Secret history: Exeter’s Roman Baths, by Jamie Ransom
Sometimes the most amazing historical parts of our home city of Exeter are right in front of you, and you can’t even see them. You can, and you probably do, pass them every day, and they are not visible to you at all. For example; if you walk onto Cathedral Green, position yourself on the steps by the Devon War Memorial and face the Cathedral’s amazing West Façade you will be looking at a 1000-year-old historical wonderment, BUT you’ll actually be standing on a 2000-year-old one – Exeter’s sensational Roman Baths!
OK, so technically you won’t be standing directly on the Roman Bath House, but if you went just a few feet down you would find a fantastic array of Roman architecture, technology and beautiful craftsmanship. Now we all know of Exeter’s great Roman History. We are very fortunate to have other surviving and visible Roman elements to the city. But, can you imagine being one of the people working one day to build foundations for new development and discovering a Roman site of “Major significance” and “International interest”? – AMAZING!
A large-scale archaeological excavation was carried out in the early 1970’s. It revealed a building that would have been truly monumental, and of a scale and complexity that made it a significant addition to Isca Dumnoniorum. The Roman Bath House is said to have been built around AD60 and shows excellent quality. It includes; hot air underfloor heating, a hypocaust and tiled flooring set throughout a range of rooms with varying purposes – “cutting edge” for its time!
At the time a building such as this would have been built to cater for the residents of Isca for rest and recuperation – mainly military – and well provided for they indeed were! Investigations by archaeologists revealed that the sections of the Bath House and Basilica offered relaxing hot baths heated by a large furnace house, a warm room, an exercise yard and other facilities.
The discovery was completely unexpected, and the journey to finding it also revealed a historical timeline for Exeter through both Saxon and Medieval layers.
Isn’t amazing what is right beneath your feet?
Although the excavations were extensive and photographic evidence was taken using the grainy cameras of the day, the Roman remains have not seen the light of day since the 1970’s. Funding became an issue and parties involved at the time were uncertain of what to do, so the decision was made to cover the Roman Bath House back over.
The excitement didn’t end there. In 2014/2015, grand plans were being presented by Exeter Cathedral – supported by experts, local authorities and the residents of Exeter – to uncover the Roman Bath House once again and allow the world to see them as an attraction. Giving a much-needed insight into Exeter’s history, and furthermore, Roman history as a whole. An application for funding to support the project was made, but unfortunately was rejected, so for the time being, the project remains buried also.
I don’t know about you, but I think the proposals made were fantastic. Perhaps one day, with rejuvenated interest, we might see this great plan come to fruition. I, for one, would be standing alongside the 100000+ extra visitors a year to our great city that the Roman Baths project would attract. What are we waiting for?
I can already tell you are hungry to see a part of this fantastic discovery for yourself and guess what? You can! No, you don’t need to get your shovel out of the shed and start “redesigning” the landscape outside of the Cathedral. However, to get a look at some of the interesting Roman artefacts from the excavations you can instead visit yet another wonderful Exeter venue of history and learning – The Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Here they showcase a collection from the Roman Bath-House that includes floor mosaic, window glass, tiles and wall painting fragments!
So until the Roman Bath House is once again basking in the daylight – as one of Exeter’s best historical attractions – take a look at the site, visit the museum and enjoy a great piece of our “hidden” past.
Photograph credits: BBC, Exeter Cathedral, International Business Times
About the author
Jamie Ransom is Exeter born and bred, with a Devon family that spans generations. He loves all things property, history and heritage, especially in his hometown Exeter; “I love Exeter for its amazing growth, but also how it has remained so relaxed with great access to the coast and rugged moors. I am an avid lifetime Titanic enthusiast and researcher” … He also runs his own Exeter based Devon property management company; Ransoms Residential. Jamie is our very own history buff and will be uncovering the fascinating history of places around the city for Exploring Exeter.
Tags: Devon, Exeter, exeter cathedral, exeter's roman baths, RAMM, Roman history, Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM)