The Roman thermae complex with its 30m-diameter circular heated pool.

Gallo-Roman baths uncovered in Calvados

The thermae (baths) of a Gallo-Roman villa in an unexpectedly good state of preservation have been uncovered in Normandy. At the beginning of 2018, an archaeological diagnosis carried out by a team of the French Institute of Preventive Archaeology (INRAP) – prior to the proposed extension of the La Papillonnière business park in Vire in the Calvados department – revealed the vestiges of the villa on an estate.

The thermae complex, located 65m from the villa, which was used between the 1st and the 3rd centuries, indicates that the owner of the estate must have been wealthy, not only because few private individuals could afford such facilities, but also because of its well-thought-out design and good building quality.

However, the thermae were more than just a bathing facility: they were also a place where the owner entertained his guests.The vestiges of nine rooms, covering 160sqm, were clear enough to identify their use: south and east of the thermae was the hot area, including a 30m-diameter circular, heated pool and a large room. The hypocaust (heating system)consisted of a raised floor under which hot air, produced by a wood fire, circulated. The floor slabs were supported by stacks of pilae (tiles). Nearby were the remains of the furnace used to heat the caldarium (the hottest room). In the east, the cold area consisted of a changing-room and the frigidarium (cold room), which gave access to the other rooms. Along the edges of this part of the baths was the service area with furnaces fed by fornacatores (slaves in charge of the fires), and what could have been a water-tank and latrines.

Unfortunately, the site was deemed too fragile to be left open, and preservation work on site would have been too costly. So, at the end of the excavation, Gérard Guillier, the engineer in charge, announced that it was to be filled with soil so that the extension of the business park could go ahead.

A thorough study of the site was carried out in situ, and the data and numerous samples collected will undergo further study. A virtual recreation of the complex will be displayed in Vire Museum when it reopens – it is at present undergoing extensive renovation work.

Nicole Benazeth