the summer house of an emperor. I also visited several bath
complexes in Rome and nearby Ostia Antica. In southern Umbria, I worked for two
weeks on the excavation on a small bath complex in the Roman city of Carsulae. Finally,
I have supplemented these experiences by reading about the evolution of baths and their
technology and social role.
In this paper I draw on all these experiences to make sense of Roman baths. (I
have documented my travels and excavation experience in a separate book.) The rest of
this paper is divided into six sections. The first section describes bath technology and the
layout of baths. The second section examines the evolution of the bath form from the
early Greek examples to the large and complex Roman varieties. Because the baths were
an integral part of any Roman’s day, in the third section I look into their social impact.
The Romans constructed baths of many different shapes and sizes. I will take a closer
look at several famous baths in the fourth section. In the fifth section I describe my
experiences working on an archeological dig site of the bath at Carsulae. I conclude by
summing up what I have learned about the baths of Roma and about the process of
archaeological excavation.
Bath Technology and Layout1
For all of their barbaric tendencies and callous indifference for human life, Romans
created technology so advanced that it took the world nearly till the Enlightenment to
catch up. The Romans made many structures that have lasted to these very days. Not
only was their engineering incredibly sound and precise but it was also very innovative.
They made aqueducts that ran through many of their grandiose cities carrying water to
houses, fountains, and public facilities like the baths. The Romans got water from rivers
and wells which they then directed into the reservoirs or the aqueduct system. The baths
built by the Romans perfected and most likely invented the heating system called the
hypocaust. The word hypocaust means “burning underneath in Greek”. The Roman
baths were not merely a building with a single bathing area but a complex array of many
different rooms each with their own purpose, several baths of different temperatures and
sizes, and the most advanced heating system to come for many years.
The hypocaust system was truly an innovative approach to heating buildings
made primarily of stone, the most common building material. Roman baths differed in
size and shape but all shared a heating tecnology. In the hypocaust system, a raised floor
allowed hot air from the furnace to flow throughout the building, heating the floor from
underneath. The floor was supported by stacks of tile called pilae. The floor was not the
only source of heating. There was also a system of terracotta piping that ran throughout
the walls of the baths. The hot air would move from the open space below the flooring
and heat the walls. The walls were constructed of several layers. In the first layer (in the
middle of the wall) would be the tubuli (terracotta piping or duct work) followed by some
cocciopesto (cement made with chunks of brick mixed in), then covered with a decorative
slab of marble. The resulting wall was sturdy and efficiently transferred heat to the
rooms of the bath and made the bathhouse structurally sound. The furnace was fed by
means of the preafurnem, a stoke hole for the furnace that provided the bath with heat.
The baths of ancient Rome were more than just places of cleansing. There were a
variety of rooms for purposes that seem odd to us. For example, to the Romans having a
library in the bath complex was perfectly acceptable and indeed common in the larger
bath complexes. But all Roman bath complexes had three main rooms for bathing-- the
frigidarium, the tepidarium, and the caldarium.
The caldarium was the hottest room in the bath and often the floor was so hot that
the bathers had to don small wooden sandals to protect their feet. Sometimes there would
be a fountain (labrum) of cold water in the middle of the room where bathers could
splash water on their face and neck. This room was often stifling with the very hot water
and the steam, and not many could stay there for a long period of time. Bathers used the
caldarium sweat and thus open up their pores. To capture the most heat the caldarium is
always the closest room to the furnace. The tepidaruim is neither a hot water pool nor a
cold water pool; the temperature in this room is as its name implies, tepid. It was used to
get ready for the caldarium. The size of the tepidarium varies depending on the specific
bath. It is normally closer to the furnace than the frigidarium. The frigidarium normally
consists of a large cold pool and sometimes included plunge baths. The frigidarium did
not have tubuli in the walls, seeing as this room should remain cold. The frigidarium was
where Roman bathers spent the most time after the caldarium or the tepidarium. The
frigidarium was always the largest bath in the bath complex (disregarding the plunge
baths). The floor was often decorated with colorful mosaics. But there was more to do in
the baths than just these three main rooms.
One room commonly found in bath complexes was a sudatorium, a dry bath
where the patrons would go to sweat. It could be easily turned into a steam bath if water
was poured on the floor. This room was mostly used after the bather had used the
tepidarium. The sudatorium is also called the laconicum. There was a form of bathing
called laconian bathing in which the bather went directly from the sudatorium to a cold
plunge bath.
The alepidterion was a room that people were oiled up before exercising in the
palestra. This room was sometimes heated by the hypocaust system. People would cover
themselves in oil and dirt to wrestle, lift weights, run, and engage in all types of exercise.
Many citizens would bring their own oil flask and strigil. The strigl was a tool used to
scrape the oil off of one’s body before going into the baths. This process of strigling off
the dirt and oil happened in the destrictarium. The large quantity of olive oil used in the
baths was stored in a room called the Elaethesium. The Romans used olive oil much as
we use soap today.
The palestra (from the Greek word to wrestle) was where the patrons of the bath
would exercise before using the bathing facilities. The bathers would remove their
clothes in the apodyterium where slaves would guard their clothes. They would exercise
in the nude or wearing a small garment called a subligaculum. If the bath was big enough
it would have places for the people to exercise, from wrestling yards and running tracks
to outdoor pools called natios. In some bath complexes there was a room called the
sphaeristerium in which people would either toss weighted balls back and forth or do
other exercises involving balls. This room was normally situated in an open courtyard or
a hallway. The bath would provide separate weights for men and women, balls, and
places to wrestle with other bathers. The palestra was a courtyard surrounded by
porticos. Often the palestra would have access to some of the shops or restaurants set up
around the bath complex. These shops and restaurants were called tabernae or popinae.
Branching of from the palestra was a space called the exedra. This space had benches
and was often devoted to philosophical discussions.
The baths were not only a place of exercising and cleansing the body but also for
exercising the mind. In many of the larger baths there was even a full scale library
(called bibliothecae) where patrons could go to read or research after the baths. Some of
the bath complexes, such as the gigantic baths of Caraculla and Diocletion in Rome itself
had full-scale libraries. The larger baths also had a room called a basilica thermarum
which functioned as a large meeting hall. The basilica thermarum was an oblong hall
separated into strips by rows of columns. This room was normally unheated and
sometimes a substitute for a palestra in poorer baths. One room that was only found in a
few baths is the heliocaminus, used for sunbathing. The heliocaminus had large windows
along the walls facing the sun and sometimes was heated by the hypocaust. Baths also
had lecture halls called akroaterion where people could go to converse. Some of the
largest baths even had stadiums where there would be performances or sporting events.
The Romans had very advanced waste disposal systems. The latrines were often
connected to the palestra and situated close to the entrance. The latrines were usually
rectangular in shape and often had a small vestibule. Some of the latrines even had a
specific number of seats designated to each profession. Many latrines were close to the
frigidarium so that waste could be flushed by the overflow from the frigidarium as it
made its way to the sewers. This is clever example of water use. The baths completely
emptied once or twice a day. Roman society used up a massive amount of water
everyday. Where did they get their water?2
Rome got much of its water was from a web of aqueducts. The first aqueduct was
built in 312 B.C.; water was moved to a system of tanks called catch basins through a
system of under ground piping to a tank called a castellum. From the castellum the water
could be moved to the public holding tanks. The pipes in the Rome’s water system were
called fistulae. The pipes were made out of lead (oval shaped with one end flared so that
the pipes would fit snugly) or out of tile. The slope of the aqueducts was very gradual
allowing them to cover long distances before they were built to close to the ground.
Eleven aqueducts fed the city of Rome. Water was also furnished by the means of a
bucket chain wells, often powered by slaves on a treadmill. These bucket chains were in
essence a chain of buckets like a bike chain turning and refilling the buckets when they
reached the bottom. These many advancements in water movement and bath technology
are certain signs that Rome had started developing its technology for a long time
Development of Baths3
The first buildings created for communal bathing were built by the Greeks were in use
before Rome was a city. These early bath houses, called balnae, the Greeks also had
yards called gymnasia for wrestling or exercise. The first time the two functions were
mixed together was in the Greek colony of Campania, south of Rome. They colony of
Campania extended a great influence over Roman culture, as was often the case with the
Greeks. Roman religion, popular myths, and ideology all drew from the Greeks. Many
times the Romans required help from Campania when there was a food shortage or some
sort of crisis. The Romans started expanding and in 338 B.C. took the town of Latium.
The Romans soon surpassed the Greeks, in part due to their technological superiority.
The bath technology was like all Roman technology, a constantly evolving field
of discovery. The Romans took the simple idea of balnea and gymnasia from the Greeks
and turned them into the masterpieces of engineering that awe us to this day. The Stabian
baths, located in Pompeii, are thought to be the first and one of the best examples of
Roman bath technology. This site is unique in that historians can describe with detail the
development of the bath on the basis of a series of underlying floor plans.
The Stabian bath was built in the fifth century B.C. and was primitive in that it
only had a very simple floor plan. It had a small palestra and functioned as a balnea so it
could be considered a thermae. The bathhouse had several small chambers containing
small Greek style hip baths called pyeloi. The Greek style baths shows that the Romans
were still very much influenced by the colonies like Campania. The bath was supplied
with water by a small well close to the bath house.
In the 4th century B.C. the hip baths were replaced with full immersion baths, a
Roman innovation. The next major changes to the Stabian bath complex occurred in the
second half of the third century B.C. Historians are able to tell what time these additions
were made by observing the types of stonework used. Opus caementum and opus
incertam, two types of stonework, are first documented in this time period. The baths
were extended into the east. The rooms that were added possibly include a women’s
apoyditarium (dressing room) and a women’s tepidarium. This shows that women now
had their own facilities for bathing and that bathing was becoming entrenched in Roman
culture. The palestra also had porticos added to it. The nearby well had a water wheel
added to it to augment the water supply to the baths. The need for more water suggests
the addition of a women’s tepidarium to the bath complex.
In the second century B.C. tabernae (shops and restaurants) were built up around
the bath. The tabernae show that the bath was becoming more and more integral to the
Roman culture. A barrel vaulted chamber with a holding tank for water was added. A
treadmill attached to two noria chains (like bucket chains) was also built to bring in even
more water from the well. The bath was also fully remodeled for both sexes. Hot and
cold water were now available in larger quantities.
Around the year 85 B.C. many important additions were made to the Stabian bath
complex. The main change was the addition of the hypocaust system. This allowed the
bath to be heated rooms at a time which allowed the use of a caldarium. The bath now
had a caldarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium for each sex. The hypocaust system
utilized oblong roof tiles used as pilae (stacks of tile used as floor supports). The use of
roof tiles in place of the rectangular tiles that were later manufactured afterwards for the
sole purpose of being pilae gives the historians solid chronological evidence that the bath
had the hypocaust system put in not long after the innovation had truly hit the market. In
this period another change occurred; like all baths, this one received a communal pool as
the Romans could now heat whole rooms at a time.
A few years after the hypocaust system was installed the laconicum was added to
the bath complex. The laconicum is a stiflingly hot and dry room that could be turned
into a steam bath if some water was poured onto the floor. The reason that the Romans
could now make the laconicum was that the hypocaust system was so effective in
providing heat to the baths. The laconicum was round in shape with four semicircular
recesses and a dome. The laconicum was used after the tepidarium and thus there was
easy passage from tepidarium to laconicum. The porticos around the palestra were
repaired in this period. Another room that was added was the destrictarium (a room for
scraping oil off of the exercisers before they bathed), which implies that the increase in
bathers required a whole room just for the application and scraping off of oil.
The final stage of this bath’s enlargement took place around 35 B.C. The
hypocaust system was upgraded and the temperature in the caldarium was raised ever
more. In the frigidarium the temperature was lowered as cold water rinses had become
popular in this time. Outside three new swimming pools were added, one large one in the
middle flanked by two smaller ones. The two smaller pools were used for washing and
the one in the middle was used for swimming. A new apodyterium was added with
wooden shelves. Tubuli were added to the caldarium heating the room not only from the
floor but from the walls and ceilings too. The laconicum was torn down because the
hypocaust system with the new tubuli was so advanced that the caldarium was now hot
enough to produce steam. All of the central heating was redone, large boilers were added
into the preafurnia, and a maintenance corridor was constructed.
The Stabian baths had reached the most advanced stage of development of the
Roman baths. There was a palestra with porticos, an outside pool, a cold frigidarium, a
slightly heated tepidarium, a hot steamy caldarium with tubuli running through the walls,
and hypocaust system.
Social Aspects of the Baths
The people of the early Roman Republic viewed baths merely as way to satisfy the
simple needs of hygiene and so they seldom bathed. Later, as the Greek customs started
to influence them, they began to look at bathing as a daily ritual. Eventually the baths
became a hive of activity with all classes intermingling and interacting. The baths had
become a place for leisure as well as a place for cleaning the body. The baths served as a
hub of Roman culture, much as the arenas did. The Roman Empire built its society
around the baths. People got off work in the late afternoon and spent the rest of their
time socializing or relaxing in the baths until it was time for them to go home for dinner.
Although the bath had many different classes, all were treated equally there. The
management of the baths was a very different story. From the owners of baths to slaves
that stoked the fires of the hypocaust there was a strict chain of command. The baths
were expensive to construct, manage, and maintain.
The baths were a main facet in the Roman culture and so towns were obliged to
pay the considerable costs of constructing and maintaining baths. Private baths were
called meritoria. The private baths were paid for by an induvidual and only a select
clientele were allowed in. Public baths were called publica, and anyone could use them
for a small fee. The publica were paid for by the town or the fiscus who would give out
money to towns for public structures. The state baths were public and were paid for by
the emperor and were often named in honor of him. Sometimes a public bath was
financed by a special tax in the town in which it was to be constructed. Baths also cost a
lot to maintain due to the fuel and water bills. In the larger baths a tremendous amount of
fuel and water was needed. If the bath was a state bath then it would be permitted to take
wood from the state owned forests for fuel. There were strict laws however forbidding
the sale of that fuel. The water was billed according to the width of the incoming pipe.
The pipe had the subscriber’s name etched into it so that no one could tap into the water
supply. The entrance fee was very small and even people with no homes went to the
baths customarily. For men the fee was a ¼ quadrans and for women it was ½ quadrans.
The men also got the better bathing hours if the bath did not have separate facilities for
each sex. This fee was small but the baths also got some revenue by renting out spots
outside to traders.
The hierarchy of the bath was strict and multi-layered. The most important
person in this hierarchy was the owner of the bath or in the case of public baths the town
council in charge of the bath. The lease holder or manager was the next most important
person. He took care of all of the large financial issues that the bath might face. Under
the manager were the superintendents who dealt with the management of the baths. The
number of superintendents depended on the size of the bath. At the lowest chain of
command in the bath environment were the freedmen and slaves. This group provided
the manual labor that was required to keep the great baths running. The freedmen and
slaves, stoked the furnaces, cleaned the hypocaust system, guarded the apoyditerium from
clothes thieves, helped with oiling and strigiling people, and much more. They were
often called balneators. The clothes guard, called a papsarius, made sure the fur
balnearius (clothes thieves) were kept at bay while the patrons bathed. Another person
who worked with the baths was called an aediles. It was his responsibility to inspect the
running of public baths. He checked the water temperature, the amount of fuel being
used, and the cleanliness of the baths.
Bathing had an important place in Roman culture. The day was structured around
work, mealtimes, and the baths. Romans would wake up early in the morning, have a
small breakfast, and then go to work. Romans usually ended their workdays a little
before one and after a brief siesta went to the baths to relax before they retired to their
houses for dinner. The average Roman spent much of his time at the baths. Bathing was
an essential social activity because Romans would use the baths before dinner and often
made social plans in the baths. The baths were also a place where people would discuss
politics, gossip, and mingle with others. If the bath did not have separate facilities for
women then they would have to bathe at a different set of times. The baths would open
at around seven and close at 12 for the women.
There are several theories about what people wore in the baths but it is likely that
while bathing people did not wear any clothing at all. The bathers deposited their
clothing in the apoyditerium upon entering the bath complex. Then they would proceed
to the palestra to exercise. From various murals and mosaics, historians believe that the
Romans most likely exercised in the Greek fashion, in the nude. The Romans wore bath
sandals when walking in between baths. There were also bathing clogs provided by the
bath outside of the caldarium due to the extreme heat emanating from the floor. People
occasionally were thought to carry towels to use between baths, but for most of the time
people were naked.
There were naturally some rules regarding the behavior of the many bathers.
People were expected to act as through everyone was wearing clothes. The bathers were
also forbidden from staring at others. The rules of bath etiquette varied with the time
period. Many would surmise that the Romans, having a reputation for moral depravity,
would engage in debauchery in the baths. This was not so, for the Romans looked at
their time in the bath as a time of relaxation and cleansing. Although there were
sometimes brothels attached to the bath houses, prostitution was by no means part of the
daily ritual. Bathing was a central facet of Roman culture and was treated as such.
The baths had an enormous impact on the Roman Empire in many different ways.
Frequent bathing made the populace healthy and clean. Baths also were often attached to
a palestra so patrons could exercise every day and stay fit. The demand for water
spurred advances in technology. The baths also helped to create a common culture.
Cheap public baths kept the Roman people content. There was no special treatment for
the rich in the baths and everyone mingled with. During bathing time people took off
from their work and worries in general. The baths were a place of learning with talks on
politics, religion, and philosophy. Many of the public baths were grand works of
architecture and engineering filled with libraries, marble, and gilded faucets of which the
Romans were justly proud.
Case Studies4
Three examples demonstrate the variety found in roman baths. The baths of Caracalla is
the second largest bath complex that the Roman Empire produced (the largest, the bath of
Diocletian, has been converted into a vast church and town square). The bath complex
was constructed by the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius, nicknamed Caracalla. He
had the grounds for this famous bath cleared by almost thirteen thousand prisoners that
his father had captured in his campaign in Scotland. Caracalla ascended to the position of
emperor in the year A.D. 211. The bath that he proposed to build was of staggering
dimensions for the time period. The central building of this vast complex alone is 214
meters by 114 meters. The baths of Caracalla included also four stories (two above and
two below).
The bath was built in Rome and is one of the most complete baths today.
Building it was a monumental task, requiring a massive amount of materials and a
massive amount of man power. Twenty-one million bricks were used in the construction
of the baths along with around 6300 cubic meters of marble. Around six thousand
craftsmen worked on the baths and it still took more than ten years for the workers to
complete the baths. The baths were fed with water from a new branch of the aqueduct,
the Aqua Mercia, that traveled almost 90 kilometers. The baths were able to hold around
80,000 cubic meters of water at one time and the bath used about 20,000 cubic meters of
that water daily. The baths could fit around 1,600 bathers at a time. While we refer to
the baths of Caracalla, the complex also contained gardens, a library, a small multipurpose theater, and exercise rooms. Caracalla died in 217, a scant six years after
becoming emperor and four years before the bath would be finished. Although he did not
see the completion of his baths many Romans benefited greatly and loved the baths of
Nearby Ostia Antica provides an interesting contrast with the baths of imperial
Rome. Situated on the Tiber River and the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ostia Antica served as
Rome’s port. The city was founded in the 4th century B.C. to stand guard over the river
mouth from possible seaborne invasion attempts. In the 2nd century B.C. it had become a
major port for cargo ships and had also experienced a sharp spike in population. The
most famous public bath complex in this up and coming port city is dedicated to the god
Neptune. These baths are famous for their beautiful and surprisingly intact mosaics. The
bath was built near the city’s amphitheater.
The baths of Neptune was a sizable bath complex but far from the grandiose scale
of the baths of Caracalla or Diocletion. The baths of Neptune however had many
beautiful mosaics all in black and white as was the fashion in the 2nd century B.C. when
the baths were was constructed.
In the atrium was the great mosaic of Neptune riding a chariot pulled by wild
hippocampuses. Next to the atrium was the frigidarium which also was adorned with
mosaics in at nautical theme. On the other side of the frigidarium lay the tepidarium
which had a large mosaic depicting Nerieds (water nymphs) and Tritons (sea gods). The
caldarium was the hottest room in the bath and had two pools in the room. The
stonework in this building was in the style of opus spictatim (herring bone). The bath
complex was fed water from a nearby cistern.
The Romans were a people weaned on war and they forayed abroad looking for
slaves, wealth, and locations that they could colonize in the name of the Roman Empire.
For example they colonized what today is England. The most famous bath there was
constructed in the city of Bath. Bath was the only city settlement in Britain that had
natural hot springs that were known for their healing purposes even from the times of 700
B.C. when the inhabitants had built a shrine to a god of water (Sullis). The Romans came
to this part of Britain in 43 A.D. and made a bath over the shrine.
These baths had no particularly distinguishable factors besides location. The bath
itself was placed above a hot spring that remains active to this very day. The main spring
remains a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Romans used the hot spring to
gain easy access to already heated water that was rumored to have healing properties.
Romans associated the springs with the goddess Minerva. People would throw coins or
flattened metal as offerings into the hot spring hoping to heal themselves or their friends
and curse their enemies. The offerings were often in the shape of what ever was ailing
the supplicant with a small inscription etched into the offering. These small metal
supplications were called votive offerings.
This bath resembled those back in Rome in its layout and function. It had a
caldarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium for men and separate facilities for the women.
The rooms were heated by means of the hypocaust system and used all of the other
Roman bath technology of the time. The complex at Bath was always being rebuilt and
remodeled. The Roman bath at Bath was one of the few baths that was primarily
associated with religion and healing. Another bath that was associated with healing gods
and goddesses was the bath in Carsulae, a small city to the north of Rome.
This past summer I volunteered on the excavation of a bath in the Roman city of
Carsulae. Carsulae is located in what is today southern Umbria. Roman armies subdued
the Umbian tribes in the 3rd century B.C. and relocated people from their hilltop
settlements to towns and cities in the valleys and lower slopes. No one is sure when
Carsulae was founded, but it is certain that it grew rapidly after 220-219 B.C., when the
via Flaminia was built. This famous road linked the city of Rome with the Adriatic coast,
and ran through the middle of Carsulae. According to ancient authors, the Carsulae area
was known for its vineyards, estates of the wealthy, and above all its water. Pliny the
Elder, for example, describes the thermal springs as renown for their healing qualities.
The city was abandoned in the 8th century A.D., as the result of an earthquake. The
area’s water remains famous to this day.
Our first day was devoted to getting to know Carsulae and San Gemini, the small
town where we stayed. Excavation director Jane Whitehead gave us a tour of the
archaeological park of Carsulae. We saw a number of impressive monuments, including
the temple to the Gemini, the basilica, the amphitheater, funerary monuments, and of
course the bath. Dr. Whitehead explained that the bath was first built in the Republican
era and subsequently renovated. Because the area’s water was famous in antiquity, it is
probably that the bath was a place for healing and not a place for leisure and athletic
activities as was the case in many other baths. In fact, San Gemini water is famous in all
of Italy and for a long time was sold in pharmacies.
When I first looked at the site I was surprised at how ordinary this piece of land
looked. It was small, about the size of a tennis court. It was overgrown with wild grasses
and much of what the people from the last year had excavated had eroded or collapsed.
We had to first hack up all of the wild grasses (including the nettles) and take them off of
the site in wheelbarrows. We used all sorts of farming implements to clear the site from
pitchforks to hand shears. Once we had most of the grass cleared off of the site then we
could pull up the tarps that had been placed over the site by the workers from last year
who thought that the tarps would stop excessive growth. The tarps however just gave
something for the roots to get tangled up in making the job harder. We had to be careful
when we pulled up the tarps because the roots in the tarps had grown into some of the
cement of the bath. The cement used at this site was called cocciopesto, it was cement
mixed with chunks of broken brick and tile and was very strong. Once we had uncovered
the site we had to make a discard mound where all of the materials that were unneeded
were thrown. This pile served doubly as a place to sift all of the buckets of dirt that we
would bring from the dig site.
We all made a lot of progress at the dig site once we had cleaned it up. The next
step was to survey the site; this was done by architects associated with the project. They
placed poles around the sites and listed their location and elevation relative to a reference
or datum point. Using lots of string, we then divided the sites into work areas called
quadrants, measuring 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters. This was not as easy as it sounds because
much of the site was uneven and there some big objects in the way. Also the ground was
made up of stone and crumbly soil, and this made driving the stakes hard. Creating the
grid however was necessary because it allowed us to give the exact location of everything
we found. We measured from two sides to get the location; from the top of the stakes or
poles we could figure out the elevation (basically how far below a find was from the
datum point). That’s how we were able to say exactly where we found special things like
coins. Dr. Whitehead then gave out the quadrants to each of the college students and
experienced diggers and paired them up with one of the volunteers with less or no
Once we started excavating we got into a routine. We started early in the morning
(around 5) so we could get some work time in before the sun would really start to heat
things up. By “second breakfast” at about 9am we were starving and getting tired. When
we quit at about 12:30pm we were hot and tired and very dirty. During the excavation
we would take turns carrying the buckets of soil up to the sifting station. This was the
only place in the shade and sometimes we would linger there and chat. It was amazing to
me that we found so much by slowly sifting dirt through the screen. People found tiny
bits of glass, bits of pottery, bone, and lots of marble tiles. We found objects in the
ground too. Everything that came from each quadrant was placed in a bucket or bag and
marked. At lunchtime we carried all of this up to the cars and brought them back to the
lab in San Gemini. On days when we found a lot of tile this could be very heavy. After
lunch we had time to rest but usually I went to watch World Cup matches with two
teenagers from Rome. Later we met at the lab to wash and sort most of the stuff we had
found that day. Some things like glass were too fragile to wash so we just bagged them
and set them aside. Once the stuff dried we sorted it. For example, when we looked
pottery we were interested in diagnostic pieces like handles or rims that could tell us
more about the use or shape of the thing. Some times in the afternoons we had lectures
on subjects like excavation techniques, pottery, and the history of the area.
My quadrant was SB-1 NE, so called because it was a northwest quadrant of the
section to the south of the datum point or permanent marker (see the plan of excavation
below). This quadrant contained some of the apse (the rounded front of the bath
building) which had remnants of cocciopesto flooring resting on top of pilae. It was a
challenge breaking up the cocciopesto flooring right along the lines of our quadrant
border or balk line. The broken bits were not worth saving, so we just threw them in a
big pile for sifted dirt and other junk. Once we cleared the flooring we started to uncover
some of the pilae that held up the floor of this structure and formed part of the hypocaust
system. On some of these pilae we noticed the manufacturer’s stamp. Much information
could be gleaned from the knowledge of where and when the bricks were manufactured.
Dr. Whitehead noticed that the stacks of pilae were strangely close together and skinnier
than normal pilae would be. So she came to the conclusion that this was an early bath
that had only its top layers renovated over the years rather than its foundations replaced.
We then dug the packed earth and rock floor that held up the pilae. Like the other
excavators, we carefully put any material that we found through the sifter in a search for
objects that we had overlooked.
I left after two weeks but the excavation continued for another three weeks.
According to Dr. Whitehead’s report, this year three new quadrants were opened in the
southern portion of the site. The total amount of earth excavated was 23.5 cubic meters
this year compared with 31.5 in 2005 (the first year of digging). This season Dr.
Whitehead decided to look more closely at the apse and try to fully excavate it. The
reason that she chose to focus on the apse is that it would give useful hints to the overall
structure of the bath. This was the location of the heated part of the bath, so the way it
was put together would tell a lot about when it was built and renovated. Many interesting
objects were found this year. Ten coins were uncovered in the northwestern portion of
the apse. In the southern part we found a Corinthian capitol. Lots of terracotta tiles for
the hypocaust system were dug up, along with hundreds of marble tiles for the mosaic
Overall, Dr. Whitehead concluded that the bath had been built in the Republican
period and later renovated. Some times large decorative or carved stone, probably from
other buildings in Carsulae, were transported to the bath and reused. For example, a
worked marble slab that ordinarily would have been seen was reused as part of the heatig
system under the floor. Another interesting find was a second layer of pilae. Dr.
Whitehead concludes that this suggests the bath may have had a small pool. Among the
artifacts found there was overwhelming evidence of women also using the baths.
Artifacts suggesting a female presence included thin shards of glass used for small
perfume or oil containers, hair pins, clips to hold on various garments, and some needles.
The presence of women in the bath suggests that the bath was open to all and that the
ancient city of Carsulae was progressive in its approach towards bathing. Another object
of the excavation was to determine the extent of past excavations. The archaeologist
Umberto Ciotti excavated part of the bath in the 1950s and 1960s when he was
excavating the rest of the city. No one knows exactly where he dug in the baths or even
what he found. It is also possible that some things from the bath were stolen and sold to
art dealers. So half of the work at this site is trying to reconstruct what has been
disturbed or excavated.
In this project I have tried to make sense of Roman baths through study and
through participation on an archaeological excavation. Three things stand out. First, the
baths were some of the most advanced technology the world had seen with under the
floor heating and such efficient water control. The Romans achieved this level of
technological advancement through their ingenuity and large pool of resources. Second,
the baths also were a fundamental cultural element of Roman culture. It became an
everyday routine to go to the baths and meet up with friends. The Romans both used the
baths for purposes of hygiene and relaxation. In the baths they enjoyed the idea of social
equality of Roman citizens and they basked in the glory of their country. Third, I learned
about archaeological techniques and the whole process of excavation. I learned that the
context of the find is almost as important as the find itself. I learned that the most
frustrating aspect of archeology is that once you see something you cannot just pull it up.
You have to slowly brush away the loose soil from around the object and dig down
further at the same rate that you dig the entire quadrant to keep the ground level. All in
all, the project has taught me to appreciate the processes by which history is found and
Unless otherwise indicated, I base this description on Neilson’s classic book on the
topic, Thermae Et Balnea.
I have drawn on Blair and Hall’s Working Water for this description.
Unless otherwise indicated, I base this description on Neilson’s Thermae Et Balnea.
These decriptions are drawn from The Baths of Caracalla, Ostia Antica, and Roman
Baths, respectively.
This description is based on my experience, the book Carsulae, and on director Jane
Whitehead’s reports on the excavations for 2005 and 2006.
Works Cited
Bahn, Paul. Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
“Baths of Caracalla” livius. 17 Jan. 2004. Viewed 22 Nov. 2006.
Blair, Ian and Jenny Hall. Working Water: Roman Technology in Action. London:
Museum of London, 2003.
Bruschetti, Paolo. Carsulae. Rome: Istituto poligrafico e zecca dello stato, 1995.
Gallico, Sonia. Guide to the Excavations of Ostia Antica. Rome: ATS Italia Editrice,
Macaulay, David. City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction. Boston:
Houghton, Mifflin, 1974.
Nielsen, Inge. Thermae et Balnea: The Architecture and Cultural History of Roman
Public Baths. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1990.
Rook, Tony. Roman Baths in Britain. Great Britain, Haverfordwest, 1992.
Schultz, Emily and Robert Lavenda. Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human
Condition. California: Mayfield, 1995.
Sestieri, Anna and Maria Bietti. The Baths of Diocletian. Milan: Electa, 2005.
Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma. The Baths of Caracalla. Milan: Electa, 2006.
“Terme” Inforoma. 2 Nov. 2006. Viewed 24 Nov. 2006. <
Whitehead, Jane. New Excavations at Roman Carsulae 2005: The Baths. Excavation
Report, 2005.
Whitehead, Jane. Preliminary Report of the Excavation of the Baths at Carsulae 2006.