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Excavations at Chester Amphitheatre

The Chester Amphitheatre Project, initiated in 2004, was established to better understand the Roman amphitheatre itself, and also the development of the subsequent urban landscape which was influenced by the presence of the Roman structure.  

Ultimately the work is to inform conservation and development in the area. The work followed two strands – large scale excavation of three targeted areas of the amphitheatre and a major non-invasive landscape survey.

The project is jointly resourced by English Heritage and the Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC), and work on the analysis of the data and material recovered is being carried out by specialists in Historic England’s Intervention and Analysis Team and in CWaC’s  Historic Environment Team.

Archaeologist excavating mineralised timbers
Excavation of the mineralised remains of the timber seating framework © Historic England

Prehistory

The work has shown that the site has a much greater time-depth than previously understood. The earliest settlement was Mesolithic (c 6000 BC), and the evidence for this was almost ploughed away by Iron Age farmers.

Their field systems, together with a round-house and a granary have been radiocarbon dated to 400-200 cal BC. The Iron Age agricultural landscape survived because it was buried by the earthworks of the first Roman amphitheatre, built in the AD 70s.

The Roman amphitheatre

The first amphitheatre consisted of an earthen seating bank between a stone outer wall and a sunken arena also surrounded by a stone wall. In c AD100 this was altered, and a timber seating framework was inserted.

New access arrangements were made, with external stairs leading to upper seating.  Around the outside of the amphitheatre we found evidence for stalls selling food cooked in portable ovens, the selling of souvenirs and for religious activity.  

We also showed that yellow sand was imported for use in the arena and stockpiled around the building.

Post Roman

In the immediate post Roman period occupation took place in the arena, and this may be connected to the foundation of the adjacent St John’s Church in AD 689. The walls of the amphitheatre provided stone for the Norman cathedral the St John’s became, and for the city wall extension to the river Dee, and the building disappeared from view from the 12th century until its rediscovery in 1929.

In the meantime the site formed part of the Bishop’s Borough until the dissolution.  During the Civil War siege of 1645 the site was fought over, but in the late 17th century medieval housing was replaced by extra-mural mansions and their gardens. 

The results of the work are to be published in two volumes. The first will appear early in 2016, the second a year later.  

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Contact

Tony Wilmott

Senior Archaeologist

Fort Cumberland,
Fort Cumberland Road,
Portsmouth,
Hampshire,
P04 9LD

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