Lost London – Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

Hidden beneath an office building in Lower Thames Street opposite the former Billingsgate Fish Market are the remains of some of London’s best preserved Roman ruins in the form of an expansive house and baths complex.

Last weekend, the Festival of British Archaeology presented a rare opportunity to visit the property which has been the subject of an extensive conservation project.

The remains of the buildings were first discovered by workmen building the New Coal Exchange in 1848 (this was demolished in the 1960s and the current office building constructed in its place in the 1970s – the ruins now sit in its basement).

While the house – which may have formed an L-shape or three-sided building stretching around a courtyard – dates back to the 2nd century AD, the baths complex – which is believed to be located in the house’s courtyard – were added the following century. The buildings, both of which feature an underfloor heating system known as a hypocaust, are notable for the fact that they remained in use until the early 5th century AD when much of what had been Roman Londinium was then already in decline.

Visitors to the baths would first have visited the cold room (frigidarium) before moving on to the warm room (tepidarium) and then the hot room (caldarium) which was heated by the hypocaust. There they would pause to remove dirt and oils from their skin using curved metal scrapers known as strigils before retracing their steps to the cold room where they are believed to have either jumped bravely into a plunge pool or splashed cold water over themselves.

The site includes two furnaces – one at the house and another at the baths – used for heating the space under the floors. The fact both buildings were constructed of stone indicates they were either owned by a wealthy family or were for communal use, perhaps as an inn for travellers.

The objects found in the premises include hoard of bronze coins (all minted after 395 AD) and a bronze brooch, believed to have belonged to a Saxon woman who must have dropped it after 450 AD when the bath house may already have been in ruins.

You can follow the conservation work being currently being carried out on the property – a joint project involving the City of London Corporation, the Museum of London, English Heritage, Nimbus Conservation and the Institute of Archeology of University College London – here: www.billingsgatebathhouse.wordpress.com. It’s expected the ruins will next be opened to the public for the Open House weekend on September 17th/18th.

Around London – National Maritime Museum expands; new galleries proposed for British Museum; Festival of British Archaeology in London; and, the London Street Photography Festival…

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich opened the doors of its new £36.5 million Sammy Ofer Wing today. The new, architecturally slick extension – which is being touted as bringing with it a change of direction in the way the museum operates – features a new permanent gallery known as Voyages as well as a temporary exhibition space, library and archive. There’s also a lounge, cafe and brasserie – the latter boasting views out over Greenwich Park. The Voyages gallery has been designed as an introduction to the museum and features a 30 metre long thematic ‘object wall’ hosting more than 200 objects – everything from a letter written by Horatio Nelson to his mistress Emma Hamilton while he was on board the Victory in 1803 through to a watch belonging to Robert Douglas Norman – among those who perished on the Titanic, and a somewhat battered Punch puppet. The special exhibition space initially hosts High Arctic which uses technology to create an “immersive environment” exploring the Arctic world from the perspective of the future. The museum is also introducing the Compass Card scheme, a new initiative which will eventually be rolled out across the museum. Visitors are presented with a unique card with which, by inserting it into special units placed in galleries, they can flag their interest in receiving further information on a specified subject. The card can then be used to call up related archival information in the museum’s Compass Lounge or using the visitor’s home computer. For more information, see www.nmm.ac.uk.

The British Museum has announced funding has been secured for two new gallery spaces. These will include a new gallery looking at the history of world money from 2000 BC to present day. Known as the Citi Money Gallery, it will be opened in 2012. A donation from Paul and Jill Ruddock, meanwhile, means the museum will also be working on a major redisplay of Room 41 which covers the Mediterranean and Europe from 300 to 1,100 AD. The artefacts in the room include treasures taken from Sutton Hoo and the Vale of York Viking Hoard. The gallery will open in 2013/14. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

Now On: Festival of British Archaeology. Coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, the 21st festival (formerly known as National Archaeology Week) kicks off this weekend and runs until the end of July. It boasts more than 800 events across Britain including in London where they include guided tours of the Rose Theatre, a range of Roman themed events and activities – including a gladiator show – at the Museum of London, gallery talks at the Bank of England Museum and British Museum, the chance to visit the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, and a guided walk of Londinium (Roman London) organised by All Hallows by the Tower. For a complete events listing, see http://festival.britarch.ac.uk/.

Now OnThe London Street Photography Festival is running until the end of the month with a series of exhibitions, talks, walks and workshops, the majority of which are taking place in and around King’s Cross. Key events include Street Markets of London in the 1940s – Walter Joseph featuring never before seen images at the British Library, Vivien Maier: A Life Uncovered at the German Gymnasium, and Seen/Unseen – George Georgiou and Mimi Mollica at the Collective Gallery. For more information, see www.londonstreetphotographyfestival.org.