Luxury Bath Spa At Rutland Villa Was A Roman Barn Conversion
Last year archaeologists in the UK unearthed a rare Roman mosaic at a luxury 3rd century villa. Now, further excavations have revealed an “early barn conversion” with underfloor heating and a bespoke spa!
Getting Beyond the Famous Mosaic
The Roman villa was the home of a wealthy Roman family between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. It was first discovered on private land in Rutland, England, in 2020 by farmer Jim Irvine, son of landowner Brian Naylor. The rare mosaic measures about 11 meters (36 ft) by 7 meters (23 ft) and it illustrates part of the story from Homer's The Iliad, which tells the of the Trojan War and the Greek hero Achilles.
This year, a team of researchers from the University of Leicester's Archaeological Services (ULAS), excavated a newly identified building alongside archaeologists from Historic England. Located about 50 meters (164ft) from the villa, the archaeologists think it was originally a timber barn, “similar in size to a small church.” But this was no church, it was in fact a custom-built spa.
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Two ends of the large building have been excavated, and to the right of this image we see the area converted into a Roman spa. ( © Historic England /University of Leicester Archaeological Services)
Rutland Roman Villa Even Had a Cold Plunge Pool
The researchers found that the wooden barn had been converted to stone and that it had undergone significant internal alterations. While one end of the converted barn was equipped with extensive living spaces the other was used for agricultural or craft work. However, the archaeologists didn’t expect to find a luxury Roman bath, a custom-built steam room ( caldarium), a warm room ( tepidarium) and a cold plunge pool ( frigidarium). It was a fully equipped spa!
According to the Leicester Mercury, John Thomas from ULAS said "It's difficult to overstate the significance of this Roman villa complex to our understanding of life in late Roman Britain.” What he means here is that this villa is in an excellent state of preservation compared to most in England, which over the past 1,500 years have been slowly pulled apart, brick by brick, by agricultural machinery.
According to a BBC report Thomas said "While previous excavations of individual buildings, or smaller scale villas, have given us a snapshot, this discovery in Rutland is much more complete." Ian Barnes, Historic England senior archaeologist and project manager of HE excavation, said the villa was “built for comfort, and clearly to impress.” Much has been written about the impressive three panel mosaic, but what exactly did the researchers find in the newly discovered steam room and spa complex?
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The Spa area of the main villa building, with a hot (caldarium), medium-temperature (tepidarium) and cold room (frigidarium), in which the villa residents could relax and cleanse themselves. (University of Leicester)
This Was an Upper Echelon Elite Bath House
The investigators think the barn was converted into a stone steam room in either the 3rd or 4th century. Wide post holes determined that the building was supported by huge timbers and their size suggests the building might have had two storeys. Evidence also suggested the internal walls were repeatedly enhanced over time with new cements and building technologies. One can only speculate that constant exposure to humid air must have rapidly degraded the internal walls.
The spa area comprises a Roman-style bath suite with a bespoke steam room, a warm room/sauna and a cold plunge pool. And if the underlying mechanics of keeping all this running without electricity weren’t enough, the excavators also unearthed the remains of a hypocaust, a Roman underfloor heating system.
Ancient Roman Hydraulics Kept Everything Damp
In ancient times, Roman sweat/steam rooms were provided with steam by fires heating water in large kettles on the lower floors. Small holes in the floor let steam enter the sweat room creating a pleasant warm and wet environment. Romans believed that high humidity combined with 60-70 C heat helped to relieve their bodies from toxins. Furthermore, according to Art of Sauna the Romans enjoyed the warming effect of steam on their often bronchial affected respiratory systems.
In the 3rd and 4th century AD, when this Roman family was ‘steaming it up’ at night, the surrounding Celtic/Brittonic families were huddled around a fire in wooden and mud huts. Subjugated, the surrounding farmers must have watched elite Romans coming to this villa, perhaps battered and worn, and leaving the next day all shiny and stress free.
Ian Barnes, the excavation project manager, said the villa was “built for comfort, and clearly to impress.” But the big question remains unanswered - who lived here? The researchers said they hope that their next round of investigations might take them closer to answering this question.
Top image: The 2022 excavations from the air, illustrating the scale and variety of the trenches examined, to enable a broader understanding of the villa complex. Source: © Historic England
By Ashley Cowie