The Roman Baths at Għajn Tuffieħa

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Many archaeological remains are found by chance, when digging for other reasons. The remains of Roman baths at Għajn Tuffieħa are such a case, discovered in 1929 during government works to use a fresh water spring to water fields in the area. This and other nearby springs might explain why the baths, which needed a constant flow of large amounts of water, were built at Għajn Tuffieħa. Although the area is rather deserted today, it was quite heavily populated in Roman times, as testified by burials in Zebbiegħ and Mġarr – in fact this was true of the entire area from Rabat/Mdina to the nearby ports of Ġnejna Għajn Tuffieħa, and Burmarrad.

Although it has not as yet been totally excavated, it would seem that the site was quite large, with a communal latrine and possibly a small and rudimentary hotel-like structure in which people could stay overnight, however little is left of that other than the baths.

These baths date to between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. As in the case of the Roman House at Rabat, this complex gives an idea of the leisurely life enjoyed by the Romans in Malta.

The Roman baths complex has everything one would expect to find in Roman baths of the time, with bathers first entering a tepidarium for a warm air, then to the caldarium, similar to a sauna, where after profuse perspiration the bather took a warm bath. This was followed by a cold dip in the cold room or figidarium. Heat was provided by a furnace beneath the caldarium which also provided a form of ‘central heating’ to the rest of the structure. The caldarium had an important role in Roman life, serving as a meeting place. Each room was fed by tunnels channelling the water flow and supplied with heath by an underground furnace or hypocaustum, similar to central heating.  The caldarium at Għajn Tuffieħa was built on arches so that the water could be heated.

Apart from all this, there was also a large swimming pool, the natatio.  Another room had stone benches on three sides, one foot high,  with nine circular holes cut in serve as toilet seats. The stone seating-slabs could be lifted to inspect and clean the space beneath as well as to lay fresh soil to cover the dirt [1].

The corridor is paved with earthenware tiles, the tepidarium with a beautiful coloured mosaic pavement though sadly the mosaic floor of the frigidarium is worn out due to exposure to the elements.

At the moment these Roman Baths are not open to the public and are not in a good state. Excavation had begun in 1929 under Sir Temi Zammit. In 1961, the site’s mosaics underwent restoration sponsored by UNESCO and rooms were built to shelter and protect the remains however, these rooms exerted pressure on the mosaics causing damage.

In recent years from the UNESCO funded Malta Mosaics Project, which mapped mosaics and pavements at Għajn Tuffieħa and the Domvs Romana. The analysis of this mapping has resulted in a detailed conservation plan which should be actioned in the coming years.

Excavations carried out in 2014 formed part of a €6 million project entitled For a Rehabilitation of the Roman Baths and Christian Catacombs at Mosta and Mgarr part-funded by EU Rural Development Funds. The two sites are not linked in any way, and the project intends to clean and open up the catacombs at Ta’ Bistra in Mosta. With regard to the Roman Baths near Għajn Tuffieħa, the project intended to fully explore the entire area and subsequently roof over the site and set up an Interpretation Centre.

Six Roman bath complexes are known to have been discovered around Malta, including one, improbably, in Floriana. Others have been found at Ramla l-Hamra in Gozo and Marsaxlokk.

 

NOTES:

  1. T. Zammit: Roman Villa and Thermae at Ghajn Tuffieha, Malta. Bulletin of the Museum, Malta, 1931, i:62
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