Around Basel: The centre of the Roman city Augusta Raurica

After having looked at the foundation legend and history of Augusta Raurica, we now walk through the centre of the Roman city of Augusta Raurica, and I will convey some of my personal impressions. I return regularly to Augst. For instance, I was here in November 2020, again in spring and once more in summer 2021. And I will soon return again.

 

The museum with the rich Roman treasure

This poster stands right near the central parking. It shows citizens in the 1960’s that hold silver plates in their hands.

“Do not miss it!” the panel says, “the largest silver treasure of the ancient world in the museum of Augusta Raurica.” I assure you, the silver treasure IS impressive. It is already amazing, how it was discovered! In the 1960’s, a digger accidentally uncovered the treasure, when preparing a field for construction, and the operator did not notice what he had uncovered. People from the village found the treasure later. Some kept their findings (that happens even in Switzerland) and some took them to the museum. Most of the stolen silver pieces were given to the museum later (this is nevertheless Switzerland). The archaeologists assume that in the 4th century AD, a Roman citizen, scared by the attacks of the Germans coming from the north, hid his silver treasure in a wooden box, which remained under the ground for about 1600 years, until the digger came in the 1960’s.

The treasure is on permanent display in the museum. I pick out two examples. This is the so called “Archilles platter” from 330-340 AD. 

The following platter shows a villa near the sea (330-350 AD). Whenever I visit the museum, I say hello to this finely engraved medallion showing the sumptuous villa and the fish in the sea with the people in the boats hunting them. In the middle, there is even an octopus.

In addition, the museum illustrates what a Roman atrium house looked like.

This is the dining table. 

The Romans used to eat lying around the table (called “accubare”). When lying, you can eat more than when sitting on a chair “compressing” the stomach. I am just not sure, how authentic the cane chair is… but I trust the curators of this museum.

In Ravenna, I found the Last Supper, where Jesus and the disciples eat the “Roman way” (photo taken by me in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo).

The atrium house conveys details of Roman life such as these bones with a wooden “booklet” explaining, how to play with them.

I came across such bone games in Mongolia in 2014. These were goat bones, we used for playing. In addition, the Mongolians use sheep bones for playing.

At the end of the atrium house tour, the coach illustrates how the Romans travelled. There are some places around Basel, where the prints of coach wheels can be seen on the Roman paths cut into rock (for instance above Flüh).  

Recently, the curators have added the black dog lying on the sack with the sausage in front of the nose. Whenever I return to this museum, I find some small detail added with much care. 

Just outside the museum, I notice an earthen plate with small stones. What is this? Has someone lost these stones? But – in a plate? 

I look around and, nearby, I discover this triangle, divided into numbered fields. 

Ah, here it is, the wooden booklet lays out the rules of the delta game, the Deltaspiel. You have to throw three stones in turn, and the winner is the one who achieves the highest sum of numbers.

At Augusta Raurica, children are welcome at all places! I do enjoy discovering such small details.

 

The theatre “of nine towers”, the temple “Schönbühl” and the taberna

The central theatre is the dominant place at Augusta Raurica, just next to the museum. To get a good view of the theatre, I usually climb the hill across called Schönbühl with the “Schönbühl” temple (well, “Schönbühl” is not the Roman name, but this is, what it is called today). Carefully the panels are set up to explain all the details about the theatre and the construction periods (see left hand side).  

The citizens of Augusta Raurica reconstructed their theatre a third time around 200 AD. It was a scenic theatre and accommodated for 10-12’000 spectators. The constructors of the theatre made use of the slope across the Schönbühl hill. The sidewalls rounding off the spectator area (cavea) were open in the  middle – the archaeologists are quite sure of this and assume that the theatre and the “Schönbühl” temple were connected such that spectators could watch temple services from the theatre (Berger, p. 113).

When I return mid July 2021, red flags decorate the place. The summer program is on, until mid-August. The footboard in the foreground indicates that some parents show Augusta Raurica to their young son or daughter, and they may now be visiting the temple behind us. They are not alone, many families walk around Augusta Raurica, especially during the summer school holidays.

Having climbed the spectator area (cavea) of the theatre we look across the Sichelen valley to the Schönbühl hill and the “Schönbühl” temple.

Just across the theatre is the taberna with the oven. Berger, p. 226, says, that a family house was planned here. The owner and the foundation of Augusta Raurica agreed swap of territories to preserve the taberna with the oven and make it publicly accessible. The oven is from the mid-3rd century AD. Though the place has been named “taberna” or “restaurant”, the excavators believe, it was rather a private house with a workshop that perhaps sold food as a side business (Berger, p. 230). 

 

Around the forum, the main square

The beginning of the forum “meadow” has been marked by this wooden construction. Perhaps this is , where the forum temple was. A stork nest has recently been added under the middle arch (another nice detail new to me). 

It is difficult to imagine this meadow to be the main forum. Berger, p.46, gives me an idea: The western part was the sacred area with the temple, while, at the opposite end, the public area was closed up by the basilica and the curia (the latter looks like an apsis). Bordering the forum are various insulae or blocks of houses, laid out as rectangular as the hill allows. In the background, the theatre and the “Schönbühl” temple can be seen; due to the topography, the ensemble does not form a straight line as in other Roman cities. 

The victory column must have formed the south east corner of the so called insula 9 (block of houses bordering the sacred area to the right of the forum). Victoria carries the globe on her head. This column is a copy of the original (Berger, p.9). 

On the forum, the July/August summer activities have been installed with much care and taking into regard the hygienic requirements of the Covid pandemic, however, with some eye twinkling. “Desinfectus hygiena” is understood by everybody, no knowledge of Latin required. 

From the forum, parts of the curia have been preserved and partially restored. “Roman puppets” stand around and by looking into binoculars, you can see them in the forum, as it was about 2000 years ago.

Next to the curia I discover some cupboards that hold games for children from 10 to 14 years. The kids are invited to accompany poor boy Nobilianus who is ill and needs distraction. In various languages, among them in English. 

Under the curia, there is a cellar with mosaics. Many of them are currently being restored, amongst them also my favourite one (my photo from 2013).

It is the so-called “Gladiatorenmosaik” that shows a fish pond which is fed by the water game in the jug, as the panel explains. One of the jug handles has been repaired somewhat oddly.

During the current “summer activities”, the cellar has become a workshop for people and children who want to create their own mosaics. Children will never feel bored at Augusta Raurica.

What always impresses me is the elaborated floor heating system of the Romans, the hypocaust. Behind the forum in the slopes of the Viola valley, such a hypocaust has been preserved.  Presumably, it once heated a dining room of 9.5mx6.6m (panel on site and Berger, p. 231).

The raw material for the heating was wood charcoal; the fire was made in the praefurnium or heating room. Hot air circulated in the space under the floor between the columns (pilae). It was like an underground tiled stove, as Berger, p. 232, writes. 

The heating was discovered in 1941, when tank traps were installed here. Surprises await everywhere in Augst.

 

Baths at the Violenried 

In fact discovering parts of Augusta Raurica sounds like a detective story to me. Anyone who owns land here is bound to find remains of the Roman city, when digging up the earth.

The enterprise E. Frey AG runs a quarry at Augst. The eastern part of the Kastelen hill (one third of the hill) has disappeared; on the hill, there was an area of insulae (blocks of houses) that were probably more upscale. When E. Frey AG intended to move away more ground, it soon became clear that they are about to destroy the baths of the Viola valley (Violenried) and a well preserved groundwater well with the underground well-house. The community of Augst agreed to swap territory with E. Frey AG, and now this area is open to the public. The signpost directs visitors to the underground well-house. 

The photo below shows the baths area in the year 2000, as presented by Berger, p. 160. The round groundwater well (Sodbrunnen in German) can be seen in the middle of the photo. You access the underground well-house using the comfortable stairs at the bottom of the photo. A bubbling noise welcomes you in the well-house. The curators make it all clear to us the well-house has to do with water. One of the theories is that this groundwater well provided the Viola bath with water (Berger, p. 161).

Reading more carefully, I learn that the areas marked by red marl above were heated by the hypocaust system. These were the tepid and hot water rooms of the Viola bath. There were two praefurniums or heating rooms here, a large one to the left of the warm bath rooms and a small one to the right of the oval shaped sudatorium (sweating room). The two other “grey” rooms next to the sudatorium have served some economic purposes, as the archaeologists assume. These two “grey” rooms are above the dark and narrow tunnel that gives access to the underground well-house under the fountain. 

The entry area to the Viola bath was behind the thin wall on the left hand side of the photo above. In addition, there were some blocks of houses behind this thin wall.

On the thin wall, a digitised reconstruction painting has been installed that illustrates life behind this wall (Berger, p. 160). I took the photo of the painting from the gallery across.

On the painting illustrating life behind the wall, a man is being massaged in the cold water room. People change clothes in the middle. One man has gone down the steps to have a cold bath in the piscina. To the left, life in the streets is presented: Roman citizens, children and animals.

In the foreground, we see the remains that have been preserved for the public. Behind the groundwater well (round shape), the hot rooms are marked by red marl. The oval shape sudatorium is sided by the small heating room to the left. The larger rooms to the left served some economic purposes. 

I must admit that only now, reading in the book edited by Berger and writing this blog, I understand that the underground well-house is exactly under that round fountain in the middle of the photo. I do not understand, why this was not clear to me before, but for us non-archaeologists it is difficult to interpret the Roman foundation walls in the open landscape.

This is the view of the round opening of the fountain from below, from the underground well-house.

According to Berger, p. 162, it is not clear, whether the Viola bath was a small public bath or a luxurious private bath belonging to a wealthy citizen. The larger main central bath area was farther south and has not been explored and preserved as thoroughly as the Viola bath. 

 

Good-bye for now

This advertisement of the summer activities at Augusta Raurica is a welcoming invitation: “Where do you go to? To Augst, of course”, mixing up Latin with German and Swiss German. The short Swiss German expression “dängg” can be translated by “where else do you think I am going to?” 

I will surely soon return to Augusta Raurica to check out some more details and to see, what has changed in the meantime. In addition, I will later publish my third blog about the sights that can be found more remotely around the centre of Augusta Raurica. 

 

Sources:

  • Explanation panels on site
  • Ludwig Berger, “Führer durch Augusta Raurica”, Schwabe Verlag Basel 2012, with contributions by Thomas Hufschmid, Sandra Amman, Ludwig Berger, Peter-A. Schwarz and Urs Brombach
  • Website of Augusta Raurica

One thought on “Around Basel: The centre of the Roman city Augusta Raurica

  1. […] having looked at the history and legends around Augusta Raurica and after having visited the centre of the Roman city, we next look at Kaiseraugst with the Castrum near the Rhine, leaving other more remote sights for […]

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