Amphitheatre

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Chester's amphitheatre lay outside the south-east corner of the legionary fortress, on a bluff overlooking the River Dee. Its main entrances faced north and south, with smaller entrances facing east and west. In between each of these entrances were two doorways giving access to a corridor running around the outside of the building and staircases leading up to the seats.

Discovery

Interest in discovering Chester’s amphitheatre was stimulated by the excavations of the Caerleon amphitheatre in 1926-27.

No-one knew for certain that Chester had an amphitheatre until 1929, when a large curved wall appeared while an underground boiler room was being built onto the south side of Dee House, an eighteenth-century town house used as a convent school for girls. A local schoolmaster, W. J. Williams, was the first to recognise what this meant. Williams identified a stretch of masonry exposed in June 1929 as the outer wall of the amphitheatre. The curving wall and the buttresses were the main features that suggested that this was the amphitheatre, which proved to be well preserved. In the early 1930s, parts of the western entrance, the outer wall, the arena walls and the arena itself were discovered.

Further trenches dug by P H Lawson, who assumed that its dimensions would have been similar to those of the amphitheatre at Caerleon, confirmed the identification. Lawson’s carefully judged and small-scale trenches enabled an accurate assessment of its position and extent to be made. Further work took place in 1930-31 for the Chester Archaeological Society and the University of Liverpool, directed by Professors Newstead and Droop. They examined parts of the western entrance, perimeter and arena walls and the arena itself. Much of the structural history of the stone amphitheatre was established by their work. In 1934, more trial holes were excavated in the cellar of St John’s House and at 19 Little St John Street, which revealed parts of the northern outer wall of the amphitheatre.

Controversial proposals had been put forward in 1926 by the City Corporation to straighten Newgate Street and Little St John Street between the city Walls and St John's Church. Hostility to the scheme was increased by the discovery of the amphitheatre in 1929, when it was realised that the new road would cut directly across the centre of the monument. The City Improvement Committee delayed inviting tenders for the construction of the new road to allow the Chester Archaeological Society time to raise funds to cover the cost of diverting the road around the outside of the site, some £23,798. A special exhibition was held in 1932 at the Grosvenor Museum (which was then run by the Archaeological Society) to help raise money.

The walls lining the proposed road had been built, cutting the site in two, and a new gate through the Walls was under construction when the Ministry of Transport effectively blocked the scheme in 1933 by refusing loan sanction. This occurred as a result of extensive local and national protest at the imminent destruction of the amphitheatre; opponents of the scheme included the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The Archaeological Society formed a Trust, which bought St John’s House, on the north-eastern corner of the monument, while the remainder of the northern half remained derelict for some years. The house was leased to Cheshire County Council from 1934 to 1957. The outbreak of war in 1939 led to the shelving of plans for the site’s imminent excavation. However, by the late 1950s, the income generated in rent from St John’s House had increased to a point that allowed it to consider the excavation of the northern part of the site, although financial help from the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works was necessary.

The archives for the 1920s and 1930s excavations have not been located and it is unlikely that the primary record of the earliest interventions survives. However, Chester Archaeology does have some of the drawings from the 1930s excavations. The archives and finds from the 1960s excavation are stored in the Grosvenor Museum.

History

For a long time, it was believed that the amphitheatre was built in the 70s CE, by Legion II Adiutrix. However, excavations carried out since 2000 have revealed another building underneath the east entrance – this means that there was a Roman building here before the amphitheatre. It is not yet known what this was, as so little of it has been found. So the amphitheatre may have been built later than the 70s, but still in the first century.

There are two theories about the way the amphitheatre was built. One is that it was constructed completely from timber, and some time later rebuilt in stone. The other says that the amphitheatre was made from a mixture of wood and stone, with timberwork staging to support the front rows of seats.

Some time before the middle of the second century, the amphitheatre stopped being used, so it may only have been in service for 20 or 30 years. The arena became a rubbish dump and the building slowly fell into disrepair. It was brought back into use some time after the 270s, but only for a short time. The staircases up to the seats were repaired, a new surface was laid in the arena and the east entrance was drastically remodelled. Current theory is that the amphitheatre was brought back in to use for a very special reason. In 287, the province of Britain revolted against the Roman Empire and was not reconquered until 296/7. One of the British legions was a strong supporter of the rebel governor, Marcus Aurelius Carausius. What if that legion was XX Valeria Victrix? The amphitheatre could have been remodelled by the victorious government forces as a place of execution for the ringleaders, with the remainder of the disgraced legion – and perhaps local dignitaries – forced to watch.

The refurbished amphitheatre fell into decay again by the beginning of the 4th century and the site began to be used for other purposes. Two lean-to buildings against the arena wall were found during the 1960s, and postholes found in the middle of the arena could be the remains of a sub-Roman hall building.

Featured on the eastern entrance of the amphitheatre are some very large sandstone blocks, together with the remains of steps on the south side. The masonry is unlike any other Roman work in Chester and the wear on the steps implies centuries of use. One suggestion is that the old entrance passage was converted in the Dark Ages into a crypt for an early version of St John's Church.

By about 1200, people were living on the site, perhaps in the dilapidated shell of the Roman building. The area was cleared during the Civil War siege of Chester in the 1640s, and later the site was dominated by two large Georgian houses, built in the 1730s. One was St John’s House, which was demolished so that the northern half of the amphitheatre could be excavated; the other is Dee House, which still stands over part of the southern half.

Post-war excavations

St John’s House was demolished in 1958. In the previous year, small-scale excavation had commenced, at the Ministry of Works’ request, to confirm the exact positions of the amphitheatre’s walls. Hugh Thompson, then curator of the Grosvenor Museum, carried out the work. This was to allow the Corporation to fix a final line for Little St John Street. Large-scale excavations followed between 1960 and 1969, still under the direction of Hugh Thompson, with the most detailed work after 1965, following the transfer of the St John's House site to state ownership. Dennis Petch, Hugh Thompson’s successor at the Grosvenor Museum, was also involved in some of the later work. The Ministry of Works funded most of the work, with help from the Archaeological Society.

Following these extensive excavations in the 1960s and full publication in 1976, the amphitheatre in Chester became a well-known monument, both locally and in the literature of Roman Britain. However, cursory examination of the site and the records of former excavations suggests that many of the published ‘facts’ are factoids: hypotheses that do not stand up to detailed questioning.

Controversial plans were put forward in the 1980s to excavate the remainder of the amphitheatre and reconstruct at least part of it as a heritage attraction. Permission was granted to demolish Dee House, a Grade II listed building, to allow the scheme to happen. It was to include a state-of-the-art interpretation centre, a reconstruction of part of the Roman structure and peripheral activities (including Roman galleys plying the River Dee and a café selling "Roman" food). Owing to lack of finance, the plans came to nothing and planning permission for the scheme lapsed in October 1995. The proposal to open the Dewa Roman Experience eventually happened - the attraction is at Pierpoint Lane (off Bridge Street), itself the site of Roman remains.

Chester Heritage Trust and the 1990s

Further development proposals were submitted to Chester City Council in 1993, involving the modification of the Dee House site, which had been sold by British Telecom to McLean Homes Ltd. Dee House itself and the gardens to its north were transferred to the ownership of Chester City Council, while the remainder was retained by McLean's. Permission was initially sought to demolish the 1929 extension to the south of Dee House with the intention of designing an office block to replace it.

Lancaster University Archaeological Unit was commissioned to undertake an archaeological evaluation of the entire site. Although the excavation was designed to extend no deeper than the top of ‘significant’ archaeology (defined in this instance as deposits that pre-dated the construction of Dee House in 1730), it proved difficult (and often unhelpful) to define this as the cut-off point. Twenty-eight trial trenches showed that preservation of the amphitheatre varied across the site. Beneath the eighteenth-century house, extensive cellarage had destroyed all but the foundation deposits, while outside and beneath the 1920s extension, preservation was much better. Following the evaluation, the scheme was granted planning permission in 1995.

A second phase of evaluation took place in 1994, conducted by Chester Archaeology, following a further application to lower the car park area to the east and south-east of the historic core of Dee House. Only those deposits that would be affected by the proposals were evaluated. They were found to consist largely of garden soils and features associated with gardening practices, including the substantial remains of three greenhouses dating from the later 19th century.

Excavations since 2000

The beginning of site work in February 2000 caused further controversy, when construction began on the office block that had been granted permission in 1995. Many local residents were outraged at what they perceived as the "loss" of the amphitheatre to excavation, demanding that the site be completely uncovered and displayed. The controversy extended from the local press into national media (for instance The Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2000).

The controversy focused on a number of discrete elements:

  • The construction of a new building over a part of the amphitheatre (an area of around 174 m2);
  • An alleged change of use from non-specific offices to County Court;
  • An alleged lack of public consultation during the original consideration of the 1993 Planning Application;
  • English Heritage policy on the preservation rather than excavation of archaeological sites;
  • An alleged lack of investment in displaying the city’s Roman archaeology.

Since the excavations began, a number of discoveries have been made. Chester’s Roman amphitheatre was in fact a grand two-storey structure, the only one of this kind in Britain but similar to those found in parts of the Mediterranean, and was built on the foundations of a second, earlier theatre. This small stone amphitheatre was constructed first with wooden seating and has been dated to around the reign of the emperor Vespasian, by the discovery of a single Roman coin found in a sand surface outside the first amphitheatres stone wall.

This initial amphitheatre was replaced with a much larger and grander amphitheatre, with stone buttresses and arches. It would have been an impressive sight when viewed from the river below. The excavations found eight ‘vomitoria’, or entrance points, spaced evenly around the amphitheatre with two in each of its quadrants. They would have been housed in internal staircases running outside the structure’s walls, indicating that it had two storeys. Estimates put the seating capacity of the two-floor amphitheatre at between 8-10,000 spectators, suggesting the town could have had a substantial civilian population.

Evidence for gladiatorial combat have also been found in the shape of part of a gladius sword handle. Also parts of a Roman bowl showing scenes from a gladiator fight have been found. Also discovered was a stone block with an anchor point for a chain. It has been speculated that wild animals or indeed people would have been chained to this block during the 'spectacular'.

Excavations are ongoing and take place during the summer months.

Future proposals

It has been recently proposed to turn the amphitheatre into an open air concert venue. In 2016 the Council approved plans to grant a 150-year lease for Dee House, meaning that the still-buried half of the Amphitheatre will not be excavated. Reasons for the decision included the argument that much of what is visible today is actually 19thC reconstruction and it is likely that very little remains under Dee House.

Sources

  • Chester Amphitheatre Project
  • "The Times" on Amphitheater
  • "The Independent" on the amphitheatre
  • A case-study relating to theexcavation and development of the amphitheatre.
  • The amphitheatre pages at the Chester Virtual Stroll.

Ainsworth, S & Wilmott, T 2005. Chester amphitheatre: from gladiators to gardens. Chester City Council and English Heritage

Matthews, K J 2003. Chester’s amphitheatre after Rome: a centre of Christian worship. CheshireHistory 43, 12-27

Newstead, R & Droop, J P 1932. The Roman amphitheatre at Chester, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society new series 29, 5-40

Thompson, F H 1975. The excavation of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester. Archaeologia 105, 127-239

Wilmott, T 2008. The Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Stroud: Tempus

Wilmott, T ed 2009. Roman amphitheatres and spectacula; a 21st-century perspective. Papers from an international conference held at Chester, 16th-18th February 2007. Oxford: Archaeopress. (British Archaeological Reports International Series 1946)