The first Roman invasion of Britain is often seen as the most significant single event in British history. The arrival of the Romans had a large, lasting impact on society and culture, called Romanization, which can still be seen today.
The Romans passed through Surrey, close to Cobham, during the invasion of AD 43 and Cobham was close to the major Roman road from London to Winchester.
The discovery of Roman coins dating from before the invasion show that trade had long existed between Britain and the Roman Empire. Once the Romans landed on British shores they began to influence native culture, including technology, food and cultural practices. The settlers built bath houses and communal bathing was soon embraced by wealthier Britons.
Roman bracelet found at cremation site in Molesey
Roman jewellery has been found widely across the borough of Elmbridge. The bracelet above was found at a cremation site in Molesey. We know a lot about Roman jewellery from the excavation of Roman and British graves. Wealthier Romans and Britons, both men and women, were buried with jewellery. Because bath houses were used by the wealthy, it is likely that those who used the bath house at Chatley Farm would have worn jewellery similar to the examples shown below.
Jewellery worn by Romans at Chatley Farm bathhouse
The bath house in Cobham
The remains of a local Roman bath house were found in Cobham parish, east of Ockham Common, in 1942. The Chatley Farm bath house, as it became known, was excavated by a team led by Surrey Archaeological Society.
The bath house was used for about 40 years, up until AD 360, but we don't know much about the people who visited. Curiously, the remains of a nearby villa have never been found. A settlement may have been washed away by the path of the River Mole over the years.
We do know that, like all Roman baths, visiting the Chatley Farm bath house was as much about socialising as washing. Bathing was a communal activity that gave people the opportunity to meet friends and catch up on news. Unlike today, the bather would pass through several different rooms to cleanse the body in stages.
Copy of Cobham bath house layout at Chatley Farm. Original by Tony Hallas
Roman flue tile from Chatley Farm bath house
How did the bath house work?
The Chatley Farm bath house used warm air, heated by a furnace and carried via flue tiles. A water tank rested above the furnace to supply hot water to three of the four distinct rooms.
Bathers would start in the small hot sweating chamber, called a sudatorium, to expel dirt from the body, followed by soaking in the warm waters of the tepidarium. They then entered the caldarium, the hottest room, to open the pores. Finally, a plunge in the frigidarium, the cold bath, closed the pores and was believed to protect the body from disease.
We know that the bath house suffered from initial poor design. There is evidence of a disastrous episode when the water tank melted, pouring molten lead, unsuited to high temperatures, into the surrounding stone. Perhaps the bath house was built by native Britons who wished to imitate a Roman lifestyle, but were still learning how the design worked.
Roman culture and legacy
The Romans influenced other parts of life in the local area, including farming and cooking. The discovery of a Roman grain drier at Hurst Park in Molesey shows how the settlers introduced new technology. It made food production quicker and avoided grain spoilage, however many native British farming practices were effective and continued unchanged.
We can see the Roman influence on the British diet from pots and vessels used for food and drink. The introduction of the mortarium, a bowl used to grind up herbs and spices, reveals the new flavours they introduced.
One of the reasons Romanization was successful is that that Britons were willing to adopt this new culture. The Roman customs represented here must have seemed more advanced than native practices. However, cultural change was partial and gradual. The influence was also two-way, with Romans taking on British customs too.
Mortariums were used to grind up herbs and spices for cooking. The Romans enjoyed using lots of different flavours in their meals and introduced new foods to Britain. These include many things we still enjoy today: vegetables such as onions, garlic and peas, and herbs such as rosemary, thyme and basil.
Roman quern stone from Hurst Park
Milling in Roman Britain was done using a two-part stone system. The stationary base, called a quern stone, laid flat while an upper hand stone was rotated against it with a wooden axel through the centre. This method of grinding flour from cereals dates from before the Iron Age and this Roman example shows that the technique continued for hundreds of years.