Carlisle’s Roman Bathhouse Dig

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Good news at last for Carlisle Cricket Club. A £5,000 Lottery grant will kick-start repairs to flood damage created by February’s Storm Ciara. Five years earlier, Storm Desmond flooded the Edenside cricket ground, but that natural catastrophe created a chain of events that led to the discovery of the 1600-year-old Carlisle Roman Bathhouse. But with just four weeks to uncover it all, archaeologists asked the local community for help.

The soil ramps rise like an Escher painting. The wheelbarrow, perilously balanced, brimming with earth, is a pig to get moving, and precarious to navigate. The soil dumps provide respite from blistering palms.

Once the barrow is emptied it’s the turn of the detector; its round ear listening for the faintest echoes. If luck is with you, a note trills treasure to be investigated. Time for the hand-held detector, a magic wand that works the soil in the palm of your hand. It went ‘off the scale’ the first time I used it until I realised I was finding my gold wedding ring. Always search through your right hand.

The right hand bleeped as well. A fragment of lead, the colour of dull silver, lay in my palm. Lead that may have weighted a fishing line or supported a window for a bather to look through, 1600 years ago.

Listening to the Past - Detecting on the soil heaps at Carlisle Roman Bathhouse | Photo © Wardell Armstrong
Listening to the Past. Detecting on the soil dumps | Photo © Wardell Armstrong

Edenside is a secluded bowl scooped out of the Stanwix Bank. Bordered to the south by the River Eden, it is a tranquil place to sit and watch.

Cricket at Edenside can be traced back to 1828 when the Carlisle Patriot reported on a match against Newcastle. The cricket ground provided local artist Samuel Bough with the setting for his most famous painting, ‘Cricket at Edenside’, which now hangs in Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum. It is a historical document in itself. Bough’s strokes depict players wearing top hats while far-right, the masts of ships mark out the line of Carlisle canal.

'Cricket Match at Edenside' by Samuel Bough © Tullie House Museum
‘Cricket Match at Edenside’ by Samuel Bough © Tullie House Museum

Cavendish Tennis Club opened three shale tennis courts at Edenside. The only clay courts for miles around, I’d played countless games of tennis there, unaware of what lay below. That was until 2015 and Storm Desmond.

Storm Desmond

Storm Desmond spiralled over Cumbria on 5th December breaking the United Kingdom’s 24-hour rainfall record. With 341.4 mm (13.44 in) of rain falling in Honister Pass, 43,000 homes were left without power and 5,200 homes in Lancashire and Cumbria, including, Edenside Cricket Pavillion, flooded. With the shale courts of the Cavendish Club destroyed by the River Eden, Carlisle Cricket Club began looking at options to relocate their pavilion to higher ground on the site of the tennis courts.

Rescue workers pull a boat full of residents along a flooded street in Carlisle on 6th December, after Storm Desmond | © Phil Noble / Reuters
Rescuers pull a boat of residents along a flooded street in Carlisle | © Phil Noble / Reuters

On 31st August 2017, the Cricket Club released a statement: ‘Following advice from the Historic Environment Advisor for Cumbria County Council, Wardell Armstrong undertook an archaeological evaluation on land at Carlisle Cricket Club, Stanwix. It was commissioned, on behalf of the client, who intends to build a new cricket pavilion and indoor training facilities.’

The nets finally come down at Cavendish in preparation for the first archaeological evaluation of a Carlisle Roman Bathhouse. What Wardell Armstrong found on that initial dig impelled Carlisle City Council to fund a three-day extension to the study.

Edenside is located in an area of high archaeological sensitivity, just 70m south of Hadrian’s Wall Vallum, the site of Milecastle 66, and part of a World Heritage Site. Numerous Roman finds had been found in the vicinity. But during the 3-day extension, the quality and quantity of Roman material coming out of the ground was remarkable.

Time Team

‘A series of small walls’ is our family catch-phrase whenever archaeology is discussed. That is, of course, thanks to Time Team, where, over 280 episodes, a series of small walls was all they seemed to uncover.

Time Team's Carenza Lewis, Tony Robinson and Phil Harding with Mick Aston
Time Team’s Carenza Lewis, Tony Robinson and Phil Harding | Photo © Channel 4

To be fair, Tony Robinson’s groundbreaking show was a must-watch for millions of amateur archaeologists and armchair historians. First aired on Channel 4 on 16th January 1994, Mick Aston, Phil Harding, Carenza Lewis & ‘geophys’ became household names overnight. I added ‘archaeological dig’ to my bucket list.

A Community Digs

NOTICE: ‘Bring History to Life – Help dig out the past with Carlisle Cricket Club. Archaeologists from city-based Wardell-Armstrong are looking for volunteers and business sponsors to help excavate the site of a 4th Century Carlisle Roman Bathhouse at Carlisle Cricket Club during a month-long dig taking place this September.’

 Nozzled vaulting tubes used in the construction of vaulted, Roman bathhouse roofs in the fourth century | Photo © Stuart Walker Photography 2017
Nozzled vaulting tubes used in the construction of vaulted, Roman bathhouse roofs in the fourth century | Photo © Stuart Walker Photography 2017

The quality of the archaeology found during the evaluation had caught the public’s imagination. Most significant was of three separate, heated rooms associated with a Roman bathhouse. All three rooms contained evidence of underfloor heating systems in the form of hypocausts and concrete floors, with copious amounts of Roman tile used both in heating conduits, and forming floor support columns or pilae. Of significance were nozzled vaulting tubes used in the construction of Roman bathhouse roofs in the fourth century, of North African design.

Over 140 people signed up to the Community Dig which began on the 9th September 2017. I bought two trowels from Homebase.

Trench 6

Ella in Trench 6 where she brought up the bronze hairpin with her Homebase trowel. Behind, square pilae tiles supported the roof of the hypocaust  | © Dave Brooks at Carlisle Roman Bathhouse
Ella in Trench 6 where she brought up the bronze hairpin with her Homebase trowel. Behind, square pilae tiles supported the roof of the hypocaust | © Dave Brooks

Ella and I began work in the NW corner of Trench 6. Trenches 5 & 6 had been joined together to give an overall plan of the building. Even at 360 sqm, it wasn’t big enough. What was thought to be three heated rooms became a Bathhouse of massive proportions and of national importance.

We started by carefully removing backfill from in between stacks of pilae tiles, square towers that supported the ceiling of the hypocaust we were kneeling above. Two hours in and Ella, just about to throw away a nail her Homebase trowel had flicked up, decides to check first.

“What do you think this is Dad?”

Ella finds a late-Roman bronze hairpin | © ITV Border News
Ella finds a late-Roman bronze hairpin | © ITV Border News

The ‘nail’ is long but slightly bent towards the end. Where a nail’s flat-head should be, a knuckled hand gives an elegant finish to this almost-perfect late Roman hairpin. The hairpin must have been one of the earliest significant finds on the dig with a human interest story as the press arrive later to take photos of Ella and her discovery.

Trench 7

William Howard School in Brampton brought a handful of kids down to the site to provide a refreshing take on archaeology. Jumping between two huge river-stones, each one named after the boys that unearthed them, Trench 7 was becoming a playground of discovery.

Trench 7 lay south of the main excavation on the site of a concrete tennis court. It measured 6.3m x 7.5m and its purpose was to discover what lay amidst the ‘dark earth deposits’ that had been recorded in all the other trenches at the evaluation phase. Trench 7 was to provide a perfect slice through Carlisle’s history.

Below the concrete of the court, the layers of rubble used in the building of its foundations could be seen and below that, a dark soil layer with small shards of medieval pottery. Below that, a 0.2m layer of sand from historical flooding. This sandy layer sealed in the dark earth deposits below.

Kerbstones and stone surface of a substantial Roman road at Carlisle Roman Bathhouse | Photo © Wardell Armstrong
Kerbstones and stone surface of a substantial Roman road | Photo © Wardell Armstrong

The first features were huge river stones aligned alongside a large spread of smaller river stones, a foundation and kerb of a substantial Roman road on an East-West alignment linking the Stanegate with the Roman river crossing of the Eden and along Scotland Road into the city.

Below the road surface, a huge Roman drain, taking water away from the Bathhouse down to the river. Dropping a smart-phone into the drain, the flash reveals how intact the drain still is, only slightly silted, and unseen for 1,600 years. To the right of the drain, the outline of an oven and beyond, foundations, with sections of quern stone, cooking pots, storage jars, and animal bones that all point to a catering purpose.

Inside the Roman drain, the phone's flash highlighting 1600 years 
of quality brickwork still very much intact | Photo © Wardell Armstrong
Inside the Roman drain, the phone’s flash highlighting 1600 years of quality brickwork
Photo © Wardell Armstrong

Trench 5

Washing away the accumulation of 1,600 years of mud, the afternoon rain fell on the cracked corner of a stone in Trench 5. As the clouds broke, sunlight glinted on the stone-washed face and raised the smallest crack into a fraction of a letter. The stone, buried in a rubble pile, looked like a hundred other stones but to Frank Giecco, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong, it was a stone he’d had an eye on for some time.

A tombstone to a fallen soldier emerges from Trench 5 | © Dave Brooks
A tombstone to a fallen soldier emerges from Trench 5 | © Dave Brooks

The initial purpose of Trench 5, situated in the south-west corner of the site, was to gauge how far the Bathhouse extended west. This was hard graft, plenty of picks & shovels and soil-filled barrow lifting. The floor of the Bathhouse was mottled pink and with trowel and brush, our team of four cleaned it for photographic recording. As in the trenches to North and East, the floor ran on under the trench side, this was a truly gigantic Bathhouse.

After the floors were scrubbed we just had time to work through a rubble pile on the north trench wall but Frank had spotted his stone again and we stopped to take a closer look. Thanks to the Homebase trowel, the fragment of carving became a letter and the letters became words and out of the soil, the tombstone to a fallen Roman soldier appeared, the letters ‘R I A’ on cleaning became ‘E T R I A N’ indicating a rare visual link between the Bathhouse and the Roman Fort of Vxelodvnvm or Petrianvm at Stanwix.

Stanwix today gets its name from StaneWick, the town of stones, as later builders dug their way through piles of Roman stones to bury their foundations.

Volunteers hand-clean finds from the trenches outside | Photo © Wardell Armstrong
Volunteers hand-clean finds from the trenches outside | Photo © Wardell Armstrong

There were many positive actions as a result of Storm Dennis’ flooding at Carlisle Cricket Club. The city discovered it had Roman archaeology of national importance that should be visible to millions of tourists visiting Hadrian’s Wall. With so much of the City’s antiquity being built over and with the adjacent Norman Castle, Carlisle could have a new Historic Quarter. A tangible force for change has been created by the combined desires of the Cricket Club, the City Council and local businesses to create a permanent tourist attraction at Edenside and combine a display of the Roman Bathhouse into new pavilion plans. And finally, it was the people of Carlisle and beyond who came together, against the clock, in true Time Team tradition, to help uncover a series of small walls and make a little bit of history themselves.

Archaeological Evaluation Report (PDF 5MB)

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