In the summer of 2007, colleagues at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services Unit (ULAS) discovered the remains of what may be a Roman bath house on Bath Lane in Leicester (see excavation plan below left – courtesy of ULAS). They were on the site of what had later become the Merlin Dye works and so the remains were christened the Merlin Works Baths. As with so much urban archaeology, their discovery was as a consequence of the site being prepared for development, in this case residential tower blocks on the banks of the river Soar. These were not the first Roman baths to be found in Leicester, Dr. Kathleen Kenyon had excavated the more well-known Jewry Wall baths in the city between 1936-38 in insula XXI and revealed the ambitious scale and extent of this form of civic architecture in Leicester along with the Basilica and Forum in insula XXIIa. She dated the Jewry Wall Baths to 125-130AD, the time of Emperor Hadrian’s tour of Britain.
The Romans were in Ratae Corieltavorum (Leicester) by 45AD, probably with the establishment of a small fort in or adjacent to the pre-existing Iron Age settlement at a principle crossing point of the river soar. By the late 2nd Century AD Ratae seems to have become a busy prosperous trading centre, rebuilt as a planned settlement on a typical Roman grid-iron layout within a defensive wall with gates and ditches and with new public buildings like a Forum and Basilica as well as the Jewry Wall baths. The Merlin Works Baths align very closely with the street grid which suggests that it was built sometime after the Roman fort became a Roman town but possibly before the Jewry Wall Baths were built. The Merlin Works Baths predate the Jewry Wall Baths by about 50 years (c. 75 AD) but appear from the partial remains revealed to have been more or less identical in plan form and size to the later Jewry Wall Baths built nearby.
This raises questions about why the Merlin Works Baths were abandoned and what they looked like. They occupied a site of partially reclaimed ground on the east bank of the river soar, convenient for a constant water supply and waste water discharge. But the riverside was also rapidly developing at the same time as an area of high status villas because of its desirable riverside location. It may be that that as Roman Leicester transitioned from a garrison cum trading settlement to a planned regional administrative centre, the land values on this river frontage and the site of the Merlin Works Baths proved a tempting prospect, prompting the town leaders to rebuild the baths away from the river frontage perhaps also as part of grander scheme of civic improvement. As Seneca tells us in his letter to a friend, bath houses were noisy and public and they would have produced smoke from wood fires for water heating and there would have been substantial customer and supply traffic in and out of them. It wouldn’t be surprising if well-to-do local residents wanted the bath house moved and there is evidence such as the Blackfriars floor mosaic that around the time of the completion of the new Jewry Wall Baths c.145AD the area along the river bank was gaining substantial high status villas. Whatever prompted the abandonment of the Merlin Works Baths their position in the town plan appears to suggest that they had an importance in the very earliest phase of Roman Leicester. Placed axially at the end of an East –West Street their façade would have been visible from the other side of town framed by the other buildings that lined it.
It is possible that the Merlin Works bathhouse had an open air palaestra, later Roman bathhouses in Britain had indoor exercise halls. Again the early date means that the bathhouse could have had a military style layout, with the room layout in a linear form, like Silchester for example, opposed to the later imperial forms seen at Jewry Wall or Wroexter. In the suggested plan arrangement shown above the entrance is based on the baths at Silchester, the outdoor palaestra (exercise yard), is also based on the one found at Silchester. The apodyterium is equal in size to the changing rooms found at Silchester, Wroexter and Jewry Wall in Leicester. The Walls of the frigidarium (cold room) and tepidarium (warm rooms) are based on the walls found at the excavation site. It may be that further excavation and new evidence will show that the layout of other parts of the building (as yet unexcavated) was different or in fact the building was not a bath house at all, but based on the current evidence it seems likely.