Dark Earth: Billingsgate Bath House


The Dark Earth covering Roman London has a split personality.

On the one hand:

The human occupation of many areas of Roman London appears to have come to an end in about 130 AD with the remains being covered in Dark Earth.

On these sites and many others, though not necessarily all, the expansion before AD 125-130 is marked by the debris and burnt pottery of the second great fire of Londinium, which occurred about that date, and in default of am historical suggestion of arson at this period is usually regarded as accidental.
The crisis of confidence which caused a long delay in rebuilding after the fire of AD 60 was not repeated after the fire of AD 125-30.

Instead, rebuilding seems to have taken place almost at once, and on a site north of Newgate Street the previous ground-plan was followed, and a similar kind of occupation seems to have continued.

In Milk Street, north of Cheapside, after a brief interval during which temporary buildings were used, the burnt building was succeeded by one with the added luxury of a mosaic floor.

This new building, however, apparently had no successor on the site, but was overlaid by the featureless dark soil which elsewhere in London seems to mark the interval between recognizable Roman occupation and that of the later Saxon or early medieval period.
Some confirmation of a change in the nature of the occupation of Londinium in the second half of the second century – and probably in its third quarter – is given by the fate of the late Flavian public baths north of Upper Thames Street.

These were deliberately demolished about that date, after being greatly extended as recently as the early second century.

Again we seem to have the same story: development in late Flavian times, continued expansion under Hadrian, and a break in occupation in Antonine times; for no major public building succeeded the demolition of the baths.

Instead, two much smaller and slighter Roman structures were built there at a subsequent but unknown date.

Roman London – Ralph Merrifield
The City of London from prehistoric times to c.1520 – Volume III – 1989

The Historic Towns Trust – Atlases

It is rare for a town at any time in its history to experience continuous growth at
the pace experienced by early Roman London.

It is no surprise, therefore, that by the middle of the second century Londinium’s years of expansion, fuelled both by new commercial opportunities in the region and the great public building programmes, were over.

The building and occupation sequences come to an end on sites in many areas of Roman London in the mid- to late second century.

Overlying the latest building remains, deposits of what are usually known as ‘dark earth’ are found.

This material has recently been described in more detail as ‘a dark grey, rather silty loam with various inclusions, especially building material’.

Similar deposits have been found in other Roman towns, but the origin of the dark earth remains a matter for debate.

Archaeology In British Towns From the Emperor Claudius to the Black Death – Patrick Ottaway – 1992 – Routledge
See: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415144205

On the other hand:

The human occupation of other areas of Roman London appears to have come to an end sometime after 360 AD with the remains being covered in Dark Earth.


Our sparse archaeological evidence for late Roman London comes almost entirely from the neighbourhood of the river, where buildings continued to be occupied between St Peter’s Hill in the west and the Tower of London in the east, and were even rebuilt, as at Pudding Lane after 375.

Roman London – Ralph Merrifield
The City of London from prehistoric times to c.1520 – Volume III – 1989


Pottery from the deposits beneath it ranged through the second century, and from the clay and burnt material above it came a coin of the house of Valentinian (A.D. 360 or later); so that this version of the road belonged to a late phase of the Roman city.

The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London – W. F. Grimes – 1968
See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/dating-the-dark-earth-the-cheapside-valentinian/

Precisely dating this final layer of Dark Earth in Roman London is a conundrum.

Firstly, Late Roman archaeological evidence is said to be very thin on the ground.

Our sparse archaeological evidence for late Roman London comes almost entirely from the neighbourhood of the river, where buildings continued to be occupied between St Peter’s Hill in the west and the Tower of London in the east, and were even rebuilt, as at Pudding Lane after 375.

Roman London – Ralph Merrifield
The City of London from prehistoric times to c.1520 – Volume III – 1989

Secondly, Late Roman archaeological evidence [also] displays a split personality.

The Billingsgate Bath House is a classic example.

The remains of a Roman Villa with a Roman Bath House where unearthed beneath Lower Thames Street in the City of London during construction work in 1848.

The Roman Villa was “probably” built in the late 2nd century whilst the Roman Bath House is deemed to be a “3rd century” addition.


Coal Exchange, 100 Lower Thames Street (Billingsgate Roman Bath-house site), EC3

The only meaningful plan of a Roman dwelling of the 3rd c so far found is that excavated at Billingsgate Bath-house.

The entire brick-built bath suite, discovered in 1848 and 1859, was uncovered in 1968–71; a water-tank nearby was recorded in 1975 (BIL 75), further walls in 1982 (BS A 82), and a conservation exercise was undertaken in 1987–90 (BBH87).

The bath-house was attached to a house of at least two and possibly three wings which surrounded it; the house was probably built in the late 2nd c, and had been deeply set into the terrace of the hillside.

Sites Investigated by The Guildhall Museum Before 1973

Click to access GM_sites_1901-72.pdf

The Roman house at Billingsgate is the modern name for a Roman house in Londinium (Roman London).

The best preserved parts of the house are a bath with hypocausts.

Pottery has shown that the Roman house was erected in the late 2nd century and had at this time a north and an east wing around a courtyard.

In the 3rd century was added a bath into the open courtyard in the middle of the complex.


I was at first inclined to think that this was a private bath attached to a Roman villa, but upon the subsequent discovery of the frigidarium, and inferring that the caldarium existed beyond the sudatorium and hypocaust, thus having three rooms devoted entirely to the purposes of bathing, I have been induced to alter my opinion and consider it a public bath, the situation so near the river being in every respect well adapted.

On A Roman Building Discovered In Lower Thames Street, In The City Of London – W. Chaffers, Jun – The Journal of the British Archaeological Association No IV – 1849


Evidence from the hypocaust system of the late Roman building complex suggests that it had been poorly maintained prior to abandonment.

Progressive blocking-up of flue ducts in the eastern wing meant that first floor room A and then room E were converted to unheated spaces.

The building was probably subject to relatively slow decay and episodic vandalism and demolition in the very late and sub-Roman period.

Environmental analysis of dark earth deposits which sealed the north end of the building’s east wing indicate an overgrown, waste ground environment progressing to scrub as the period of abandonment continued.

Elder, blackberry, stinging nettle, hemlock, and henbane were common.

Associated animal bones included mouse/vole, frog/toad, black rat, and weasel, all of which would have thrived in such an environment.

Freshwater snails typical of damp and shady habitats were also ubiquitous.

The Billingsgate Roman House and Bath: Conservation and Assessment
Peter Rowsome – London Archaeologist – Volume 07-16 – 1996

Click to access archiveDownload

Early reports about the Billingsgate Bath House mention 1st and 2nd century coins.


Further Notes In Connexion With The Preceding Paper – C. Roach Smith
The Journal of the British Archaeological Association No IV – 1849


Domitian: 81 to 96 AD, Nerva: 96 to 98 AD, Aurelius: 161 to 180 AD


While later reports about the Billingsgate Bath House only mention 4th and 5th century dated coins that were either “dropped” on the floor or “thrown” into a urinal “by the handful”.

The house was occupied until about AD 400 or later, on the evidence of a coin hoard of AD 388-402 found scattered on the floor of a furnace room, from which the east wing was heated by a system of underfloor heating.

Roman London – Ralph Merrifield
The City of London from prehistoric times to c.1520 – Volume III – 1989

Click to access 3_roman_london.pdf

A few fragments of 4th century Roman pottery have been found with the roof tiles, showing that the house continued in use until the late Roman period; but particularly exciting is a group of 241 bronze coins found in a stone-lined pit – possibly a urinal – under the rubble layer.

These coins must have been thrown into the pit before the roof collapsed and, as the latest coins were minted after A.D. 395 they prove that the house was occupied at least until the last fifteen years of the Roman occupation of Britain.

The coins were scattered over the floor, and do not seem to have been in any container.

It is almost as if they were thrown in by the handful, and it is not easy to explain why this was done.

In the frigidarium there were possible signs of a hasty departure from the building at the end of the Roman period, for on the pink mortar floor we found 18 bronze coins lying together where they had been dropped.

They were all badly corroded, but several have been identified showing that they were lost after A.D. 388, and stratigraphically the group should be roughly contemporary with the coins in the stone-lined pit described earlier.

Roman House and Bath at Billingsgate – Peter Marsden
London Archaeologist – Volume 01 – 01 – 1968


If the storyline [thus far] of the only meaningful 3rd century dwelling in Roman London [with it’s coins dating from the 1st to the 5th century] is beginning to push the boundaries of credulity then it’s time to introduce the marvellous Saxon Disc-Brooch that was found on top of the roof rubble at the Billingsgate Bath House.

The Lower Thames Street house shows evidence of significant social change in its final occupancy.

Alterations to the heating system suggest multiple tenancy, with separate furnaces heating small suites of rooms, while the bath-house was no longer used for its original purpose.

The ash containing the amphora sherd was never cleared away, and at this point the building was abandoned.

The windows were broken, giving access to wind and rain, and in due course the roofs collapsed over both house and bath-house.

While the building stood as a roofless shell, it received a visit from a group of Anglo-Saxons, probably on a scavenging expedition, and one of their women lost her brooch in the debris of the bath-house roof.

The date of this applied disc-brooch is clearly crucial.

It appears to be an English derivation of a Continental type of the early fifth century, and is likely to have been made, possibly in Surrey, in the first half of the fifth century.

An identical specimen, however, comes from a grave at Mitcham that has been attributed to the second half of the fifth century.

The brooch from Lower Thames Street is therefore likely to have been lost between AD 450 and 500 – in all probability before 475 – and the building had then been derelict for some time.

Roman London – Ralph Merrifield
The City of London from prehistoric times to c.1520 – Volume III – 1989


Tantalisingly, a Saxon brooch was found on top of the pile of collapsed roof tiles dating from a time when this part of the City of London was uninhabited.

At Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse – Spitalfields Life – 5 Sept 2015

When Ralph Merrifield states the dating of this Saxon Disc-Brooch is “crucial” he really does mean “crucial” because the Billingsgate Bath House provides the only archaeological evidence that supports the mainstream Early Anglo Saxon narrative in the City of London.

The only site in London, as yet excavated, where it can confidently be suggested that some sort of occupation took place in the immediate post-Roman period is the bath house of a large building near the river at Billingsgate.

An early Anglo-Saxon brooch was found in the ruins indicating fifth-century visitors if not actual residents.

Archaeology In British Towns From the Emperor Claudius to the Black Death – Patrick Ottaway – 1992 – Routledge
See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0415144205

The only datable Early Saxon finds from a stratified context within the Roman walls are from the site of a Roman bathhouse by the Thames at Billingsgate.

They comprise a 5th-century saucer brooch with Germanic-style floriate cross (Cook 1969a) and a sherd with granitic inclusions, either from Leicestershire (Charnwood Forest) or Scandinavia, probably of similar date (Richardson 1991:61p.; Williams & Vince 1997:217 pp.).

The brooch is identical to two examples found in grave 205 at Mitcham and another from grave 123 at Guildown, Surrey (Welch 1975).

The Origins and Growth of Lundenwic, a Mart of many Nations
Lyn Blackmore
Central Places in the Migration and the Merovingian Periods, s. 273-301

Click to access 20_Blackmore_U6.pdf

Whether the mainstream have pushed the boundaries of credulity too far with their Billingsgate Bath House narrative is a value judgement for individual reader to make.

History would be a wonderful thing – if it were only true.
Leo Tolstoy

Personally, I’m with Leo Tolstoy when it comes to assessing the modern mainstream version of the Billingsgate Bath House narrative.

Gallery | This entry was posted in British History, Dark Earth, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dark Earth: Billingsgate Bath House

  1. thx1138 says:

    The Chicago Fire (3)
    Human Testimony Reconsidered

    All investigators of the Chicago fire and its devastating regional counterparts rely on human testimony. But how should we view such testimony when it suggests things that are not currently believed? Good science will not ignore witnesses when, in unison, they suggest new lines of investigation.

    On the evening of October 8, 1871 devastating fires erupted at virtually the same moment in three different states in the region of the Great Lakes—Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. The outbursts included the notorious “Chicago fire”, but also an even more devastating fire in Wisconsin, the worst in U.S. history, covering some 400 square miles. At the same time, wildfires also erupted across much of Michigan. In his book Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, published in 1883, Ignatius Donnelly proposed that the simultaneous outbursts were no coincidence; they were the effect of our Earth meeting up with a fragment, or fragments, of comet Biela, a body that had disintegrated a few years earlier while on an Earth-threatening path.

    As Donnelly reports it, in the Wisconsin fire near Lake Michigan, a large area including the town of Peshtigo and several neighboring cities was “swept bare by an absolute whirlwind of flame”. His review of the event, based on eyewitness accounts, was taken primarily from the book “History of the Great Conflagration”, by James W. Sheahan and George P. Upton (1871). It includes the following report:

    “At sundown there was a lull in the wind and comparative stillness. For two hours there were no signs of danger; but at a few minutes after nine o’clock, and by a singular coincidence, precisely the time at which the Chicago fire commenced, the people of the village heard a terrible roar. It was that of a tornado, crushing through the forests. Instantly the heavens were illuminated with a terrible glare. The sky, which had been so dark a moment before, burst into clouds of flame.A spectator of the terrible scene says the fire did not come upon them gradually from burning trees and other objects to the windward, but the first notice they had of it was a whirlwind of flame in great clouds from above the tops of the trees, which fell upon and entirely enveloped everything”. [Emphasis ours]

    For many of the witnesses it seemed as if the biblical “last days” had come. Though well accustomed to wildfires, they had seen nothing like this before. “They could give no other interpretation to this ominous roar, this bursting of the sky with flame, and this dropping down of fire out of the very heavens, consuming instantly everything it touched”.

    Donnelly continues quoting from Sheahan and Upton: “No two give a like description of the great tornado as it smote and devoured the village. It seemed as if ‘the fiery fiends of hell had been loosened’, says one. ‘It came in great sheeted flames from heaven’, says another. ‘There was a pitiless rain of fire and SAND. The atmosphere was all afire’. Some speak of ‘great balls of fire unrolling and shooting forth, in streams’. The fire leaped over roofs and trees, and ignited whole streets at once”. [Emphasis ours]

    Donnelly notes that many of the victims were found in open spaces with “no visible marks of fire nearby” and “not a trace of burning upon their bodies or clothing”. Many were found huddled together “in what were evidently regarded at the moment as the safest places, far away from buildings, trees, or other inflammable material, and there to have died together”.

    One clue, perhaps, is the mention of electrical phenomena:

    “Much has been said of the intense heat of the fires which destroyed Peshtigo, Menekaune, Williamsonville, etc., but all that has been said can give the stranger but a faint conception of the reality. The heat has been compared to that engendered by a flame concentrated on an object by a blow-pipe; but even that would not account for some of the phenomena. For instance, we have in our possession a copper cent taken from the pocket of a dead man in the Peshtigo Sugar Bush, which will illustrate our point. This cent has been partially fused, but still retains its round form, and the inscription upon it is legible. Others, in the same pocket, were partially melted, and yet the clothing and the body of the man were not even singed. We do not know in what way to account for this, unless, as is asserted by some, the tornado and fire were accompanied by electrical phenomena”.

    It seems the idea that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow triggered the conflagration in Chicago did not withstand investigation. Speaking of O’Leary’s barn, the fire marshal testified: “We got the fire under control, and it would not have gone a foot farther; but the next thing I knew they came and told me that St. Paul’s church, about two squares north, was on fire”. They then checked the church-fire, but–“The next thing I knew the fire was in Bateham’s planing-mill”.

    A writer in the New York “Evening Post” says he saw “buildings far beyond the line of fire, and in no contact with it, burst into flames from the interior”.

    To these references, Donnelly adds a quote from The Annual Record of Science and Industry” for 1876, page 84:

    “The flames that consumed a great part of Chicago were of an unusual character and produced extraordinary effects. They absolutely melted the hardest building-stone, which had previously been considered fire-proof. Iron, glass, granite, were fused and run together into grotesque conglomerates, as if they had been put through a blast-furnace. No kind of material could stand its breath for a moment.”

    Another quote from Sheahan & Upton’s Work:

    “The huge stone and brick structures melted before the fierceness of the flames as a snow-flake melts and disappears in water, and almost as quickly. Six-story buildings would take fire and disappear for ever from sight in five minutes by the watch. . . . The fire also doubled on its track at the great Union Depot and burned half a mile southward in the very teeth of the gale–a gale which blew a perfect tornado, and in which no vessel could have lived on the lake. . . . Strange, fantastic fires of blue, red, and green played along the cornices of buildings”.

    Some additional detail and comments of interest appear in Mel Waskin’s more recent book, Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet(1985). Speaking of the Peshtigo outburst, he writes—

    “Accompanying the firestorm and the wind was a rain of red hot sand. It was not clear to those eyewitnesses who survived their ordeal where this sand came from. It must have been raised from the earth by the incredible winds, but from where? There was sand on the beaches, but the beaches lay to the east, and the wind was blowing from the west and the south. There was no sand on the floor of the forest nor on the farmlands of Wisconsin”.

    Waskin also mentions incredible “balloons of fire” reported by many people, including one family that lived between Peshtigo and Green Bay. “The onslaught was so sudden that the family could only run to the center of an immense clearing on their farm where nothing combustible stood. They hoped to be safe, several hundreds yards from structures or trees.

    “When the fire came, rushing on all sides of them, it did not in fact touch them. But eyewitnesses saw them die. A great balloon of fire dropped on them – father, mother, and four children. They were incinerated in an instant.  Almost nothing was left of them”.

    “Many survivors described these great balls of fire falling from the sky. The whole sky was filled with them; round smoky masses about the size of a large balloon, traveling at unbelievable speed. They fell to the ground and burst”. Waskin says that a brilliant blaze of fire erupted from the balloons as they landed, instantly consuming everything they touched.

    Also noteworthy were the reports that the flames erupted from the basements of the stores when there was “no sign of fire in any other part of the building”.  And the basement fires burned with a strange light, “as if whisky or alcohol were burning”.

    As something of a footnote to this article, we note a contemporary report claiming that “The first (and most startling) piece of evidence is the recent discovery of a 26.5-kilogram carbonaceous chondrite meteorite on the shores of Lake Huron – ‘ground zero’ of the astral bombardment. This report, by Ken Riell, whose claims follow the work of Donnelly and Waskin, suggests the meteor is of the same composition as the incoming object in the Tunguska event in Siberia — 1908.

    Also of interest is a presentation on the Peshtigo fire by the Oconto County Web Project, which discusses the comet hypothesis as a “plausible” theory—

    “Weather historians, using archives as a baseline, and adding information from recent decades, now offer a plausible theory.  Meteor showers in Autumn are common in the upper great lakes. In recent years these showers have left burning chunks scattered over the entire region, some large enough to break through the roofs of homes and out buildings, starting fires in dry fields and wooded areas. With the tinder dry conditions present throughout the entire region on the night of October 8, 1871, such a meteor shower would easily have started what seemed like spontaneous fires in numerous places of Wisconsin, Michigan (upper and lower), and Illinois (the Great Chicago Fire). With the continuous thick smoke from smoldering smaller blazes already blanketing the land, and the unusually hot weather of that time making residents seek shelter inside their homes early in the evening, the meteors that entered the Earth’s atmosphere could not easily be seen. This certainly would account for the sudden eruption of numerous blazes over the vast area at exactly the same time.”

    Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the “cometary” explanation ever receiving the attention it deserves until those addressing the question familiarize themselves with the electric comet model. As we have already emphasized, without this deliberate reconsideration of the underlying question—what is a comet?— the investigator will either ignore or forget the most telling clues. In the above reports, for example, consider the following:

    Whirlwind of flame or “perfect tornado”

    Tornadoes are a slow electric discharge phenomenon. The ionized trails of cometary debris, descending through the ionosphere to the lower atmosphere, produces “lightning conductors” to allow various forms of “megalightning” to descend to the ground. One of the manifestations of a powerful direct discharge between the ionosphere and the Earth could well be a tornado, in which the usual swift lightning strike is replaced by a slower discharge. Powerful electromagnetic forces generate a devastating “charge sheath vortex” that slows the discharge while spreading the devastation on Earth.

    Fire descending from the sky

    As in the Tunguska event, the appearance of fireballs or electrically discharging debris, along with associated lightning manifestations from a clear sky, would be expected as an external body penetrated Earth’s plasma sheath.

    Rain of fire and sand

    An electrically charged fragment of a comet nucleus will undergo explosive electrical fragmentation before reaching the Earth’s atmosphere. The electrical model of comets envisions these bodies being formed by the same processes that created asteroids. Most, if not all, are as rocky as asteroids. The result of their fragmentation will be a meteoric shower of granulated silicates, or sand, mixed with flammable gases and electric discharge phenomena – a ‘biblical’ rain of fire and sand.

    Descending “balloons” of fire.

    It is well established that comets discharge carbon compounds that would be flammable in the Earth’s oxygen atmosphere. Gaseous balls of fire would combine with various weird manifestations of megalightning, reaching through the meteoric shower of dust to the ionosphere, almost 100 kilometres above the Earth. The spectacle would be beyond normal experience. In addition, near the Earth, ball lightning could be expected, given the extreme electrical conditions—and the presence of ball lightning is surely the plausible explanation for descending “balloons” with the power to incinerate objects they strike.

    Buildings exploding with fire when no fire was yet present

    Electrical discharges would take place between metal objects inside buildings, igniting any flammable materials. The same would hold true for the hapless man found with melted coins in his pocket but clothes intact and no other signs of burning. There is, in fact, no other natural explanation for this enigma.

    Colorful flames running along cornices of buildings

    This is the usual description of a glow discharge from sharp edges of rooftops, seen in the midst of powerful electrical storms. It is called “St. Elmo’s fire”. The different colors of the flames are due to the metallic ions sputtered from the surface material.

    Fusing of fire-proof building material

    Plasma discharges can be used to melt anything. Industrially, plasma torches are used to destroy the most refractory materials.

    Basements exploding

    “…the basement fires burned with a strange light, “as if whisky or alcohol were burning”. Whisky or alcohol burns with a ghostly blue light. Similarly, electrical glow discharges from grounded metallic objects or electrical wiring in the basements of buildings would emit a flickering, eerie blue light. Any trapped flammable gases formed in the basements would be ignited by the discharge, resulting in explosions.


    Our purpose here is not to suggest a definitive answer to the “Great Conflagration”. But the cost of ignoring evidence should be obvious. The moment one entertains the electrical vantage point, if only to compare the explanatory power of alternative views, the most incongruous elements of the story become predictable features. And who could deny that this ability to resolve paradoxes is the mark of a hypothesis that deserves consideration?



  2. This might be linked with the earlier Carrington event of 1859, and I would initially suspect an even larger CME collision causing the widespread ignition of flammables detailed above.

  3. Pingback: Sutton Courtney and the Saxon Swamp | MalagaBay

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