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ANMED Issue: 2007-5
 
Excavations at the Roman Baths in Tarsus
Işık ADAK-ADIBELLİ
 

Known locally as “Alttan Geçme”, literally “passing under”, the Roman baths of Tarsus are located in the city centre. Although its construction date is not known, it was built employing the opus caementicium technique, as was the Donuktaş temple. As the temple was dated to the late 2nd century, it is possible to date these baths to the 2nd-3rd centuries.

A project was prepared by the Tarsus Museum Directorate in order to retain these remains as cultural heritage and with the financial support of the Berdan Foundation for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Treasures and support from the Tarsus Municipality, the project was inaugurated in 2004. Within the project framework, the plans were prepared; however, as the structure is in a very poor condition, its appearance does not in any way reflect its function. The only standing walls are the large wall (no. 1) in an east-west direction and the small north-south wall (no. 2) intersecting the large wall in the middle (Fig. 1). The small wall also carries the remains of a dome stretching westward. These walls divide the park area in which they stand into three parts; thus, the area to the northwest of the wall no. 1 and under the dome is the Area 1; the area to the northeast is the Area 2; and the area to the south is the Area 3.

In our work, firstly, the remaining brick and Roman concrete walls were cleaned of foreign elements, the weeds, trees, mortar, plaster, paint, and modern concrete on the remains were removed and the open park area was fenced off; then sounding excavations were begun. Our aim was to reach the floor level of the structure in order to identify its stratigraphy, to facilitate its dating and history as well as to reveal its real identity. The finds from the excavations conducted with the unit system are assessed as follows:

Area 1: Two soundings were dug here in 2004 and 2006 (trenches nos. 1 and 4B). In the top layers of the soundings, badly damaged walls and floorings were uncovered. These may belong to shops and other spaces dating from the late Ottoman period, built into the sheltered parts of the structure. When this layer was removed, the remains of work areas emerged (Fig. 2); the earth here contained extensive ash, indicating a change in the function of the area. Starting from this point, four different kilns in situ were uncovered from the -450 cm. to the -577 cm. level. The small finds from these kilns included glass paste, glass slag, glass fragments and other kiln wastes containing molten glass clearly showing that these were glassmaking kilns. Potshards, oil lamps etc. recovered from the layer of the fourth kiln at the bottom allowed a date in the 9th-10th centuries to be proposed. This date can also be considered the starting date for the glass production that continued through the Middle Ages in these Roman baths. Under the layer of the last kiln, at -600 cm., a concrete floor and a filling 80 cm. thick were removed; then at the -690 cm. level, the floor of the pool in the caldarium was reached; and at the -785 cm. level, the infrastructure containing the hypocaust was reached (Fig. 5).

Area 2: Our first work here was conducted on the arch span constituting the border between sounding trench no. 1 and Area 2. First of all, five steel tension rods were placed to the top of the arch whose keystone was damaged and the lower parts were supported by timber posts. The first finds from the excavations here included a limestone wall and floor remains. These had the same character as the late Ottoman period level uncovered in sounding no. 1 and contained a mishmash of badly damaged walls. About 150 cm. below these walls, at the -556 cm. level, an opus sectile floor, which we think belonged to a later phase of the baths, was uncovered (Fig. 4). The quite well-preserved flooring continued across the trench and possibly extended into the unexcavated areas to the north and east. This opus sectile floor was formed from black, white and yellow marble pieces placed in geometric compositions. In addition a row of semicircular masonry at about the same level as the floor was unearthed in the northeast of the trench. The excavation here aimed at removing the earth filling in it and went down another 250 cm. and extensive baked clay fragments dating from the Hellenistic, Roman and 4th-5th centuries A.D. were found. The excavations here ended at the same level as the hypocaust of the pool uncovered in Area 1.

Area 3: The largest of the three areas, three soundings (nos. 3, 4A and 5) were dug here. The uppermost strata in all three soundings displayed the same character as were found in trenches nos. 1 and 2. When these layers were removed, the details of the original monument began to emerge (Fig. 3). In the western half of the trench, the main wall, partially damaged by pit garbage dump, and a 150 cm. wide doorway in its south extension were uncovered. The western side of this doorway, which we think belonged to the original construction of the monument, was blocked with bricks. The concrete flooring uncovered at the -600 cm. level in the Area 1 was also uncovered here. This floor, adjoining the main wall with the doorway must have been built for the later phase of use when the baths had lost their function. The collapsed remains belonging to two brick arches lying on this floor are noteworthy. Finally in 2006, in trenches nos. 4 and 5 which we continued excavating, the layers exposed displayed the same properties of trench no. 3 in respect to walls and finds.

The cleaning and sounding excavations conducted at the Roman baths in Tarsus by the Tarsus Museum Directorate have partially identified the history of the structure to date. As at other excavation sites in Tarsus, such as Gözlükule, Donuktaş and the Cumhuriyet Square excavations, only mixed find groups or settlement strata were found, providing insufficient information; however, at the Roman baths, important evidence regarding the Middle Ages and the Islamic period has been obtained. On the other hand the phases predating the 9th century remain shrouded in mist. After the time when the baths had lost their function –possibly at the end of the 5th century– both the change in faith and the worsening socio-economic conditions led to a loss in popularity in the bath culture as has been observed in many Late Roman cities. When we take into account the fact that the city shrank considerably in size during this period, it is possible to claim that this structure, which lies comparably in the outer ring of settlement, underwent great damage first –as is understood from the loss of the facing and decorative elements such as marble facing and mosaics– and perhaps it was abandoned for a long period of time.

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