The Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now the modern city of Bath, has accumulated many layers of history since it was settled by the Romans, within 30 years of their invasion of Britain, around the hot springs sacred to Sulis and re-dedicated by them to ‘Sulis-Minerva’. I went there recently to see what traces of Sulis I could find beneath the accumulations of successive occupations. As well as visiting the Roman Baths and Museum, I had also arranged to join a small group tour with one of the museum staff below the areas open to the public down to the level of Roman settlement now underneath the museum and surrounding streets. The famous Roman baths which are the main magnet for the many tourists who visit the site are in fact a nineteenth century reconstruction in the Roman style. Even in Roman times these were a public bathing area using water from the sacred springs but separate from the temple of Sulis-Minerva. The oldest part of the surviving building over the springs is in fact the so-called King’s Bath, named for Henry I. The medieval builders apparently had no knowledge of the Roman levels beneath as centuries of silting from the springs had overlain what was left of them. Some traces were still visible to the Anglo-Saxons as the poem from those times known as ‘The Ruin’ apparently testifies:
This work is wondrous; fate fashioned its fall
Cement smashed; the work of giants come to grief.
Roofs have tumbled, ruinous towers,
Ravaged by frost ; roofs fallen
Although it is possible for visitors to walk around the recreated ‘Roman’ bath, the King’s Bath can only be viewed through windows and openings in the stone arches. Here the spring waters can be seen bubbling up into a pool within the derelict and empty medieval space and running off at one end towards the ‘Roman’ bath. This is the nearest that it is possible to get to the spring itself.
On the way through to these baths, the museum has a reconstruction of the temple of Sulis-Minerva based on recovered fragments and limited excavations of the site which partly lies beneath the building which houses the museum but also extends out beneath adjoining buildings across the street and towards the medieval abbey situated next to the baths. Excavations beneath these buildings, all of which have their own protected conservation status as historically important later structures, have therefore been restricted.
The tour beneath the museum took us through cellars and along tunnels full of fragments of original Roman structures and over the bases of stone pillars now embedded in the uneven floors. Here we were standing at ground level of the temple beneath the street from where the voice of a busker singing above could be heard. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to imagine myself in the Temenos, the sacred precinct of the temple, before the shrine of Sulis-Minerva. That evening, when the crowds had abated, I stood in the street above where, until the early twentieth century, there was a fountain fed from the spring waters, and had more success locating myself imaginatively in that place.
Of the original Spring of Sulis we have little knowledge. The whole area around the site, in a loop of the River Avon, would have been a reedy marsh. There is evidence of Iron Age settlements on the nearby hills and the remains of a gravel-laid causeway approaching the springs have been discovered. So we do know that access to the site was ensured although no other building work has been found from this period. Perhaps the spring itself was sufficient for Iron-Age devotees visiting the site. If there are now too many layers of history over the original site for any aura of its numen to remain, what then of Sulis today? She remains as ambiguous as the so-called ‘Gorgon’s head’ that adorned the apex of the temple of her coupling with Minerva. Are these the snakes of Gorgon hair associated with Minerva’s protecting shield? And if so why is the face apparently that of a male? Or are they, instead, the swirling waters around the springs? This guardian of her site, as the site itself, remains a mystery for us to fathom in the depths of her waters and the layers from beneath which her divinity emerges.