The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 93

Issue 93

March/April 2007



Police station had old rifles in foundations

Why did hunter-gatherers dig row of pits in Scotland?

Child's boot and bible found in chimney

Oldest cremation burials

Demand to rebury 'Druid' child

In Brief & Phase 2


Let the games begin!
Dan Garner and Tony Wilmot found footprints and a sword at Chester amphitheatre

The nomads of Wessex
Andrew J Lawson finds inspiration in central Asia

Heating flint in Boston Spa
Malcolm Barnes describes an intriguing community experiment

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Let the games begin

Argument after its discovery in the 1920s rose to the prime minister. New revelations at Britain's largest excavated Roman amphitheatre have followed years of further local controversy, and the archaeologists too find themselves in disagreement. What is it about Chester that stirs people? Dan Garner and Tony Wilmott take the stage.

The amphitheatre was the centre of Roman entertainment. The sometimes brutal games, fights and spectacles that ran in arenas across the empire, for many today, encouraged by film and television, capture most vividly the nature of Roman civilisation. Britain's major towns would each have had one. One of the first investigated by archaeologists, in 1849, was at Richborough, Kent; London's was found in 1988. But perhaps the most complex relationship between the modern town and its first arena is to be seen at Chester.

Chester's Roman amphitheatre was rediscovered in 1929 by WJ Williams, during construction work for a new boiler room to the rear of the Ursuline convent school (now known as Dee House). Plans were already in place to straighten a road, Little St John Street, right across the middle of the buried structure – whose location and scale were soon established by further excavations by RN Newstead and JP Droop. Public horror drew in many notable dignitaries including then prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, and early in 1933 the Ministry of Transport vetoed the corporation's road scheme.

After the Chester Archaeological Society campaigned to excavate the northern half of the amphitheatre, extensive fieldwork was finally undertaken by Hugh Thompson between 1959 and 1969, funded by the Ministry of Works/Department of the Environment. That part of the amphitheatre was consolidated for permanent display, and was opened as a public monument in 1972.

Thompson published his report in 1976, with a projected plan of the entire building based on the elements uncovered up to 1969. He concluded that there had been two successive amphitheatres at Chester: the first entirely timber-built in the mid AD70s (dated on the grounds that it was contemporary with the earliest timber phase of the adjacent legionary fortress); and the second constructed of masonry and comprising all the stone elements, which he dated to CAD100 (from samian pottery recovered from the foundation trench of the arena wall). From the stone amphitheatre Thompson identified the outer wall; a parallel inner "concentric wall"; the arena wall; four main entrances at the cardinal points; eight minor entrances or vomitoria, evenly spaced between the four major entrances; and a small square cell west of the northern entrance which contained an altar to the goddess Nemesis and was thus named the Nemeseum.

Proposals to excavate the rest of the amphitheatre in the 1980s were facilitated by consent for the demolition of Dee House (now a Grade II listed building). However, the scheme failed and the planning consent lapsed in 1995. Later that year consent was granted for a new structure to replace a derelict school building over part of the south-western quadrant of the monument at the rear of Dee House. This would house the County Court; it was designed to cause minimal damage to the buried remains through the reuse of existing pile foundations.

Work on the new building began in 1999. However, from the onset of construction public interest in the monument was again heightened and a local interest group (the Chester Amphitheatre Trust) was formed to lobby local politicians. The trust's main aims were to halt progress of the new building and to encourage excavation of the remainder of the amphitheatre. Passions were roused: banners and placards around the city and district proclaimed Save our Amphitheatre, and the lord chancellor's office was drawn into an inquiry on the whole scheme.

The new court building was completed in 2001, as English Heritage commissioned a conservation plan for the amphitheatre. Despite numerous earlier evaluations (in 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2000) it was concluded that there was still a lack of primary data on which to make decisions about the future of the site and its environs. The Chester Amphitheatre Project, jointly owned, funded and supported by Chester City Council and English Heritage, was launched in January 2004. Its aims are to conduct new excavation and survey, to create a Chester amphitheatre and research centre and to hold an international amphitheatre conference (February 2007). Spectacular new information has been acquired in the past three years, building on work by Keith Matthews in 2000 and 2003. Here we will discuss only the excavation results pertaining to Roman archaeology.

The beginning

During the summers of 2004–06 Dan Garner (Chester City Council) and Tony Wilmott (English Heritage) codirected excavation in three areas: on the north-west quadrant of the amphitheatre's seating bank, partially excavated in the 1960s by Thompson (Area A); south of the eastern entrance in an unexcavated area of the southeastern quadrant of the seating bank (Area B); and in the centre of the unexcavated area of the arena (Area C). We have been able to reexamine extensive stratigraphy, forming detailed new insights into the building's structural history.

These begin with the site itself. Beneath the earliest construction levels in Area A we found the soil that developed before the amphitheatre was built. East-west parallel furrows about 1m apart seem to indicate a late iron age cultivation technique, often referred to as "cord-rig" when found further north beneath Roman forts on Hadrian's Wall. A line of postholes may represent one side of a small stock enclosure.

Nearby, a slight depression in the soil surface may have been a muddy hollow churned up by traffic which had left a remarkable succession of impressions. Human footprints, in shoe sizes from child's or small female's to averagesized male's (the imprint of hobnails was visible in one) were succeeded by narrow wheel ruts probably formed by a small cart, themselves disturbed by animal prints.

All these were sealed beneath a thick layer of red sandstone quarry waste, thought to be make-up laid immediately prior to the construction of the concentric wall. The footprints would probably not have been preserved if left exposed for long: it seems they and the tracks were formed only weeks or even days before the construction of the first amphitheatre began!

Amphitheatre 1a

The first amphitheatre was in fact stone-built, and its outer wall (Thompson's "concentric wall") was its first structural element. The construction trench was very shallow and clearly cut into the pre-Roman cultivation soil from above the cord-rig earthworks. The wall had a sandstone rubble core faced with standard military block-work, all bonded in red clay. A solid earthen seating bank was indicated by clay dumped against the wall's inner face, which we believe came from the simultaneous excavation of the large arena pit. The main entrances to the arena were probably at the sites of those seen in later phases of the building. Spectator access was probably also through the main entrances, via staircases adjacent to the arena wall.

Outside, a series of large, evenly spaced pits ran parallel to the outer wall. One contained a primary fill of green silt, leading to its provisional interpretation as a cess pit: these pits likely represent the first amphitheatre's latrines. After use, another pit was backfilled with occupation waste containing a myriad of artefacts and good environmental samples rich in fish bone. Dog coprolite (faeces) from one of the samples suggests scavenging at this time.

Refurbishment 1b

It would appear that after a short time this new amphitheatre was substantially refurbished. Much of the original seating bank was dug away to create a terrace upon which was erected a complex timber frame to support a seating rake. The evidence for this survived as foundation slots cut radially out from the arena wall, linked by ring beams on the inner and outer circumferences. This was the structure that Thompson interpreted as a timber amphitheatre. The slots accommodated prefabricated timber frames with a sill beam and a pair of uprights supported by diagonal braces. These frames were not jointed, but simply held together with iron six-inch nails. Grain patterns preserved in corrosion around the nails has suggested that the wood was beech. This was not a common tree in Britain during the early Roman period, and the unexpected implication is that the wood had been imported from overseas posing the question why readily available local oak was not used.

The foundation slots were packed with a mixture of materials, including occupation waste that contained a coin dated to AD96, providing a maximum age for the refurbishment. The entire terrace was then backfilled with a huge deposit of red sand and sandstone chippings that served as ballast to weigh down the base of the timber framing. We think this material came from lowering of the arena floor, a hypothesis supported by Thompson's date of CAD100 for the arena wall's construction.

It seems likely that another element of the refurbishment was an external stone staircase along the outer circumference of the "concentric wall" (ie the outer wall of amphitheatre 1a/b). Much of this staircase's foundation had later been removed, but the robber trench preserved the footprint of the structure which featured three small projections or buttresses. This may indicate the use of decorative blank relieving arches along the stairway's outer face. External stairs would have provided an alternative access at the back of the seating rake; they would also have allowed greater social stratification within seat allocation, normal in Roman amphitheatres.

The four main entrances appear to have remained largely unaltered, though the northern one probably received a new box-drain or sewer fed from an external drain running parallel to the outer wall, whose introduction would explain the abandonment of the earlier latrine pits. Nearly all of this drain was removed during the construction of the second amphitheatre's outer wall. Another embellishment at this time was an extra-mural road with a formal kerb edge.

This amphitheatre appears to have remained in use for a relatively long period, as a sequence of deposits accumulated between the outer face of the concentric wall and the extra-mural road kerb. These are hugely important to Roman amphitheatre studies as they have not normally survived at other amphitheatre sites. The stratigraphy is complex, with a variety of deposits, surfaces and structures yet to be fully analysed. Postholes may represent temporary booths and stalls erected for specific festivals and events. One of the major components of these deposits is a characteristic yellow sand, not native to the site; this could be sand used in the arena and cleared out on occasion. Close to the north entrance of the amphitheatre we found a small three-sided, stone-built structure with a plastered and painted interior. We interpret this as a small shrine, perhaps the original location for the altar to the goddess Nemesis noted above.

Artefacts from these deposits hint at activities just outside the busy amphitheatre. For example part of a samian bowl (form 37) has a decorative scene of two gladiators in combat. This vessel is so small that it may have been intended as an ornament rather than as tableware, perhaps even a souvenir for sale on one of the stalls. Fast food might be indicated by fragments from several portable ovens (clibanus), thought to have been used to bake bread and cakes, to roast meat and to keep food hot. Faunal remains indicate the types of food consumed: beef, pork, mutton (sheep/goat) and venison (red deer), and chicken and woodcock as well as some smaller passerine species (small perching birds). Environmental samples have produced coriander and opium poppy seeds, as well as the common occurrence of mussel and oyster shells. Part of a sword handle could have come from a discarded weapon used by a performer in the arena.

Amphitheatre 2

In the decades around AD200 the amphitheatre appears to have been largely rebuilt. The result was far more impressive than its predecessor, with roughly double the seating capacity. The new outer wall was a massive construction sitting in a deep foundation trench 2.7m wide that penetrated the sandstone bedrock to a depth of over 1.3m. The upstanding masonry was of superior workmanship consisting of well-dressed sandstone blocks bonded in lime mortar.

Thompson interpreted regularly placed projections on the external face of this wall as buttresses. On examination it became clear that these were actually large stone pads, in two cases with semi-circular patches of white lime mortar adhering to their upper surfaces. These stone blocks had fractured around the edges of the mortar, crushed by the weight of whatever stood on them. We think this was a half-round engaged column of the sort seen at the Colosseum in Rome and elsewhere, suggesting an elaborate facade to the building which would have risen an impressive two storeys.

This second amphitheatre was also furnished with eight minor entrances or vomitoria, evenly spaced between the four main entrances. Here internal staircases would have allowed spectators direct access to the upper tiers. This architectural improvement allows for far better crowd management and reflects the increased seating capacity.

The main entrances appear to have remained in the earlier locations, but they would need to have been extended and heightened. According to stratigraphy recorded by Thompson the small square cell by the north entrance (the Nemeseum) was also probably added at this time. Its primary purpose would have been as a carcer for holding wild beasts prior to performances in the arena. However, at some point the altar to Nemesis was added and it was apparently used as a shrine until the end of the amphitheatre's use.

Within the arena, close to the centre, we found a large stone block with an iron fitting secured to its upper surface with a lead plug. Wild beasts or human victims may have been tethered here during "entertainments".

The Chester Amphitheatre Project has emphasised public engagement at all levels. A purpose built walkway, viewing gallery and website were complemented by daily guided tours, exhibitions, artists in residence, National Archaeology Day events and a spate of television programmes. The excavations have trained students from several universities including Chester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield. Volunteers participated in both excavation and finds processing and have ranged from secondary school children on work experience placements to a team from Marks & Spencer. Members of the Royal National Institute of the Blind were offered finds handling sessions. Younger children were given access to the site in organised groups such as Young Archaeologists' Clubs.

For more about the Chester Amphitheatre Project visit the website at
Dan Garner is senior archaeologist for the Chester Amphitheatre Project, Chester City Council.Tony Wilmott is a senior archaeologist at English Heritage.

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