Roman Bath House re-discovered at Hovingham, North Yorkshire more than 250 years after it was first uncovered.
All too often archaeologists talk about ‘new’ discoveries, a curious concept in world where the focus of study is about the past. During February and March 2008 the Landscape Research Centre undertook a geomagnetic geophysical survey at Hovingham as part of a project designed to gain some understanding of the scale of the archaeological resource in the Vale of Pickering that might be at risk from the extraction of aggregates. This work was part of a very large project concentrated in the eastern part of the Vale. In order to establish the degree to which the extraordinary results emerging on the sands and gravels between Rillington and Potter Brompton to the east of Malton reflected a more widespread picture small sample areas were examined elsewhere in the Vale for comparison. We were fortunate enough to be granted permission by the Hovingham estate to undertake a geophysical survey in the Park at Hovingham Hall where antiquarian discoveries pointed towards the presence of Roman structures. The survey was undertaken both to test the appropriateness of using gradiometery on the sands and gravels which fill the river valleys entering the Vale of Pickering at the western end but also to try and discover the location and context of a Roman bath house unearthed here in the early 18th Century when an ornamental canal was constructed during a massive landscaping campaign initiated by the 5th Thomas Worsley who inherited the estate in 1715..
The bath house is discussed in a letter sent on June 7th 1749 from Francis Drake (not the one with a boat, but the author of Eboracum with the catchy subtitle of ‘The History and Antiquities of the City of York, from its Original to the Present Time; together with the History of the Cathedral Church and the Lives of the Archbishops’) to William Stukeley, perhaps the pre-eminent early English Antiquarian. The letter along with others was published in a volume of the Surtees Society following a meeting of the society on December 4th 1877, with the great Yorkshire archaeologist Canon Greenwell in the chair in which it was ordered
“that a Selection from the Gale and Stukeley Correspondence should be edited for the Society by the Rev. W. C. LuKis.”
This was duly published in 1882 as ‘The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D., and the antiquarian and other correspondence of William Stukeley, Roger & Samuel Gale, etc (Volume 3)’ this is available for download as an e-book or can be read on the internet.
Although the letter does not indicate the date of discovery of the Hovingham Bath House or for that matter much detail as to the nature of the discoveries it is however nevertheless very entertaining as a reflection of archaeological response times. Part of the letter is included below..
“ The interruption or our correspondence has been occasioned by some mistake ; it is near a year ago since I wrote to you to Stamford, and sent by the York carrier, at the same time, a duzzon of prints from a plate of a Roman bagnio and pavement found lately at Hovingliam, near us, and published at the expence of Lord Burlington. I believe this was some time before your remove to London, for I saw an account of that in the news-papers afterwards. I am affraid both my letter and the prints miscarried; for I have never heard one word from you since about them.”
The letter then goes on to point out that a plate made by Virtue and funded by Lord Burlington was in London if he wished to have any prints made from it. The Society of Antiquaries of London has a copy of the etching as do the Worsley family at Hovingham Hall, the etching is reproduced below with permission of Sir William Worsley. It shows parts of a Roman Bath House, some examples of the pilae (used to support heated floors in Roman bath houses), one of a number of tubuli (vertical flue pipes designed to heat the walls), a plan of a damaged room with a partial mosaic situated some 221 feet away from the Bath house, and references a few coins and other finds recovered during the uncovering of the structure. A small (less than 25cm square) fragment of the illustrated mosaic survives as a family heirloom.
The Hovingham Bath-House as illustrated in 1747
Although the location of the Bath House excavation is indicated on a map of the Park drawn in 1760 the precise location has remained unclear since. According to the late Sir Marcus Worsley the Canal itself was not a particularly successful feature of the park and by 1824 it had been re-modelled by opening out the western end into a broad but shallow lake, perhaps in the hope of increasing the water catchment to support the flow through the canal. In the end the limitations of the water supply meant that both the lake and the canal silted up and it became un-economic to maintain them as landscape features. Parts of the canal can still be detected on the ground through the survival of shallow banks on either side, but even the 1842 plan suggests that the site of the Bath House was obliterated by the lake extension and that the building with the mosaic was probably bisected by the stream which flows though the park and has most likely been lost entirely either as a result of erosion from the stream or enthusiastic antiquarian activity in the18th Century.
The original geomagnetic survey exposed many features relating to the ornamental canal and lake but failed to reveal the location of the Bath House, even using measurements from the early map to isolate the most likely location and undertaking a higher resolution survey than would normally be possible we could not see any convincing evidence of the structure. Elsewhere in the survey there were indications of possible walls, suggesting that the approach was not entirely inappropriate and thus that the Bath house remains had either been completely destroyed during the various enhancements to the park or that it was obscured as a consequence of the silting up of the canal and or lake.
In 2013 it was decided that further research using alternative geophysical survey methods might give a better return than the geomagnetic survey. The Landscape Research Centre (LRC) has recently established a co-operative research agreement with the Initiative College for Archaeological Prospection (IC-ArchPro) at the University of Vienna, perhaps Europe’s leading archaeological remote sensing centre. The IC-ArchPro is at the forefront of developments in high speed high density geophysical survey and has a range of equipment not normally available to the LRC including a highly sophisticated multi-channel Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) instrument. An appeal to the IC-ArchPro for help at Hovingham was given an immediate and positive response and a team from Vienna brought a range of instruments, including the high density radar instrument and undertook a large area survey at Hovingham between March 30th and April 4th 2013.
GPR instruments are usually notoriously slow to use for archaeological survey as they tend to be very heavy and have to be dragged by hand across the survey area; the University of Vienna system is dragged by a quad-bike and also in contrast with conventional methods generates data that can be viewed within an hour of the survey completion, rather than needing several days of post-processing. The GPR works by transmitting and receiving radar pulses that are recorded as subsurface slices reflecting material density at different depths determined by the time taken for the radar signal to be returned to the instrument receivers.
In the case of Hovingham the GPR was able to confirm that the walls of the bath-house buried at a depth of over a metre still survived beneath the present ground surface. The mystery of the lost bathroom at Hovingham hall is now resolved, other walls identified nearby may indicate the presence of other structures in the immediate vicinity, but a shortage of time precluded further survey to see if the location of the building with the mosaic fragments could be found. It is now hoped that the team from Vienna will return later in the year to extend the survey area and try and identify the context for what in terms of plan looks like a rather unusual and large bath-house for its rural setting.
Geomagnetic survey at Hovingham intended to find the location of the missing Bath-House
Ground Penetrating Radar Survey (overlaid upon the geomagnetic survey) which confirmed the location of the Bath-House excavated in the eighteenth century