The last few weeks have seen great advancements in our knowledge on all fronts. To those readers unfamiliar with the amphitheatre site this year we have three excavation trenches open: Trench ‘A’ opposite the ‘off the wall’ pub; trench ‘B’ opposite St. John’s church; and trench ‘C’ located roughly equidistantly between trenches ‘A’ and ‘B’.
Trench ‘A’ is now focused solely on the Roman archaeology of the site, and specifically, at unravelling the construction sequence of Chester’s amphitheatre. Recently, we have uncovered several of the bases to what were thought to be buttresses on the outer wall of the second amphitheatre. These bases have mortar patches and stress fractures that suggest that they formed pads for engaged half columns, which would have served as decorative details of the amphitheatres architectural design. This lends further support to the idea that the second amphitheatre at Chester was built on a monumental scale with an outer façade designed to impress. Beyond this outer wall we are now in the process of excavating a series of overlying Roman roads that represent the repeated re-surfacing of the road that would have run around the outer circumference of the amphitheatre. The uppermost of these road surfaces is producing numerous iron hob nails, which must have worked their way loose from the soles of sandals worn by the crowds of spectators visiting the amphitheatre.
Trench ‘B’ is currently answering many questions about the transition of the site from part of the medieval monastic precinct of St. John’s church to its later secular use. A series of large pits had been excavated in to the area during the early 17th century probably to extract the underlying sand of the amphitheatre seating bank. Prior to this the site appears to have enjoyed a brief spell as a formal garden with intricately designed borders, which may have defined a decorative maze. This garden was laid out on top of demolition rubble and the stone foundations to an earlier complex of buildings, which may represent part of the Dean’s house that is known to have stood in this part of the medieval monastic precinct. Amongst the building debris we have found glazed medieval floor tiles, decorated medieval window glass and moulded plaster coving that must be derived from a high status building. We have also uncovered a massive stone wall foundation some 5 feet thick and an associated cobbled surface that would have been constructed on top of the earlier fills of the amphitheatres arena. The most likely explanation for this wholesale demolition and shift towards a formal garden would be as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.
The same spread of building debris has been encountered in trench ‘C’ though no underlying building foundations have yet been identified. What has come to light, however, is a large pit probably dating to the 16th century that contained many fragments to a pottery costrel (water bottle) made on the Surrey/Hampshire borders. The pit also contained a large quantity of animal bone probably indicating the debris from a large feast, and we have contemporary documents that illustrate the level of decadence to which such feasts could reach. It is too early in the analysis to list what was consumed during this feast but we have taken over 500 litres of soil samples to ensure that nothing is missed!
Dan Garner & Tony Wilmott