“Depart, work and troubles! Now I sing of the baths that sparkle with shining stones…”
-Statius, Silvae 1.5
Roman baths were famous for their opulence and ubiquity, and are spoken of admiringly by a number of ancient authors. To excavate a Roman bath, however, is a different matter. The baths do not sparkle, nor do the stones shine. Caked in millennia of dirt, their walls emerge mud-stained and crumbling. Only after cleaning and conserving our finds can we glimpse the gleam of the marble, the luster of the glass. Little by little, we begin to imagine the baths as they were meant to be.
Thanks to the generous support of the Penn Museum, I was able to return for my second season at the Roman site of Cosa. Founded in 273 BC, Cosa sits high on the Ansedonian hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Although American excavations at the site began as early as 1948, they have been intermittent, and much remains unexplored. Our new project, directed by Andrea de Giorgi, Russell T. Scott, and Richard Posamentir, is focused on the large bath complex just northwest of the forum.
In our first season (2013), we uncovered the substantial remains of a laconicum—a round heated room popular in Roman bathhouses. Initial investigation of the building’s facades were also begun, and explored in more detail during the 2014 season. My trench is in the southern sector of the complex, and was opened in order to investigate the relationship of the building’s exterior (made clear by the presence of an ancient Roman street to its south) to the large western cistern area.
We uncovered several well-preserved masonry walls that intersect at right angles and help clarify the axis of the building. The rooms they separated are paved with Roman waterproof concrete which, we discovered much to our chagrin, worked all too well when the site was hit by relentless rainstorms in mid-June.
Two large thresholds were also discovered in the southern sector of the bath complex, and must have served as principle entrances to the building.
Because the hill of Cosa has no natural water source, a major question of our project is how the hydraulic system functioned: how was water collected, stored, transported to the bathhouse, and distributed within the building? Part of our work this summer involved a detailed investigation of the nearby reservoir system, which is connected to the baths by a tunnel beneath the ancient street.
A new and exciting aspect of the 2014 season involved the increased use of digital technology. Our Quadcopter UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) was able to take aerial photos of the site, improving mapping capabilities and creating 3D models of standing features (the city walls, the arx, and the forum) and of our excavated trenches. These models will allow archaeologists to study and explore the site remotely, even after the excavation season ends.
After a fascinating and productive season, much remains to be explored at Cosa’s baths. I hope to return again next summer, whether or not they “sparkle with shining stones.”
For more information on our project, visit: http://www.cosaexcavations.com/index.html
To see our 2014 daily blog, visit: http://cosaexcavations.blogspot.it/
To view 3D models of the site, visit: https://sketchfab.com/matthewbrennan/folders/af22e37edf8840c0be5bcc07c0a52c4e