Archaeologists digging in Reims, France have discovered a monumental ancient Roman complex dating back to the second to third century AD. The Roman megastructure uncovered in Reims was found complete with underfloor heating, a hydraulic network and rare pigments. Experts speculate that it was either the home of a wealthy individual or a public spa complex.
Located in north-eastern France, Reims is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, which was the site of coronations for French kings, and the 4th-century Porte de Mars triumphal arch that was built by the Romans.
The Cemetery of Reims, also known as “the Cemetery of the East,” was of great historical significance to France. During the French Revolution many notable figures were buried in this cemetery, including the famous painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the mathematician Jean-Baptiste de La Chapelle.
However, this was also the site where tens of thousands of people accused of being counter-revolutionaries during the French Revolution were executed by guillotine between 1793 to 1794, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette . Now, beneath the dark history of the revolution, INRAP (the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research) has announced the discovery of an elaborate Roman megastructure.
Pilettes of the first hypocaust (underfloor heating system) at the Roman megastructure in Reims, France. (Sylvain Lejeune / INRAP)
Roman Megastructure Reveals Ancient Central Heating System
Comprising raw earth walls and painted plaster representing bunches of grapes, the building was discovered only 100 meters (328 ft) from the Porte de Mars, the largest remaining Roman triumphal arch from the third century AD that served as one of four imposing gates in the city walls.
The recently discovered Roman megastructure consists of two portico galleries measuring 18.91 meters (65 ft) in length, forming the arms of a U-shape. More than 20 individual rooms are linked by corridors, and many were equipped with chalk flooring and fireplaces.
According to a report published in Archaeonews, five of the rooms were once part of a traditional Roman bath , an aspect which became evident after the researchers identified a “hypocaust” system used for underfloor heating .
Used to warm buildings by circulating hot air underneath the floors, a series of channels or flues were created beneath the Roman megastructure by suspending the floor on small pillars or columns allowing hot air from a furnace or fire to circulate. The temperature would then have been controlled by an intricate system of hot and cold water channels.
Between the galleries of the Roman megastructure, the archaeologists found two rectangular masonry buildings that they think formed part of a backyard, in which a fountain was identified with two pressurized water pipes that fed the water system .
Evidence of hypocaust (underfloor heating system) being excavated at the Roman megastructure uncovered in Reims. (Antoine Damsin / INRAP)
Keeping Egyptian Blue Alive: Vivid Blue Unearthed at Roman Megastructure
During the Reims excavations, the team of archaeologists discovered painted plasters and heaps of tiles adorned with floral patterns. Some of them were painted with blue paint, similar to the rare “ Egyptian blue .” This vivid blue pigment was first developed in ancient Egypt over 4,000 years ago by heating sand, copper, and natron, a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.
The resulting pigment was applied throughout ancient Egypt in pottery, sculpture and wall paintings, and it was highly-valued for its durability and resistance to fading. It was also used in the Roman and Byzantine periods and, despite its ancient origins, Egyptian blue is still used today by artists and conservationists.
Ancient painted plaster in multiple colors representing a floral decoration at the ruins of a Roman megastructure in Reims, France. (Yoann Rabaste / INRAP)
Was Roman Megastructure a Private House or Public Bath?
The large number of rooms and the way in which they were organized, the wealth and quality of decorations, the two large galleries and the hydraulic network uncovered during excavations of the Roman megastructure in Reims all led the researchers to conclude that the building was most probably the domus (house) of a wealthy individual. Alternatively, it could have been a public spa complex.
While Reims was founded by the Gauls in the forth century BC, it was the Romans who established it as a major center of culture, commerce and a key military center at a strategic location for the Roman Empire .
In the third century, the Romans piled large blocks of limestone for approximately six kilometers (3.7 mi) around the city. This impressive feat of Roman engineering can still be seen today, standing as evidence of the skills and ingenuity of ancient Roman builders.
Within their walled city, the Romans built a huge amphitheater, public baths and an aqueduct to supply the city with water, but by the beginning of the fourth century the settlement was abandoned. Over the next 1,400 years the site was used for agriculture before becoming repopulated at the end of the 18th century.
Top image: Aerial image of the excavations in progress showing the scale of the Roman megastructure uncovered in Reims, France. Source: Yoann Rabaste / INRAP
By Ashley Cowie
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