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Chester Amphitheatre Project Blog


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



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I visited Chester and the amphitheatre last summer and had a lovely time. It's great to be able to keep up-to-date with what's happening and the blog is a very cool addition to the project. Thanks!


8:05 PM, August 27, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you be sure the bones date back to the time when the amphitheatre was in use? Were they from sealed contexts? Have they been radiocarbon dated? Although I know how much that costs - £500 a shot at the Oxford lab, and you need several samples to be sure of accuracy.

11:58 AM, September 06, 2004  

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