‘Truly exceptional’ Roman bath house uncovered in Priory Park

Local archaeologists digging up the bath house this week.ks170939-7 SUS-170529-222220008
Local archaeologists digging up the bath house this week.ks170939-7 SUS-170529-222220008

An extremely well preserved Roman bath house belonging to someone ‘incredibly rich’ is being unearthed in the middle of a busy park.

Crowds of people have gathered to watch the large-scale excavation of Priory Park in Chichester all this week.

Jane May and Jean Palmer cleaning finds. ks170939-1 SUS-170529-222234008

Jane May and Jean Palmer cleaning finds. ks170939-1 SUS-170529-222234008

The dig, led by Chichester District Council in collaboration with the local archaeological society, has been going on since the bank holiday weekend and has led to an exciting find ‘well exceeding archaeologists’ dreams’.

Archaeologists have known about three large Roman buildings buried under the popular park since ground-penetrating scans were carried out more than a year ago.

An initial dig last summer confirmed the existence of a town house bigger than the Pallant House Gallery building and worth millions in today’s money.

This week-long excavation, to coincide with the city’s Roman Week, is focussing on an unusually shaped building which is even more exciting than expected.

Processing the finds.ks170939-2 SUS-170529-222021008

Processing the finds.ks170939-2 SUS-170529-222021008

James Kenny, Chichester District Council’s chief archaeologist, is leading the dig.

He said: “From the ground-penetrating scans we knew this was an interesting building because of its unusual oblong shape and interesting western end.

“We knew one of the possibilities was that it was a bath house but quite often with archaeology, when you get round to uncovering things they’re not as exciting as you anticipate it.

“But the results have far exceeded our imagination.

James Kenny, Chichester District Council Archaeologist leading the dig.ks170939-3 SUS-170529-222032008

James Kenny, Chichester District Council Archaeologist leading the dig.ks170939-3 SUS-170529-222032008

“Yes it could have been a temple but realistically a building like this next to a huge townhouse in the middle of a Roman city was likely to be this and actually what we have is an extremely well appointed bath house, very well built using the best materials.

“We have uncovered the under floor heating system.

“The bath itself above the ground level has collapsed but you can see the super structure of the building and as well as finding bricks and tiles, we’ve also found painted wall plaster in yellow, blue and reds, as well as what looks like a white ceiling.

“Overall it gives the very real impression of luxury, with top quality materials, very expensive paints for the time and quite an expensive heating system.

People can visit the excavation until Friday when it will be backfilled.ks170939-4 SUS-170529-222057008

People can visit the excavation until Friday when it will be backfilled.ks170939-4 SUS-170529-222057008

“It would have been designed by experts in architecture and craftsmen and built by plumbers and heating engineers, as well as ordinary builders.”

Part of a public bath house can be found inside the city’s Novium Museum but in contrast this would have been a private bathing area for someone of great wealth.

It would not only have been a functional way for its owners to clean themselves but would have had great social significance as well.

Mr Kenny said: “Of course you can find part of the public bath house in the Novium Museum but what we have here is a domestic bath house, built for a very rich person or family living in the centre of the town.

“It would have been a place of pampering, with different rooms of varying temperatures which would get hotter as you walked through them before finally you take a dip in the cold plunge pool.

“It’s extremely civilised, it’s not just about taking a shower but somewhere to invite colleagues or business associates to discuss things perhaps too private to talk about in public.

Chichester & District Archaeology Society are assisting with the dig

Chichester & District Archaeology Society are assisting with the dig

The excavation ran over the weekend and has attracted scores of visitors, with the site open for the public to come and visit and speak to experts about exactly what has been found.

As well as brick and painted decorative tiles, other items that have been churned in the soil and uncovered include medieval pottery and the bones of animals.

Around 50 of the 160 members of the Chichester District Archaeological Society have been assisting, painstakingly digging and then cleaning and sorting the finds ready for analysis.

Chairman Ann Davies said: “Our members are really enjoying being part of the dig, we also have volunteers stewarding the site and explaining to members of the public what’s going on, and others processing the finds.

The large site will be backfilled on Friday and some of the items found will be placed in the Novium for people to see.

Further excavations of the two other buildings are planned, with no dates as yet decided.

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