University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Hypocaust that Never Was, or, the Case of the Missing Floor- Jane Sancinito


September 2, 2016

This summer I traveled to Transylvania, Romania, to break ground on what is believed to be the central building of a Roman-era villa complex. The site is just outside a small village about a half an hour outside of Deva, the regional capital, and sits at the foot of a majestic volcanic plug, Magura Uroiului.

The site, before we broke ground (July, 2016), with Magura in the background and the Carpathian Mountains in the distance. Photo by Jane Sancinito.
The site, before we broke ground (July, 2016), with Magura in the background and the Carpathian Mountains in the distance. Photo by Jane Sancinito.

The work, as anyone can tell you, was physically demanding, unglamorous, and hot, but within a few weeks we had cleared the fairly shallow plow-zone and its omnipresent alfalfa roots, and reached our first set of Roman walls. It was believed from last season’s ground-penetrating radar that the villa building had two overlapping phases, and we were pleased to find evidence of a sealed collapse layer of roof tile near the second phase wall. It was likely that our site wasn’t looted!

Me in “my” trench, working on cleaning off wall rubble and roof tiles. Behind me, the wall of phase two.
Me in “my” trench, working on cleaning off wall rubble and roof tiles. Behind me, the wall of phase two.

Among the roof tiles we found a scattering of even more promising artifacts, Roman period “tubuli,” ancient ducts that directed heat throb the walls of a house. These tubuli were installed in the walls of a building where, beneath the floor, a hypocaust, a Roman heating system, had been installed. This system would have kept at least the central room of the villa warm during the cold Romanian winter. A hypocaust was also an expensive undertaking in ancient times, because it required some expertise in construction and high quality bricks that were specially fired to withstand the heat.

A model of a Roman hypocaust. The tubuli run vertically through the walls, bringing heat into the living space.
A model of a Roman hypocaust. The tubuli run vertically through the walls, bringing heat into the living space.
A fragmentary tubulus from trench 8.
A fragmentary tubulus from trench 8.

The finds were hopeful, yet, as we dug deeper and deeper, level by level, we did not find the solid floor that would have separated the room from the furnace below. We found the foundation of the second phase walls and, at nearly a meter below the surface, we even hit the top of the walls of the first phase, which lie slight askew of the second phase walls. All without a trace of a floor.

The finds of this season from the Roman period (and there was, it seems a short post-Roman occupation within the walls of the villa building) suggest that the building was expensively constructed and that the owners were people of some wealth. A fine Roman brooch (fibula) was found, along with two silver coins. However, with such wealth, it does not seem plausible that they lived without a floor of some kind, even if they ultimately could not afford the hypocaust system itself. So we are faced with an archaeological mystery for now. Was the floor stolen? If so, the thieves were incredibly thorough, we found maybe two bricks that might have served as flooring. Did the Roman inhabitants live with packed earth floors? If so. They didn’t pack it much, our dirt was surprisingly “fluffy.”

Our current opinion is that the building was still under construction when it was abandoned. The hypocaust would have been one of the final projects undertaken, after all the walls, with their tubuli, were installed, and the area of Romania, then Dacia, in which the complex sits was attacked twice through the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE, with bands of Germanic tribes moving through the area. The complex was attacked and the owners fled (probably after the first phase had been sacked and the owners had tried again with the second phase), leaving the building, without a floor, to be inhabited by locals or possibly even members of those tribes who stayed in the building until the roof collapsed. Only future work will tell if this interpretation will stand, but for now it’s the best we can guess.

The trench at the end of the season, still floor-less, but clean.
The trench at the end of the season, still floor-less, but clean.
Magura on the last day of digging.
Magura on the last day of digging.

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