I promised something somewhat controversial in an upcoming post. And here it. . . . .isn’t. Yet. But this is an important aspect of it to provide context and background. This will probably be split into two posts as there is a lot of material here. I don’t know what WordPress’s limits on post length is, so we’ll have to see.
What I’m going to present to you is an overview of the work I did in Egypt this season. To summarize for those who haven’t been following, I was charged with clearing out the ‘Grand Roman Bath’ at Karanis, on the NE end of the Fayum Depression.
The Bath itself is probably 3-5th century AD in date — more about that later — and was first cleared and studied in 1975 by a team from Cairo University. They published their work through the BIFAO (link); unfortunately (for me anyway) it was nearly all in French, so I spent quite a bit of time working with my meager French and Google Translate (link) to go through that and learn all I could about its construction and use, from what the French/Egyptian team found.
Happily, they also published a lot of plan drawings and photographs so we have a pretty good idea of what the Bath looked like when they uncovered it in 1975. Since it has been left largely open to the elements — and tourists — ever since, it gives us a valuable opportunity to see just what sorts of changes have occurred to the structure in the 40-odd years since it was first uncovered. The 1975 photos and descriptions are a baseline, if you will, that allows us to judge how well the structure has fared over the years, what parts are most subject to damage and decay, and from that develop a plan to preserve it as best we can while still allowing some kind of visitor access to this important (and very popular) building.
There was also some fairly extensive restoration work done by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2001. They plastered around the remaining ancient plaster to help protect it (covering the edges with modern plaster helps keep it from peeling away), and extensively reconstructed the half-dome above the cold water bath tub. In addition, they covered the tops of all walls with a simple mud plaster, which is surprisingly effective. They also seem to have cleared out the sand in the interior. Other than that, it’s largely been left as-is since 1975.
Besides simply examining the structure for problems, we took the old photographs and examined each part of the structure in detail, comparing what is in the photo with what is there now. What the remainder of this post consists of is a series of photographs, usually in pairs: First I’ll post the old 1975 photograph, and then a recreation of it as best we could arrange it. We weren’t able to exactly reproduce every photo from the correct angle and lighting for a number of reasons, principle among them that in many cases the CU team used very tall ladders and were able to stand on neighboring structures that are now too fragile (or gone) to stand on. So they’re not perfect replicas.
One thing we did that’s novel, however, is use a 3D reconstruction of a mosaic of photographs taken by our photographer. It’s really quite neat and enables one to zoom in from virtually any angle. Theoretically, I could have simply used that tool to pretty much exactly recreate each photo; trouble is, the quality isn’t the greatest. Instead, I’ve used the 3D model in a couple of cases where the angle was too difficult to get within the time frame we had to work with, but otherwise used something close enough to get the gist of what it looks like from a particular angle today.
First up, here’s what we had to work with initially:
This shows the depth of sand that covered the Bath at the start of work. Not especially the depth in the room closest to us, the semicircular niche in the outside wall in the center, and also that in about the top center of the photo, where there is something of a white rectangle.
Here it is after we cleared it completely:
This slide is from the 3D model. In the back, you can see the white rectangle is actually a bench about 50 cm high. The room in the center (now center-right) now has a low wall visible, and the niche has a substantial portion uncovered. There is actually still sand under the niche; we hadn’t reached the bottom of the wall there. Otherwise, the floors are all now visible. The depths of sand were variable, generally deeper in some of the corners where the wind could swirl around and deposit more sand. In the first room, it was 106 cm deep in the southeast corner. Otherwise, it probably averaged around 30-50 cm deep. Outside of the structure (not seen above), it was even deeper, a couple of meters; we’ll see more of that later.
These next two are an example of the matching up of the old and the new; this new one is also from the 3D model:
I’m not going to say too much about these two since we’ll be getting to more details of the various areas coming up. What you should be looking for is differences between the old and new, most having to do with the states of the walls and roofs. I’ll note that we did not do a complete clearing of all sand, as Cairo University did; a lot of it was in very bad shape and in some places we left sand in place because removing it would cause damage to things like the plaster it was covering or sometimes the paving stones on the floor, many of which had become rather friable.
First up, we’ll look at the south wall of Room 1, the apodyterium:
The first thing that leaps out is, obviously, the profound lack of a wall remaining. This is probably the most damaged wall in the whole place. The reasons mostly boil down to two: First, it was structurally deficient in the first place, being pierced with three niches, the two smaller outer one and the big central one, so it was unstable to begin with. Second, once the sand had built up in the entrance (off to the right side), people began to use this wall as the entrance, stepping on both the wall and the bench below it to get in. And it not only eroded down; it’s basically two sets of courses, an inner set and an outer set and the inner set has almost completely gone. So it’s really a third its height and half its thickness today. Much of the center and and right part of the bench is almost all gone as well, due to foot traffic. Over to the right you can see a pair of shelves, one of a long piece of stone; those are gone.
These next two are a bit of humor, but they also make a serious point:
Such a beautiful nice, completely gone and all we have left is a grainy black and white photo of it. Chew on that a while before moving on.
These next two are the west wall of Room 1, the apodyterium:
Again, note the bench over to the left. There is also a plaster section of the floor that is now considerably fractured, and the one large fractured stone in the center is gone except for one corner of it. The bench along the wall is also very eroded, and the right side of it was rebuilt and plastered over by the SCA in 2001, which is really probably the only reason it’s still there and largely intact. The wall behind it is much degraded, although the SCA rebuilt a good chunk of it as well. You can make out the new, much squarer and differently-colored bricks making up the upper right corner and the right side, and various other portions. Viewed from the side, this wall hasn’t lost a lot of height, but especially near the top it’s much thinner indicating it’s slowly been eroding away due to gravity and rainfall: it’s ud brick so whenever it rains it essentially melts a little. And also note that we didn’t clear all the sand off of the floor: it was fairly friable and had we really gone after the ground-in sand and dirt, it would have damaged the stones. But we cleared away the edges enough to see the outlines of each stone.
This next view is also taken from the 3D model and shows the apodyterium (foreground), the frigidarium (cold water bath, center right), and the tepidarium (warm air room, center right).
Things to note here: First, the roof over the frigidarium tub has been extensively rebuilt. Probably only 1/2 to 1/3 of it remained in 1975 and the SCA built most of it out to its original half-dome shape. Judging by the roof of the tepidarium — which is now no longer there — this was probably a smart move. Perhaps they’d seen the tepidarium one had fallen and decided to save the other one.
Second, note how much plaster is remaining. It’s kind of hard to pick it out, but for the most part, most of what you see here is modern plaster; there are patches of the original remaining, but probably 70-80% of the original is now gone. This is typical of the rest of the walls as well. The plaster simply wasn’t made to be outside and exposed to the elements; it was interior plaster. It was never meant to last 2000 years either, obviously, although you can see from the old photo that quite a bit of it had.
Staying within the frigidarium, here is the architrave of the half-dome of the bath (the front rounded portion):
This was a nice little wave decoration that presumably went the entire distance around the architrave; it’s now completely gone. We don’t know whether it was removed and saved by the SCA or whether it had simply fallen off and then was plastered over. But most of what was painted in the interior of the tub (on the ceiling) is now gone. Probably 40% of the original was there in 1975 and now maybe 30% of that is still around:
There are no old photos of this next one but I include it because it’s kind of neat:
That’s a tri-lobed drain set in the floor at the entrance to the tepidarium. It was probably intended as the main drain for the structure with the water from both the cold and hot baths emptying into it — supposedly the water from the caladium tub at the far end of the building would have just drained through the structure to here, but there is another drain farther along that was probably added later. This one was built right into the structure of the building. Interestingly, the lobe on the upper left has a round stone in it — maybe sort of a strainer? — although I don’t know if it’s recent or ancient, and the upper right one is plastered shut, presumably in ancient times.
Next we’ll take a closer look at the tepidarium ceiling:
This is probably the most dramatic example of deterioration, along with the south wall of the apodyterium. You can see that maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of the roof of this room was there in 1975. Hard to tell whether it fell in before or after the SCA work. All we do know is that it collapsed shortly after the floor of the room was cleared because the roof bricks fell right on bare or nearly bare floor:
These next two are taken from inside the next room in the sequence, the laconicum or steam/sauna room:
The main thing to jump out at you (probably) is the lack of an arch above the doorway. This was apparently a purely decorative arch, as the part above the doorway is now gone and we see that the doorway is actually supported by a stone lintel. There are actually two of these lintels making it sort of a double-thickness door. It’s also very narrow and short: the CU team measured it as 141 cm (the top of the arch hits the bottom of the stone lintel) and now it is still only 150 cm. This is probably not strictly a reflection on the stature of the ancient inhabitants (though they were shorter than today), but I think it’s probably more to keep heat in.
This room probably didn’t have any water facility, just heated air coming in from four hot-air vents connected directly to the boiler room. It also has the under-floor heating (forced air) called a hypocaust — we’ll see more of that later.
But apart from the doorway, note how much plaster has disappeared. Most of the niche to the left has been reconstructed and not much of the original plaster remains. The niche itself is interesting, as it has a limestone floor. The CU team noted that the inside of it has soot or dirt staining on it, so it may well have housed a brazier of some sort to create additional heat for the room. This is also the only room with a vaulted ceiling; the others have domed roofs. There is some evidence that the laconicum in Roman baths was the most decorative room in the whole bath, which is somewhat the case here with the large niche, vaulted ceiling, and other little touches.
To the left and right in that photo you can see two of the hot air vents, the one on the left seemingly very intact. The one on the right might be extensible rebuilt, and the bricks filling it were put there by us to get the bricks off of the floor and help stabilize the vent structure somewhat.
These next two are the west wall of the tepidarium opposite the doorway:
There’s kind of a good bit of plaster remaining, but it’s also been extensively plastered recently as well. Note the lowest parts of the vaulted roof on the upper parts of the sides there. Missing, of course, is the occults at the top, but otherwise this wall doesn’t seem to have lost much of its height. In the upper right corner you can also make out a piece of pottery, which is the top of the hot air vent there. Not sure if that was just a piece of another vessel that was plopped in there, or if it were specially made for that duty; it’s gone now.
A few things to see here: First, the stones here are all of the same material (unusual for this bath) but are still very irregular. Also, the fractured one in the center has broken away and only a portion remains. Second, in the first photo you see an empty space in the left foreground; this is the open area under the floor where the hypocaust system was, which the excavators presumably dug into to examine. This was filled in and the floor stone not replaced.
Third, there are four brick supports in the old photo, each about 4-5 courses high of two ricks each. These were supports for a couple of benches. Now, of course, only portions of three remain. Note also the plaster around the remaining supports and in the right corner. Many of the corners in all rooms had some plaster in the corners, presumably because more sand piled up here faster. We tried to leave as much of this in place as possible, leaving some sand there and also covering them up at the end of the season.