Large Gallo-Roman villa with preserved ‘thermae’ discovered in Brittany, France

gallo-roman-villa-thermae-brittany-france_1View of the 'thermae' (bath complex). Credit; Hervé Paitier, Inrap.

By late 1st century AD, a large number of people living in the Gaul regions were endowed with Roman citizenship, a significant factor that led to the emergence of the distinct Gallo-Roman culture. This uniquely syncretic cultural scope blending Roman norms with the Gallic society, extended till the ‘medieval’ 7th century, especially in the historic region of Gallia Transalpina, long after the demise of the Western Roman Empire. And now archaeology has confirmed one of the enduring legacies of the Gallo-Roman culture, in the form of a large Gallo-Roman villa at Langrolay-sur-Rance, in Brittany, France. Discovered during the July excavations of this year, by researchers at the National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP), the find in question entails a field villa (from around 1st century AD) with its intact pars urbana (residential unit).


Credit: Bastien Simier, Inrap.

Conforming to the ‘generalized’ style of most ancient Roman villas, the structural ambit comprises different buildings (sections) all constructed in a U-shaped pattern around the central courtyard. The access points into this courtyard were bordered by colonnaded galleries, on three sides. In terms of dimensions, the total area of the entire floor plan accounts for a substantial 1,500 sq m (or 16,100 sq ft), which in turn is located on the 2.3 hectare site. In that regard, the complex in its entirety, being ‘remodeled’ over time from 1st century to 4th century AD, also encompassed secondary areas and landscaped gardens.


Details of the foot-bath. Credit: Bastien Simier, Inrap.

But beyond just its size factor, the Gallo-Roman villa boasts a number of fascinating architectural features. For example, a secondary structural extension, was built specifically with its southward orientation to face the sun. But arguably more interesting is the discovery of the spa area of the villa, with its opulent thermae (bathing facility) having private bathrooms that accounted for an area of 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft). These sections were accompanied by some rooms served by a heating system known as hypocaust (a Roman system of underfloor heating, usually with hot air). As INRAP described the layout –

Several rooms have a heating system by the floor, called hypocaust. Thus, people could walk in different rooms according to a specific route. Once undressed in the locker room, they borrowed a gallery leading them to a footbath before access to both cold and hot pools. Once bathed, they joined the caldarium, the hottest room equipped with a hot water bath and a sauna. They then went into the warm rooms to wash and be massaged. They finished their journey by a cold bath.


Caldarium detail. Credit: Bastien Simier, Inrap

The impressive layout of the thermae was complemented on the visual scope by an assortment of paintings on the walls and ceilings of the bath, many of which are still in their well-preserved state. According to the archaeologists, previous examples of such paintings (with shell inlay coatings) have been found in Western Europe. But the Langrolay site has unveiled “an unprecedented collection” that would help experts in studying the embellished art style that was probably developed some time in 3rd century AD.


Roman coins from 2nd and 3rd century AD, found at the site. Credit: Emmanuelle Collado, Inrap

As for the historical occupants of this massive Gallo-Roman villa, the researchers have suggested that the complex belonged to a noble family of Coriosolites origin. The Coriosolites hailed from what is now present-day Brittany and possibly formed a network of maritime settlements in the region. Fanum Martis (or modern-day Corseul) was the capital of the area, around 9 miles from this ‘countryside’ villa. So in a conceivable scenario, the owner might have made a half-day’s trip from the city to his country retreat, with the villa being connected by a road network and possibly even by water via the ancient port of Taden.


Solid bronze key, possibly of a cabinet inside the villa. Credit: Emmanuelle Collado, Inrap

And lastly, in case one is interested in the reconstruction of a typical Roman villa, you can take a gander at the amazing animation below (sourced from Gilles Saubestre’s YouTube channel). The video presents the Roman domus of Domitia Longina, wife to the Roman Emperor Domitian, who lived from 55-126 AD.

Source / All Images Courtesy: INRAP

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