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Chester Amphitheatre Project Blog

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Welcome to the official Blog of the Chester Amphitheatre Project.

Friday, August 27

Dig Diary 5

Well, despite the unseasonably wet weather we’ve continued to have high numbers of visitors at the amphitheatre excavations. One of the most frequently asked questions is “So what was Chester’s amphitheatre actually used for?”

Owing to the presence of the Twentieth Legion at Chester (a unit of approximately 6,000 soldiers - some of whom almost certainly built the amphitheatre), it has been suggested that the arena may have been used for military functions such as drill displays – or the Roman equivalent of a military tattoo. However, the arena is really not large enough to have been practicable for such displays on anything larger than the size of a century (a unit of 80 men), and the presence of a large Roman parade ground underneath the area now occupied by Frodsham Street makes a military function for the amphitheatre even less likely.

By analogy we know that in other parts of the Roman Empire amphitheatres were used to hold ‘spectacula’ that were always laid on by the local political leaders (the City Council of the day!). The morning shows were usually given over to exhibitions of animals rather like a performance at a modern circus. This was followed by the ‘wild beast hunt’ that could involve the killing of exotic animals such as lions, tigers and even polar bears transported from across the Empire and beyond. More familiar animals such as bulls, wolves and wild boar were also used and the animals killed in the arena were often eaten afterwards as delicacies. At midday the spectators could eat while they watched the punishment of criminals: bankrupts were flogged and released whilst other crimes had a more terminal solution. Finally, in the afternoon shows were given by gladiators either on foot or on horseback.

So in light of what we know about amphitheatres in other parts of the Roman Empire, what does the archaeological evidence to date tell us specifically about Chester’s amphitheatre?

During the 1930’s archaeological excavations on the sands of the arena floor at Chester recovered fragments of human bone that could represent the remains of victims or criminals who met their end entertaining the local populace. A pit found outside the southern entrance of the amphitheatre in the late 1990’s contained the refuse from a large feast including bones from more than 20 pigs (or wild boar), could these have been animals killed during a wild beast hunt in the arena and subsequently eaten during an exclusive banquet?

Excitingly, our excavations have produced many sherds of decorated Roman pottery bowls mass-produced in Gaul (modern France) that depict scenes of wild beast hunts and gladiatorial combat. The occurrence of large numbers of these bowls at London’s amphitheatre has suggested that the bowls may have been sold there as souvenirs to remind the spectators of their day’s entertainment – the same could be true at Chester. Previous evidence for gladiators at Chester is suggested by part of a slate relief found just outside the amphitheatre (on Newgate Street) depicting a gladiator known as a retiarius armed with a trident and a net. Furthermore, a shrine to the goddess Nemesis furnished with a stone alter (who as a goddess of fate was a favourite deity of gladiators in other parts of the empire) was also found by the north entrance to Chester’s arena in the 1960’s.

We can even speculate about the snacks available to the average spectator as we have found large amounts of animal bone during our excavations that probably relate to rubbish removed from the seating after a day’s entertainment. The most common find appears to be pieces of beef rib cut in the same manor as spare ribs are today, chicken bones and coriander seeds have also been found (a Roman version of chicken curry?). Possibly, slightly more nefarious substances were also being consumed as suggested by the discovery of opium poppy seeds in one of the amphitheatre’s main drains.

So as the excavations continue and the archaeological evidence grows it seems increasingly likely that Chester’s amphitheatre was used in the same way as many others across the Roman Empire!

Dan and Tony

posted by Anthony at 16:36

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Monday, August 23

It's been a while

It has been a while since I've had much to post (mainly due to the appalling weather!), but at least you've been kept entertained by Dan and Tony's Dig Diary!

Anyway there have been quite a few updates over the last couple of days:

Issue 4 of the Project Newsletter has been released for download.

There are some updates on how the different areas are coming along. Also the section has been shuffled around to accommodate it's ever growing amount of info. You can now access Area A, Area B and Area C individually.

There's a small story about the recent visit to the site by the Mersey and Dee Young Archaeologist Club.

There are pages from our resident artists - Julia Midgley and David Heke. With some excellent examples of their work.

And finally there is the usual mass of new finds. I have got more but I've decided to drip them out because there are so many. For now have a look at the nine medieval and post-medieval examples.

You may also notice that the main navigation bar has changed. I decided that the finds section was so large now that it deserved a heading all of it's own. Therefore I've moved "the team" section into "the work".

posted by Anthony at 15:07

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Tuesday, August 17

Diary Week Four

Rain! The story of the week.

It has been a tremendous effort to keep things moving on site as one heavy shower after another passed over and dumped on us. Even on the web site the curiosity was reflected in a message – What do archaeologists do when it rains?

There are two reasons not to continue work on site, and the safety of the workers is the most important. Wheelbarrow planks become muddy and slippery, and very quickly it becomes impossible to dispose of excavated soil safely. With so many deep holes on the site a slip could result in serious injury. The other consideration is the damage that can be done to the site. The mud which sticks to boot soles is actually the archaeology of the site, and the damage caused by an afternoon of trampling on site can take a week of clearing up and a great deal of lost information.

There are a lot of off-site tasks which need to be performed. The essence of archaeology is to record what is excavated. When a site is excavated it is effectively destroyed. The process of excavation has been compared with reading a priceless manuscript once, copying it, and burning it, so the original can never be consulted again. This means that the written, drawn and photographic records have to be very accurately codified, and this generates complex, interrelated work on both paper and computer, which ensures that the records are in good shape for future analysis and publication. The pressures of work on site and to maximise the weather conditions to continue to dig, means that sorting out the records can become evening work for the directors and supervisors. Wet days are often the time when these records can be completed, properly understood and filed.

In the finds processing room, the trays of objects have to be washed, dried, and then marked with their own unique identifying numbers. This ensures that the finds can be directly related to the place on site from which they came. The work is very laborious and painstaking. Although there are always a number of people doing this work, a rainy day – or week –allows us to bring the work up to date. Similarly, the soil samples taken on site are sieved through the wet-sieving unit on site. These samples need to be dried, and then sorted. Samples from our medieval cess pits are demonstrating aspects of the environment, health and diet of the medieval population of Chester. This is shown through the presence of small animal bones, fish bones, and even the egg cases of intestinal parasites. Sample sorting requires concentration and the ability to distinguish between tiny particles. This is probably the most painstaking job which occurs on site, and is also a useful way of using labour on rainy days.

So what do archaeologists do when it rains and they cannot dig? The answer is that they concentrate on the rest of the multifaceted and multiskilled job which is described by the general heading of "archaeologist".

From the Chester Chronicle, August 13


posted by Archaeologists at 11:30

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Tuesday, August 10

Amphitheatre Diary Three

The summer holidays are here and visitor numbers at the excavation are soaring. Interest in the work is enormous and seems to be growing. There is a constant stream of people over the viewing platform - especially at weekends.

At present the trench near the road is full of people down deep holes (Area A). This is because we are emptying medieval and later cess pits and rubbish pits which have been cut into the Roman structure.

We are also beginning to dig out the robber trenches where Roman stonework has been removed (or 'robbed') for use elsewhere.

These trenches are useful, as they always follow and preserve the lines of the Roman walls. This is because of the way the stone robbers worked; they would dig down to find a wall, or use a part standing wall, and then follow it, removing all the stone down to the foundations and throwing back any broken stone or lumps of mortar that they did not want. If a wall is totally robbed, therefore, we can still know it's line, and thus the plan of the building.

One of the main questions we are anxious to answer is the date of the robbing of the amphitheatre. One area has given an indication. A cess pit which we emptied contained pottery and objects of the early part of the medieval period.

This was the last of the four pits dug after the side wall of one of the entrances to the amphitheatre was removed.

One of the finds was a bone comb. This beautiful object consists of a bone plate, which has narrow teeth on one side, and wider teeth on the other. The comb probably dates to the 10-12th century and might give a clue to the health of the user - nits have been found between the teeth of similar objects in the past!

Other medieval finds have included a bronze buckle and an iron key. We also have significant numbers of goat horns and leg bones, and also cow jaws and leg bones. These bones were often left attached to skins when they went to the tanners and may be tannery waste. The leather industry was very important in Chester from medieval times onward.

In the last week we have begun guided tours of the site. These leave from the Chester Visitor Centre on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. They cost £4 per adult, £1.50 for children and £5 for families.

from the Chester Chronicle, published 6th August


posted by Archaeologists at 12:02

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Wednesday, August 4

Finds Overload!

Another eight finds have been added to the finds section! That's ten in the last 24 hours or so.

The new finds are: A Roman ring, a Roman mortaria, some more Roman glass, an iron key, a needle, a horseshoe nail, a buckle, some 18th century games pieces and a piece from a slipware cup.

With so many finds now on there we have revamped the whole section. The main page will now just have the latest finds from the last few days. After the move from there they will go to their respective period pages: Roman, Medieval, Post Medieval, or Modern.

Also each find is being given an individual link, so if we need to link straight to the detailed sword handle find, we can!

However, with this section growing ever faster we doubt it will be the last structure change...

Until then let us know what you think of the changes, and of the site in general. It's always nice to get some feedback on what we're doing.

But be gentle :O)

posted by Anthony at 12:21

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Tuesday, August 3

Penned In

Corny pun aside there are a couple of new finds to look at in the finds section: a 13th century pen, and a set of medieval tweezers.

Also for those who were asking about the geophysics results (Dave), a new set of more detailed maps have been uploaded for you to have a look at.

posted by Anthony at 16:17

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Monday, August 2

Excavation Chronicle Vol. Two

As promised, here's the next part of the diary from the Chester Chronicle. This was published just last Friday (30/07):

We ended last week’s diary with the comment that a JCB was not the right tool to remove tree stumps due to the disturbance of buried archaeology this would cause. Readers who passed the site last Friday might have been confused, therefore, to see another drastic piece of 21st century kit being used – a jackhammer. This was the ideal tool to remove the last piece of the 20th century archaeology of the site – a brick garage, complete with concrete floor and an inspection pit with brick-lined sides and a tile floor!

The archaeology of the 20th century has been a large part of the work to date. The amphitheatre was criss-crossed by sewer pipe trenches. The salt-glazed sewer pipes were stamped with makers’ names, including firms as far afield as North Wales and Liverpool. Fragments of brick floor have been removed, and visitors passing over the viewing platform have been entertained by the sight of bricks and rubble travelling up the conveyor belts. Everyone on site was relieved when the last bricks from the garage clanged into the skip.

One of the biggest jobs so far has been to identify and remove the backfill of excavations which took place in the 1930s and 1960s. This was difficult because the spoil (including rubble and bricks) was put back into the excavations, and we had problems separating the fill and the intact archaeology. Often we were helped by finds which you might not associate with archaeology. 1960s fill, for instance, contained crisp packets with pre-decimal prices printed on them, and a wrapper of the once-familiar Tiger Bread priced at 1/1d (now about 5.4p); truly today’s rubbish is tomorrow’s archaeology. Just like today, our archaeological predecessors broke or lost equipment – a 1960s shovel and a 1930s pocket knife have been found.

All of these modern disturbances of the site have, of course damaged the earlier archaeology, but they also give us a sneak preview of what lies deeper. In Trench A, nearest the road, we can now be sure that the site was levelled in the Victorian period for building. This operation reduced the level of the ground to such an extent that the 20th century garage lay directly upon the Roman stone walls of the amphitheatre.

Area B, near St John’s church, is a different matter. There is no sign of levelling here, and the garden soil which has been removed in the last week contained a mass of 18th century finds. These include exotic and expensive items such as Chinese porcelain, suggesting that the households in this area at the time were not poor. Perhaps the most common type of find from these soils are fragments of clay tobacco pipes – the 18th century equivalent of cigarette ends

So this week has seen us move deeper into the more recent past of the city, with a real variety of finds from all periods coming up. Ahead lie the prospects of good medieval and Roman archaeology. We will write more next week. In the meantime keep in touch with the work, and watch it via the website and webcam.

Dan Garner (Chester City Council)
Tony Wilmott (English Heritage)

posted by Archaeologists at 14:10

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