I was very fortunate to have a chance to visit the Billingsgate Roman house and baths at the weekend, which the Museum of London opened up to celebrate the Festival of British Archaeology. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being back in the UK is the chance to actually visit Roman sites, which tend to be a bit thin on the ground in New York. I jumped at the opportunity to visit this site, as it’s usually completely inacessible to the public. That’s because it occupies the basement of a particularly undistinguished office block on Lower Thames Street, just next to the river. You wouldn’t even know that the remains were there, if it weren’t for the posters advertising it outside the building (removed by the time I took the photo on the left, although you can still see the open door that leads down into the basement).
The site actually has quite a remarkable recent history. The “significant” bit, the bath house, was discovered in 1848 when the Victorians were putting up the Coal Exchange; as well-educated men of the period, they recognised that they’d got something important in the basement, and when the legislation for the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 went through Parliament, the bath house was one of the sites included under its protections (along with Stonehenge, which isn’t bad company to be in). When the Coal Exchange was demolished in the late 1960s and the current buildings put up, the presence of the bath house meant that Proper Archaeology had to be carried out into the surrounding area; it was those works that uncovered the footings of the house, and that ensured the remains were put into a basement that enabled them to be accessed and conserved. There was talk, before the financial crash, of demolishing the present building and putting something up that was less – well, concrete, and that had a purpose-built space for the remains, but obviously that’s not going to happen any time soon. The site is open for viewing, from what I can tell, about two or three times a year; the next opening will be in September, I believe, so I’m feeling jolly lucky that I happened to be in London this weekend.
The house itself has a pretty interesting history too, although I have to admit that I think it’s a bit of a sad one, mainly because I’ve recently been reading a lot about reconstructing the history of domestic spaces in Pompeii. That work relies a great deal on the detritus of everyday life such as dropped hairpins, lost bracelets and rings, forgotten children’s toys and so on. There appears to have been none of that sort of thing found at Billingsgate, which on the one hand means it’s a fascinating site for the history of building, but strangely missing evidence of human habitation.
There were three phases of the site, and the first was the house itself. The house was built in the second century, in either an L or a U shape; the footprint that survives on site is in a L, but the other wing that would have formed the U could easily be hidden in the basement of the adjacent building . Either way, there would have been a courtyard/garden with a half-open veranda on the inside of the L or U, and at that time the building would also have commanded a rather splendid view of the river Thames. The walls are thick enough to show that they probably supported an upper floor, and the lower floor had underfloor heating; you can see the soot on the preserved bricks that shows it was used.
At some point in the third century, the bathhouse was built in the garden area; around that time, the river wall would have gone up in front of the Thames, thus depriving the house of its view. At this period, the house seems to have been used as a mansio, or official residence for travellers who were probably on imperial business – hence the need for all mod cons, including a bath house. The baths were attached to the main house by a passageway, which led into a long rectangular room that probably served as a cold room and changing area. If you look at the photo on the right, you can just about make out two semi-circular rooms at the right end of that chamber, which would have been the hot and sort-of-hot rooms – the underfloor heating has been preserved there quite well, although sadly you can’t get out far enough to get a really good look at it.
The house is unusual as it seems to have been in use after the Romans withdrew from Britain as a province in 383 AD – in fact, it seems to have been in use up to the early fifth century, which gives us a valuable piece of evidence for the state of London after the collapse of the formal administration. However, eventually it became overgrown and ruined, probably after being formally abandoned – by which I mean people had a chance to scour it for possessions and valuables, explaining why we have so little in terms of domestic or “human interest” finds on the site. We do have evidence that a Saxon lady wandered through the ruins when they were overgrown because she dropped her brooch in the bracken, but otherwise the site seems to have lain unused as it was buried by the soil’s slow descent from the top of the hill to the bottom.
Why does this site matter to me, who is not an arch person by training whatsoever? Well, to begin with it’s a nice example of a building that seems to have changed its use over the period of its lifetime, which helps to dispel any false notions that buildings didn’t evolve and change in the ancient world. Second, the bathhouse is still a fabulous piece of archaeology in the British context, where such things are exceedingly rare. Third, it’s a microcosm of the larger picture of Roman Britain, a picture that’s so fragmented that every piece of physical evidence is incredibly valuable to helping us understand even a smidgin more about life in this province. Finally, it’s one of the few buildings that existed throughout most of the Roman occupation of Britain, and beyond – spanning a period that, as far as I know, very few other buildings do.
So, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to visit the house, do go. It’s a crying shame that this site isn’t better exhibited, but while things are the way they are, it’s worth demonstrating that people still value access to the ancient history of London.