THE rich Roman heritage of Britain's oldest recorded town has been enhanced by the discovery of a “beautifully preserved” room from a bathhouse.
A single 2,000-year-old room was discovered beneath Colchester Sixth Form College during work to build a fire access road near the college's information technology block.
A leading archaeologist said yesterday it was one of the finest finds of its kind. The room from the bathhouse may now be preserved as an attraction.
Philip Crummy, of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, said he and colleagues had been on a “watching brief” as work at the college was carried out.
Although the remains of a Roman house were discovered under the college tennis courts about 100 yards away, Mr Crummy said he had not been expecting to find anything else.
But what was unearthed last week is a “real gem” and a priceless addition to Colchester's glittering array of historical remains, which also include a Roman chariot race track, discovered to worldwide interest last year.
The 24ft by 16ft room at the college was probably one of several belonging to a Roman bathhouse in the grounds of a private house.
About 20 people would have sat naked on benches to gossip more than to wash, with women congregating in the morning and men in the afternoon.
“It was more of a social occasion for the Romans. They weren't that much interested in being washing - it's only recently that we've become obsesses with hygiene,” said Mr Crummy.
“We've suspected there are other bathhouses in Colchester, but this is the best preserved - it's beautiful.”
The walls of the room, which has a plain red tessellated floor, are of stone and unusually stand about 4ft high.
But the most exciting feature is a wooden water main lying under the floor and crossing the centre of the basin.
Mr Crummy said: “This shows that the water must have been under pressure and, therefore, either provided a small fountain or, more likely, was drawn off via a tap.
“Vents in the bench show the room must have been heated and we think it was filled in during the Roman period when it was no longer needed.
“We suspect this was one of a sequence of rooms, but we don't know which one it was. Usually, the bathhouses had a cold room, a warm room and hot room.”
Mr Crummy added it had been built beside North Hill to take advantage of one of the many springs there.
“The spring that fed the bathhouse is still active because the remains of the room partly fills with water and it is these water-logged conditions which explain why the wooden water-main has survived so remarkably well,” he said.
In the short term, the remains will be filled in as a protection, but in the longer term the college, which offers archaeology courses, hopes to preserve them for permanent view.