The Real Jurassic Park: Geological Explorations in Southwest England
University of Washington, Tacoma
TESC 417: Summer 2006
The Real Jurassic Park: Geology field course along the south coast of England (TESC 417)

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The Romans in Britannia


Alison Crouch

TESC 417

Summer Quarter 2006

Dr. Davies-Vollum

Dr. Greengrove


The Romans invaded and over took many lands during the rise of their empire.  The goals when they conquered the lands was to gain more land and natural resources, although the lands they conquered were very different.  It is important to note that although the Romans changed and altered societies in the lands they conquered they still allowed most of them to keep a certain amount of tradition. 

The purpose of this paper is to examine the development of Roman Baths in Britain.  It will examine a brief history of Britain before the Roman invasions, how the Romans invaded, and some important infrastructure changes they made to the country.  Because Bath is one of the “best preserved Roman sites north of the Alps,” (The Roman Baths) we can infer that other cities in Britain were developed in the same manner.  However, Bath was different than other cities because a Temple to Sulis Minerva encompassed the baths.  This paper will also examine some of the buildings at the baths, a typical day at the baths, and we will understand the actual origins of the spring water, which has caused a flurry of fascination for over 2000 years.  Finally, we will look at the first documented case of the healing powers the springs possessed. 

Pre Roman Britannia

To understand what advancements the Romans brought to Britain we first need to understand what type of people were living there before the Romans arrived.  During the Stone Age, about 500,000 years ago, humans first appeared in Britain.  For thousands of years these first people roamed the land hunting and gathering what food they could.  They survived ice ages and interglacials using tools made of stone, bone, and wood.  About 15,000 years ago, there came to Britain the first real modern human beings, “homo sapiens sapiens.”  “Around this time amazing cave art was being produced in France and Spain, but none has ever been found in Britain” (Westwood 2). 

Text Box: Picture 1 Burial Barrow (Rush)In 4000 BC, things started to change dramatically.  People began to domesticate animals and grow crops.  “The earliest features we see of this time are known as causewayed camp’s, so called because the ditches which surrounded them are not continuous but crossed by causeways” (Westwood 2).  It is likely that immigrants from the continent initiated these changes.  “One of the results of this change of lifestyle was that, although still hard, it did leave people with time to spare.  Thus we begin to see monuments; burial barrows (see picture 1), hedge monuments and other ceremonial structures” (Westwood 4).  The Bronze Age begins around 2000 BC.  During this age, metal artifacts begun to be used.  The Bronze Age and each following century brought continual social changes, rise in population, and changes in politics and religious practices.  “The earliest known settlement in Dorset took place around Chesil Beach and it was from Chesil Beach that ancient Britons collected pebbles for ammunition to use against the invading Romans” (Westwood 3).

Roman Invasion of Britain

At the time of the Roman invasion, many different tribes inhabited Iron Age Britain.  The tribes kept no records of their own; therefore, the information we have to use is from Roman writings.  “Although some tribes were quite welcoming to the Romans (notably those in the south east) and had been communicating with them for a while, others such as the Durotriges resisted the invading forces vigorously” (Westwood 16). 

The first attempted invasions by the Romans were in 55 AD and 54 AD, by Julius Caesar.  The night of August 25, 55 AD, Julius Caesar sailed with 10,000 men in 80 ships across the Straits of Dover and waited for daylight to start their invasion.  At daybreak, an army of southern tribes and the British warriors gathered on top of precipitous cliffs Caesar’s soldiers refused to get off the ships.  Finally, “shamed by a lone standard-bearer jumping into the sea, they made a bloody landing” (Watney 4).  After making their way onshore, the Romans made very slow progress.  The Romans only stayed in Britain for four weeks, and then returned to France. 

The next attempt was in July of 54 AD, again Julius Caesar landed with 50,000 troops and 2,000 cavalry; however, this time they landed with no resistance.  After some successful battles and being able to cross the Thames, Caesar returned to France, where the Gauls were taking advantage of the absence of the legions (Watney 4).  After this final last attempt by Julius Caesar, there was about a ten-year period before the next attempted invasion.

During Julius Caesar’s time in Britain, he wrote a lot about the people he saw.  However, Caesar’s descriptions are of a savage and barbarous people.  It has since been established that the Celts were not the savage barbarians described by Caesar.  

The Celts lived in well organized societies with strict laws.  Most of the population lived in scattered, isolated farming communities with granaries, storage pits, workshops, and animal pens, their villages were surrounded by banks with wattle fencing and a ditch to keep out intruders and marauding wild animals.  Their houses were made of wattle and daub with thatched roof or in the hills dry stone.  The villages in the lowlands had earthworks for defensive surrounding while those in the highlands had stone walls.  (Watney 2)

The Celts also had relatively advanced bronze and iron technology, and even had goldsmiths.  “The women of the tribes spun, wove, and dyed wool to make clothing.  Men and women wore jewelry and was very proud of their long hair” (Watney 3). 

Emperor Claudius ordered the third invasion in 43 AD.  The invasion’s success led to 365 years of rule.  Aulus Plautius (see picture 2) was in charge of the invasion and landed with four legions, numbering some 24,000 men and an equal number of auxiliary troops in the natural harbor at Richborough on the east coast of Kent (Watney 5).

Text Box: Picture 2 Aulus Plautius (Murray)The Romans were able to tackle the tribes and their hillforts one by one, without fear of attack by their victims’ neighbors.  Maybe if the tribes would have fought together, they would have resisted the Romans invasion, however the Romans did possess superior weapons, military technology and strategy, and were undoubtedly better-trained (Westwood 18).  “At the time of its invasion of Britain, the Roman army was the most disciplined and efficient killing machine that the ancient world had ever known, and would remain so for the best part of 400 years” (Watney 6).  Even with this superior army, “it would take another 90 years before the whole of England and Wales was fully pacified, with Hadrian’s Wall forming the northern frontier of the empire.  Scotland was never subdued, nor did the Romans land in force on Irish soil” (Watney 5). 

Romanizing Britain

Once the Romans had conquered a province, the rapid construction of roads was vital to enable garrison troops to move quickly to deal with any uprising.  Naturally, the roads were also of huge benefit to trade.  Roman roads were cleverly designed but simple to execute.  The roads were first surveyed to keep them straight.  As shown in figure 1, roadbeds were dug three feet down and twenty-three feet across.  The first layer laid down was large gravel and sand.  Next, a layer of smaller gravel was placed down and leveled.  The sides were lined with blocks and hand-carved stones.  Stones were often pentagonal in shape and fitted together to make the top layer of the road.  To ensure rainwater would not cover the road it was sloped from the center so rainwater would drain off into ditches at the sides of the roads.  Even though the roads were dug twenty-three feet across, the carts (and therefore ruts) were only about eight feet across. 

Figure 1  Cross section of a Roman Road.  (Rush).


Romans built towns and roads and local industries grew and flourished.  […]  In the Isle of Purbeck we see evidence of quarrying for stone, particularly the Portland Stone and Purbeck Marble.  These were used for major building works and for decorative purposes.  Hard shale at Kimmeridge was extracted, carved, and turned into decorative artifacts and jewelry.  (Westwood 21)

Before the Romans came to Britain there was no town planning; villages, towns, or camps did not have any universal layout.  Romano-British towns were laid out with streets in a grid pattern.  The town centre was dominated by the forum, a large colonnaded courtyard that served as a market place and assembly ground for public gatherings.  “Larger towns that were built by the Romans such as York, Londinium (London), and Lincoln were self-governing: everyone had to abide Roman law, with magistrates and councils modeled on the municipal system of Rome.  In lesser towns, or civitas, a degree of tribal law and organization was maintained with magistrates elected from the native plutocracy” (Watney 10).  Many small towns began as the squatter camps of traders and camp followers outside the walls of a fort.

“Roman legions had two tasks: first, subdue conquered territories and then encourage the Romanization and urbanization of the tribal nobility by allowing them to run their own affairs and enjoy Roman standard of living” (Watney 10).

In Durnovaria the usual trapping of Roman affluence have been found there such as mosaics, hypocaust (central heating) systems, bath houses and roads.  North of Dorchester at Poundbury we can see the remains of a Roman aqueduct that once brought fresh water nine miles to the people of Durnovaria.  At near by Maumbury an amphitheater was built capable of searing around 10, 000 people.  No doubt, the gladiatorial spectacles proved popular here just as they did with the citizens of Rome and helped reinforce the idea that they really were better off under Roman rule.  (Westwood 22)

 Image: Minerva's headUnlike all other Romano-British towns, Bath existed solely as a spa.  Bath was the most cosmopolitan town in the country except for Londinium.  Bath became the location of the spas because of natural springs in the area.  The Celts believed Sul, the goddess of water, lived in the water.  “The Romans identified this goddess with Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and healing.  These two were united to create a single deity: Sulis Minerva [see picture 3]” (Watney 13).  This conflation of the two belief systems, with its single point of worship, was to be a powerful symbol of the co-existence of the Roman and Celtic cultures in Britain.  “The Romans were by no means insensitive to the gods and goddesses of those they conquered.  These native deities were powerful forces who demanded respect” (Cunliffe 6).

Text Box: Picture 3 Sulis Minerva's head.  (The Roman Baths).In 60 AD and the following year, a devastating rebellion broke out in the southern part of Britain “[…] many thousands were killed and the revenge of the Roman military was uncontrolled in its violence.  By the end of the episode, the province lay in ruins.  It took ten years to repair the physical […] damage that had been done in the few months of fury” (Cunliffe 6).  It was probably during this reconstruction that the Romans made the decision to turn the native sanctuary of Sulis into a magnificent curative establishment.

Construction of the Baths

“Around the Sacred Spring the Romans developed a religious sanctuary and spa, dedicated to Sulis Minerva which was to become famous throughout the Empire.  The settlement which grew out of this unification would be called Aquae Sulis: the Waters of Sul” (Green 17).  “What remains today is a remarkable sequence of ancient, medieval and later structures that give testimony to the continuous use of hot water here over nearly 2,000 years” (Cunliffe 1). 

The nucleus of the baths and the Temple Complex developed into a small but thriving urban settlement.  There was a commercial area of shops and stalls, lodging houses and entertainments, all serving the needs of a regular influx of visitors from all over the Roman Empire.  The town was supported by a flourishing agricultural community, making it an important market centre for the surrounding area.  Local industries such as pewter manufacturing and stone-masonry helped sustain a suburban population mainly spread along the river and the lower northern slopes.  But it was Aquae Sulis’ reputation as both spiritual retreat and leisure resort which was central to its importance in Roman times; dual roles which would define the town right down to the present day (Green 25).

The Sacred Spring

Text Box: Picture 4 Construction of the Sacred Spring (The Roman Baths)Image: Reconstruction drawing of the construction of the Sacred SpringThe construction of the Roman Baths began around 65 AD with the taming of the great spring.  First, the surrounding marshland was drained and the spring enclosed within a watertight lead-lined reservoir wall.  Thus harnessed, the hot waters were channeled into a suite of baths, which formed the central attraction of an immense leisure complex.  Picture 4 shows the Romans working on building the wall around the Sacred Spring.

The Sacred Spring lies at the very heart of the ancient monument.  “Water rises here at the rate of over a million litres a day and at a temperature of 460C” (The Roman Baths).  The spring rises within the courtyard of the Temple of Sulis Minerva and water from it feeds the Roman baths. 

“Isolated from the hustle and bustle of the bathing establishments crowd, the spring would have retrieved its primeval quietude, broken only by the echoes of the bubbling waters and hushed voices of pilgrims come to seek an audience with the goddess Sulis Minerva” (Green 19 ).

Text Box: Picture 5 The Sacred Spring.  (Crouch)The spring was the point at which our world could communicate with the god.  Most people who went asking for guidance or intervention by the goddess and after their prayers would be answered; they would leave money or tokens of appreciation to the goddess.  Since excavation has begun about 12,000 Roman coins spanning the entire periods 1- 114th Century AD have been found.  Women also gave combs, jewelry, brooches, bracelets, and other trinkets.  Picture 5 is of the Sacred Spring taken August of this year.

“More fascinating, for what they reveal about everyday life in Roman Baths, are small scrolls of pewter and lead on which were inscribed messages to the goddess, many of them asking her to avenge some grievance or intercede in a family dispute” (Green 19).  Some examples of these curses are “may he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water, May she who so obscenely devoured her become dumb […].  [Another one found read]  Dodimedis has lost two gloves.  He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and eyes in the temple where she appoint” (Green 19).  So far, there has been 130 found written in Celtic, Latin, and cursive.  The person placing the curse did not always know who exactly did them wrong, but they were able to provide a list of suspects.  It was thought that if the culprit were named, the goddess would know and could then complete the curse (Cunliffe 20).

The Temple

The temple became the centre of a cult to Minerva with its own priest, the only such one in Britain, who interpreted omens and prepared sacrificial victims.  People from all over Europe, particularly those seeking cures visited both the temple and baths (Watney 13).

 As seen in picture 6 the Bath Temple “stood on a podium more than two metres above the surrounding courtyard.  It was approached by a flight of steps.  As one approached it there were four large, fluted Corinthian columns supporting a frieze and decorated pediment above.  Behind the columns was a large door to the cella where the cult statue of the goddess was kept. 

Text Box: Picture 6 The Temple at Bath.  (The Roman Baths).Image: A computer generated colour view of the Temple with buildings either side and trees in the distanceThis room would have been dimly lit without windows, with the only light coming through the doorway and from the eternal flame.  The eternal flame was attended to by priests and continuously burned before the statue of Minerva.

In the late second century, the Sacred Spring was roofed over to create a far more mysterious atmosphere – much like stepping into a vast, steaming cavern, its walls suffused with a rippling greenish light (Green 18-19).  At about the same time the Temple was modified by an “addition of small side chapels and the construction of an ambulatory around it.  This change moved away from the simple classical style as first built and turned the Temple into something more akin to other Romano – Celtic temples from Roman Britain” (The Roman Baths).

Image: Reconstruction painting of Roman people in the Temple courtyard by John Ronayne The Courtyard

Text Box: Picture 7 The Temple Courtyard.  (The Roman Baths).The paved colonnaded courtyard surrounding the temple contained many other religious and ceremonial buildings commemorating a pantheon of gods.  Below the temple stood a sacrificial alter bearing carvings of traditional Roman gods such as Bacchus, Jupiter and Apollo, at either side of which were shrines dedicated to Sol, god of the sun, and to Luna, the moon goddess (Green 21).  Picture 7 is an example of how the courtyard could have looked on any given day the large sacrificial altar can be seen in front of the entrance to the Temple. 

Text Box: Picture 8 A smaller altar found in the Courtyard.  (Crouch).Unlike modern religious ceremonies, Roman religious ceremonies usually took place outside, around the large sacrificial altar in front of the Temple.  However, there were smaller alters all around the courtyard that individuals made to numerous other gods, besides Sulis Minerva.  These smaller altars were setup by individuals in “anticipation of a divine favor or in thanks for having received one” (Cunliffe 12).  As shown in picture 8, these stones were always inscribed with the names of the donors.  This particular altar is inscribed with “To the Suleviae Sulinus, a sculptor, son of Brucetus, gladly and deservedly made this offering” (Cunliffe 11).

The Great Bath

The Great Bath was the centrepiece of the Roman-bathing establishment.  It was fed with hot water directly from the Sacred Spring and provided an opportunity to enjoy a luxurious warm swim.  “The bath is lined with 45 thick sheets of lead and is 1.6 metres deep.  Access is by four steep steps that surround the bath” (The Roman Baths).  Text Box: Picture 9 The Great Bath.  (Crouch)

“The Great Bath once stood in an enormous barrel-vaulted hall that rose to a height of 40 metres.  For many Roman visitors this may have been the largest building they had ever entered in their life” (The Roman Baths).  Niches around the baths would have held benches for bathers and possibly small tables for drinks or snacks. 

Day at the Baths

Although families visited the baths, they could not bathe together.  “Roman men and women did not take baths together, not even husbands and wives.  Women usually went to the baths in the mornings, while most men were at work.  Men went to the baths in the afternoon” (Macdonald 25).  During a normal day, the baths would have been a:

noisy, exuberant place with: the richly frescoed walls of the Great Bath echoing to the sounds of diving and splashing; the slapping and pummeling of masseurs at work in the adjacent massage rooms; the puffing and grunting of weight-lifters showing off their physical form and prowess in exercise rooms; the exhilarated cries of patrons emerging from the intense heat of sauna into the cold plunge bath.  In corridors and passageways, there would have been joke-telling and laughter; the hushed tones of some slanderous gossip shared; perhaps the occasional groan of the ageing legionary slowly lowering immersing himself in the warm bath in hope of easing the discomfort of rheumatism.  There were quieter rooms too, for the conducting of business transactions and playing board games, and rooms for the essential rituals of daily bathing which were such vital part of the Roman way of life.  (Green 20)

Text Box: Picture 10 The Roman Bathing Complex.  (The Roman Baths).image: Reconstruction drawing by John Ronayne of part of the Roman bath houseEven though the baths were a place for cleanliness and relaxation there, was more to them then just jumping into the water and washing up.  In fact, there were five separate stages to taking a bath Roman-style.  “After changing, bathers went into a very hot room, which was full of steam where they sat for a while.  Then they went into a hot, dry room, where a slave removed all the sweat and dirt from their skin, using a metal scraper and olive oil.  To cool off, they went for a swim in a tepid pool.  Finally, they jumped into a bracing cold pool” (Macdonald 25).  Picture 10 is an aerial view of what the bathing complex at Bath looked like during the Roman’s occupation in Aquae Sulis.  The Roman-bathing complex at Bath was completely out of proportion to the size of the Roman town here.  Fed with naturally hot water from the Sacred Spring it was designed to cater to the needs not just of local people, but of people who travelled as pilgrims from across the Empire” (The Roman Baths).  Another interesting fact is that, “although the Romans liked bathing, they only visited the baths once every nine days” (Macdonald 25).

Where did the water come from?

So far, we have covered what Britain was like before and during the Roman occupation and a few of the important buildings in the Roman Baths; however, what is missing in this story?  An understanding of where the water came from and why it is special.  In the past, this natural phenomenon was beyond human understanding and therefore it could only be described as the work of the gods.  When in truth, the hot mineral springs of Bath that still gush from the earth at a rate of a quarter of a million gallons a day, began it’s journey as rain water about 10,000 years ago. 

The water we are watching now was rain falling on the Mendips.  It percolated down through the carboniferous limestone deep into the earth where, between 2700-4300 m, natural heat raised the temperature to 64-96 [degree] C.  The heated water then rose along fissures and faults through the limestone to the surface but lay trapped beneath impermeable layers of Lias clay until a fault could give access to the surface.  The fault lies beneath Bath and allows […] the water to bubble free.  (Cunliffe 3)

Analysis of the water’s mineral content has revealed the different kinds of rock through which it has passed.  “There are forty-three minerals in the water; calcium and sulphate are the main dissolved ions; with sodium and chloride also important.  The water is low in dissolved metals except for iron which causes the orange staining” (Cunliffe 2). 

Text Box: Figure 2 Cross section of path of the spring water in Bath.  (Cunliffe 2).Figure 2 shows the rain falling on the Mendips hills, then soaking into the carboniferous lime stones, then  traveling underground toward the fault lines and then finally resurfacing near the River Avon, which runs through the city of Bath.  Although it is a small diagram, it does show the distance and rocks the water traveled through during its very long journey. 

First case of healing

Now that we know where the water came from it is important to understand the reason the Romans and Celts thought the water from the springs had healing power.  The first documented story of the healing power of the springs in Bath is about Prince Bladud and his discovery of the hot springs of Bath in the fifth century BC. 

The young Prince Bladud [shown in picture 11] having contracted leprosy on his return journey from a period of study in Athens was confined to a room within the palace of his father, King Hudibras, lest the disease should spread throughout the Royal Court.  But the headstrong prince, wearying of his enforced quarantine, escaped and fled the kingdom, taking up employment as a lowly pig farmer.  But, after a time the pigs also became infected.  So one day he approached the River Avon, herding his pigs down to the bottom of a steep, wooden valley to forage for acorns.  Statue of Bladud beside the King's Bath (Roman Baths Museum)As he waited, he noticed a few of them wallowing in a steaming alder swamp not far from the river bank.  He was amazed to see that when the pigs emerged from the muddy waters their sores had been healed.  Bladud followed their example and found that he too had been Text Box: Picture 11 Prince Baldud.  (Clark).healed of his leprosy.  The prince was thus able to return to his father’s court.  (Green 15)

Although the story has undergone countless revisions and embellishments throughout the many hundreds of years of its existence.  The above story is the basic of them all. 

            As we can see, religion and paying tribute to their gods was very important to the Romans.  We took a brief look at the history of Britain before the Roman invasions, how the invasions succeeded, as well as the advancement of constructing roads and towns the Romans brought with them.  It is interesting to note that the modern day railroad tracks are the same width as the carts (and ruts) used by the Romans.  We also took a brief look at some of the more important buildings in Bath, dedicated to Sulis Minerva.  Because I have walked around the baths and have felt the historic importance of them, I found it very interesting to learn what a day at the baths could have been like while the Romans were there.  It was also important to learn where the spring water came from, even though the water is older then everything else at the Roman Baths.  Finally, we learned of the first documented case of the healing powers of the spring waters.  By covering all these topics, we should have a better understanding of how the Romans built Bath.  I hope that we also have an idea of what it would have been like to visit the baths and enjoy their healing powers. 




Clark, John.  “The mystery of Bladud.”  Bath Past.  5 Dec. 2004.  Jean Manco.  27 Aug. 2006


Crouch, Alison.  Personal Photo Collection.  Visit to Bath on 7 Aug. 2006.


Cunliffe, Barry.  The Roman Baths at Bath.  England: Bath Archaeological Trust, 1993.


Green, Kim.  Bath: Valley of the Sacred Spring.  Bath: Second Nature Press, 2004.


Macdonald, Fiona.  100 things you should know about Ancient Rome.  Essex, England: Miles Kelly Publishing Ltd, 2001.


Murray, Stephen J. “Prehistory.”  Welcome from Dot to Domesday.  28 Aug. 2006


Rush, Ian.  “History 260: History of England to 1688.”  26 Aug. 2006.  Washtenaw Community College.  30 Aug. 2006


The Roman Baths.  Nov. 2002.  Bath & Northeast Somerset, Charter Mark, Designation Challenge Fund, World Heritage Site.  27 Aug. 2006


Watney, John.  Roman Britain.  Great Britain: Jarrold Publishing, 2005.


Westwood, Robert.  Ancient Dorset.  Hampshire:  Inspiring Places Publishing, 2006.



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