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Roman Sewer, York
Swinegate and Church Street, York, UK
associated engineer
date  71 - 400 AD
era  Roman  |  category  Drainage System  |  reference  SE602519
ICE reference number  HEW 218
In 1972, an intact section of the Roman sewer network was discovered under the Roman legionary fortress in York. It might have drained the bathhouse found below St Sampson's Square. York, or Colonia Eboracensium to the Romans, is the only known existing British settlement to have colonial status conferred on it, probably by Caracalla who was emperor 211-17 AD.
It's likely that the fortress was built for Legio IX on the orders of Petillius Cerealis in 71 AD. The original earth rampart and timber breastwork began to be replaced by stone in the first century, and by the fourth century it was surrounded by polygonal stone towers. The internal facilities were upgraded between the early second and late fourth centuries, including bathhouses and sanitary systems that bettered anything built in Britain until as late as the 19th century.
The sewer and part of a large building were discovered during foundation piling for a development of shops and offices at 35 Swinegate and 4-5 Church Street. York Minster Archaeology Group and York Archaeological Trust carried out rapid exploratory digs in December 1972, January 1973 and during the first two months of 1974.
The existing buildings had been demolished above ground and the contractor had cut a trench through the cellar floor and uncovered a Millstone Grit block 1.2m long, 750mm wide and 300mm thick, which turned out to be one of the sewer's roof slabs.
Beneath the slab they discovered a tunnel 1.2m high and 450mm wide. Its south west wall is formed by nine courses of limestone ashlars up to 280mm long and 1.1m high. The north east wall is made of three Millstone Grit blocks up to 1.1m long and 300mm high.
The sewer was traced for 44m on a north west to south east alignment, parallel to the fortress' via principalis (main street), and falling 740mm towards Church Street over the distance. There are six side channels joining the main tunnel along this length, which was blocked at its north west end in Roman times.
At Church Street it turns through 90 degrees and splits into two branches. In the Roman period the sewer was blocked some 10m from this junction and another sewer built parallel to the first and connected to it via a Roman manhole. Branches go south west across Swinegate and follow the first sewer north east along Church Street. The sewer most likely emptied into the River Foss.
The manhole is made of tiles set in thick beds of mortar, seven courses on one side and four on the other. Above the tiles is an access point 700mm square formed in red Bunter sandstone, sealed with a slab of grey-green Jurassic sandstone.
Two of the sewer's tunnels have vaulted roofs. All the others have flat roofs of slabs weighing up to 3.5 tonnes each. The floors are of Jurassic sandstone slabs. Walls are either Millstone Grit or limestone and show the marks of tooling, while traces of mortar were found between some of the blocks. Seven Roman roof inlets were found in the sewer, thought to be drains or ventilation holes.
The sewer network was almost filled with accumulations of silt and soil, some of which were investigated for archaeological information. Finds of pottery, clothing, jewellery, gambling counters, food and fly larvae hint that the sewer could have been used as a bathhouse drain a or a foul sewer — possibly from the adjacent building, which may have been part of a the larger complex under St Sampson's Square (discovered 1930-1). Because of the limited excavation time available it is impossible to be definite. Fortunately, a modern manhole was constructed to retain access to the Roman sewer.
The Roman bathhouse was the leisure centre of its day, usually with facilities for men and women. There was no soap — people would steam open their pores in a hot room heated via underfloor and inter-wall channels, scrape down their skin with a special tool and then plunge into a cold pool. The drains and sewers were kept clean by slaves who crawled along them and dug out any deposits with shovels.
Site development (1972): Equitable Debenture & Assets Co Ltd
Foundation contractor (1972): Cementation Ltd
Research: ECPK
"The Church Street Sewer and an Adjacent Building" by J.B. Whitwell
York Archaeological Trust, Council for British Archaeology, London, 1976
"The Towns of Roman Britain" by John Wacher, Guild Publishing, London, 197
"Roman Britain" by Malcolm Todd, Fontana Press, London, 1997
"Roman York, on the trail of York’s lost legions" by First Stop York, May 2004
available at www.historyofyork.org.uk
reference sources   CEH NorthRRB

Roman Sewer, York