In 1971, a set of Roman Baths which were hidden for 2,000 years were discovered in Exeter. The remarkable find of ‘international significance’ was reburied to protect it. Built around AD60, it was perhaps the most advanced bath house in the Roman world

February 29, 2024

In 1971, a set of Roman Baths which laid hidden for almost 2,000 years were discovered in Exeter.

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The site was remarkably discovered in 1971, but due to a lack of funds, it was controversially reburied under the cathedral green to protect it.

In 1971, plans were made to build an additional car parking space in an underground car park, opposite Exeter Cathedral.

To allow this to happen, it was decided that St Mary Major church, which stood opposite the cathedral, should be demolished.

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The demolition of the Victorian church went ahead, with the understanding that if anything of historical interest were found on the site, it would be recorded.

During the process, an incredible Roman military bathhouse was unearthed, which is of great historical significance.

The archaeologists excavated further and were astonished to reveal Roman remains – it was soon discovered that they were the remains of a Roman Bath House.

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!

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Further excavation revealed a trepidarium (cold room), an expensive furnace house, an exercise yard, and multiple service rooms.

It was a well-developed bath complex, absolutely unique in Northern Europe, and for its time, the bath complex would have been quite superior.

It was one of the earliest stone-masonry buildings to be constructed in Roman Britain, which has huge implications for the status of Roman Exeter.

Constructing such a bath house would have been a difficult thing to undertake at the time.

Five quarries had to be established to supply stone – Purbeck marble and limestone from Dorset, lead and iron ore had to be located and smelt, and clay excavated and fired into bricks and tiles.

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Such an undertaking was beyond the Roman army, even though they were well used to engineering work. This was the work of imported architects and craftsmen.

For its time, this distant outpost of the Roman Empire had what was perhaps the most advanced bath house in the Roman world.

This was building at the forefront of technology – Exeter was one of the first heating systems to employ hollow rectangular box tiles for the walls to channel hot air from beneath the floor.

In addition, iron bars were laid on the tops of the supports that carried the floor above the hypocaust to strengthen it and prevent disintegration due to the heat.

Dr John P. Salvatore worked on the site’s excavation between 1972 and 1974.

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“The Roman military bathhouse at Exeter was the first-ever stone-built monumental building in the southwest of England,” he said.

The Roman fortress at Exeter was manned by the Second Augustan Legion of perhaps, 5,000 legionaries and 500 cavalry who were housed in timber barracks surrounded by defensive ditches and a turf rampart enclosing 41 acres.

The hot baths would have been a welcome relaxation after a day drilling or building defences, although one suspects it was only for the officers.

The bath house was only in operation for a few years and by AD 68, the Legion had transferred, possibly to Gloucester and the bath house dismantled.

A later basilica was built in the area.

This Legionary Bathhouse was called Isca Thermae – Isca means ‘water’ or ‘river’.

Bathhouses would have been spectacular buildings, the one in Exeter was the same size as the floor area of the cathedral (pictured below).

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The Archaeological Unit, the City Council and the Cathedral authorities were not quite sure what to do about the remarkable discovery.

Some wanted it to be fully exposed and a public interpretation centre be built over the remains.

In the end, it was decided to cover the site with sand and grass it over, for possible resurrection at a later date.

Fast forward to 2014, and the Cathedral authorities announced that they were working on plans to uncover the bath house, and build an interpretation centre, with other facilities, over and to the side of the remains.

The scheme would cost £12.8 million, largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it never materialised.

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So as of today, the Roman Baths are still buried beneath our feet, opposite the magnificent cathedral.

Reacting to the images on social media, someone said: “So what lies beneath the cathedral? Churches were often built on the site of former churches for centuries.

When you see the position of these former Roman baths, and the large footprint of the cathedral and crucially the Roman wall at South gate and how it continues down to the ancient quay – it begs the question.”

Well, recently in 2023, archaeologists investigating the Cathedral’s historic cloister garden made new discoveries from the Roman period.

They include remains of an early Roman street and timber buildings, and a wall of a Roman town house that was later overlain by the foundations of the medieval cloisters.

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Cathedral Archaeologist, John Allan, says the finds help to build a clearer picture of how the site would have looked in Roman times:

“The street and early timber buildings date from c. AD 50–75, and formed elements of the Roman legionary fortress which underlies central Exeter.

”They probably represent part of a long barrack building which extended towards the grant stone bath-house exposed under the Cathedral Green in the early 1970s.

”The later stone wall is part of a previously unknown town house of the 3rd and 4th centuries.”

Exeter Cathedral is one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals – and it features the longest uninterrupted medieval vaulted ceiling in the world, at about 96m!

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The present building was complete by about 1400 and has several notable features, including an early set of misericord and an astronomical clock.

The main vault inside Exeter Cathedral is not only the longest stretch of uninterrupted Gothic vaulting in the world but also crowns one of the most beautiful medieval interiors in Europe.

In the words of the great architectural historian, Sir Nicholas Pevsner, “the luxuriant palm-branch effect is unforgettable”.

During the summer months the cathedral runs guided tours into the roof space that gives visitors the opportunity to walk through the void above the vault as well as providing access to the top of the 12th century North Tower.

Exeter is a famous Roman city – amazingly, more than 70% of the wall that once protected Exeter still remains and reveals a lot about the geology of the area.

Work began on the wall about 1800 years ago by the Romans and the following centuries saw many alterations and repairs, generally using whatever material could be found nearby.

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A walk along the walls will reveal a range of different rock types, within the area of Exeter there are numerous listed buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments to explore.

These include the Cathedral (Grade 1 listed building) and the Cathedral Green and City Wall, both of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

Exeter is also home to Old Exe Bridge – the oldest medieval stone bridge in England and the oldest bridge in Britain with a chapel still on it.

Now a scheduled monument and Grade II listed, construction of the bridge began in 1190 and it was completed by 1214.

It replaced several rudimentary crossings which had been in use sporadically since Roman times – and it spanned the River Exe for almost 600 years.

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The wardens and their successors in the turnpike trust use to collect tolls from carts using the bridge from outside the city (citizens of Exeter were exempt from the tolls).

The magnificent structure was at least 590 feet long, which probably had 17 or 18 arches, carrying the road diagonally from the west gate of the city wall across the River Exe.

St Edmund’s Church, the bridge chapel, was built into the bridge at the time of its construction, and St Thomas’s Church was built on the riverbank at about the same time.

That makes Old Exe Bridge the oldest bridge in Britain with a chapel still on it.

If you have time – it’s also worth visiting The House That Moved – one of the oldest timber-framed houses in the city.

This crooked medieval house in Exeter, built around 1450, was moved in 1961 by 220 feet, to be saved from demolition.

It still stands today as one of the greatest feats of engineering of its kind.

The house was built in the late Middle Ages, and was located at 16 Edmund Street, on the corner with Frog Street, probably for a wealthy merchant.

This age makes it one of the oldest private dwellings in Devon, and may be one of the oldest in Europe.

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The famous house is located just 2 minutes away from the Cathedral.

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