A ROMAN bathhouse has been unearthed beneath town centre street by amateur archaeologists, exposing the first evidence the legionnaires who lived there were recruited from Gaul tribes.
The remains, which have lain beneath Chester-le-Street for almost 2,000 years, were pinpointed using 19th century records and discovered under the back gardens of houses in an undisclosed residential street.
The discovery sheds new light on the history of the County Durham town and has revealed details about the Roman soldiers who manned the town’s second century fort, known as Concangis.
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Details of the extraordinary find came to light during the annual County Durham Archaeology Day held at County Hall, in Durham.
David Mason, Durham County Council’s principal archaeologist, worked with the amateur enthusiasts on the dig, using keyhole archaeology to map the long-lost bathhouse, before it was covered over once more.
He said: “It was always assumed the baths building was somewhere in the vicinity, but no one was exactly sure where.
”This intrigued some of the local amateur archaeologists”.
He added: “Within a week it was very clear that there was something quite substantial.
“It’s always a thrill for those actually doing the digging. Having had this idea that it would find something in that location, for them to actually find it was very exciting and very rewarding.”
The team were given permission by a householder to dig test holes in the back garden and quickly found remains of a wall around two feet below the surface.
Excavations proved the walls were the changing rooms of the legionnaires’ bathhouse and they followed the line into the next-door garden, where the doorway and drainage from the baths’ cold room was unearthed, followed in the next neighbour’s garden by the hot room, complete with its distinctive underfloor heating.
The team were unable to examine half the building because modern-day structures were in the way, but they were able to calculate that a 40-metre building, complete with cavity walls and hypocaust to spread heat, stood on the site.
Experts date the remains to around 150AD, under the reign of Emperor Hadrian, when the fort was built to guard Cade’s Road, which followed the line of present-day Front Street.
Several buildings were built outside the rectangular fort, including the single-storey bathhouse which was considered a fire risk and the large parade ground, along with civilian buildings and trading posts straddling the road.
Few artefacts were found during the dig, but one, a stamp tile revealed, for the first time, the name of the unit which garrisoned the fort, The Fifth Cohort of Gauls, raised among the conquered tribes of modern-day France.
Mr Mason said: “In a Roman baths, the soldiers would move along through cold rooms and hot rooms, then apply oils which would be scraped off with a bronze blade to take the dirt and perspiration off.
“It was a considerable building because there was a unit of 500 men and each day around half of them would want a bath.
“The military authorities would consider a bathhouse vital because it keeps their troops clean, improves levels of hygiene and therefore reduces the risk of disease which would reduce their effectiveness as a fighting force.
“There would be certain times when the civilian population could use it, because it’s in the army’s interests to keep the civilians clean and healthy so disease doesn’t spread to the soldiers.
“We also have to think of bathhouses as a kind of leisure centre as well, where the soldiers could relax.
“Elsewhere there have been finds of chicken bones in the drains of bathhouses, so they served snacks. They may have boxed or done weights. It was essentially a recreational centre”.