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Historic England Research Records

Chester Amphitheatre

Hob Uid: 69224
Location :
Cheshire West and Chester
Non Civil Parish
Grid Ref : SJ4083066170
Summary : The upstanding and buried masonry of Chester amphitheatre is all that remains of what was Britain's largest Roman amphitheatre. The first evidence of the amphitheatre was uncovered in 1737, however it wasn't until 1929 that the site's original purpose was identified. Excavations carried out in the 1960s lead to the conclusion that the first amphitheatre on the site was built from timber while a second was built from stone. In 2004-2006, however, a new survey was carried out by English Heritage and Chester City Council which led to a complete reinterpretation of the site's history. They revealed that two successive stone-built amphitheatres had stood on the site. The first was built circa AD 80-90 and had a stone outer wall, a central arena and a seating bank supporting timber seats. This was built against the stone wall with the spoil heap from the area. Soon after, the arena was deepened and a terrace of timber-framed seating was built, along with a new stairway for access. This work has been dated to AD 96 from a coin found in the foundation slot of one of the timbers. Possibly in the late 2nd century, though it hasn't been confirmed, the amphitheatre was extended and enlarged. A new outer wall was built and seats in the upper tiers were now accessed by vomitoria (vaulted stairways situated behind the seating). Evidence suggests that sometime between the 5th century and the 11th-12th centuries, the amphitheatre may have been used as a fortified settlement for occupation or as a refuge. From around 1200, tenements had appeared on the site, while successive medieval buildings are thought to have had a collegiate function. Finds indicate that the site was a wealthy holding during the 16th century, however by the 17th and 18th centuries the site was a garden and partly a cess pit. During the 19th and 20th centuries it remained within the gardens of Dee House and St John's House.
More information : (SJ 40836617) Roman Amphitheatre (R) (1)

The Roman Amphitheatre at Chester was situated at the south east angle of the fort outside the fortress walls and now occupies the area immediately south of Little St John Street. It was originally constructed of timber but was replaced in stone during or soon after the Flavian period. The northern half of the amphitheatre has been extensively excavated revealing both the timber and stone structure. Its overall dimensions were 99.2m by 87.2m. See plan. (2)

The northern part of the Roman Amphitheatre has been cleared and restored and is open to the public. Surveyed at 1:1250 on MSD at SJ 408661. (3)

Please see source for details. (4)

This guidebook contains some brief historical information about Chester Roman Amphitheatre. Please see source for further details. (5)

This article provides a detailed overview of the discoveries made in 2004-5 by English Heritage and Chester City Council at Chester Roman Amphitheatre through excavation and landscape survey. It includes photographs, illustrations, current and historic maps as well as photographs of finds.

During excavations, the revealing of cess pits dating to around 1200 onwards suggests that medieval tenements existed on the site. (6)

The first evidence of Chester Amphitheatre was uncovered in 1737 with the discovery of a slate relief depicting a gladiator. However it wasn't until 1929, during the installation of heating at nearby Dee House convent school, that the site was identified as an amphitheatre. During the 1960s the northern half of the amphitheatre was excavated extensively by F.H. Thomson and 1972 it was opened to the public.

In his excavation report, Thomson concluded that the first amphitheatre on the site was built from timber while the second was built from stone and that all the stone was contemporary. The report is said to have lacked archaeological dating evidence for the timber phase, which was instead assumed to have dated to the mid-AD 70s, contemporary with the earliest timber phase of Chester's legionary fortress. Finds from the construction of the arena wall dated the stone phase to circa AD 100 while various post-holes in the centre of the arena were thought to have supported a platform used for activities such as military parades.

Between 2004 and 2006 new excavations were carried out as part of a project funded and run jointly by English Heritage and Chester City Council. While the project's findings were still under analysis at the time of publication (2008), it is said that most of Thomson's conclusions could be contradicted.

Construction of the earliest amphitheatre structure on the site has been estimated to be circa AD 80-90. It was oval shaped, measuring 88 x 76.5 metres and built from stone. Excavation of the central arena, measuring 57.9 x 48.7 metres, is said to have taken place after the building of the stone outer wall and its spoil heap was used to form a seating bank against the outer wall. An arena wall would also have been constructed and the seating bank would have supported timber seats. Four entrances would probably have provided access to the seating while the outer wall was covered in metalled surfaces.

Soon after construction the amphitheatre was radically altered. After cutting away the seating bank, a terrace of timber-framed seating was built. This work can be dated from the discovery of a coin from AD 96 which was found in the foundation slot of one of the timbers. Following the erection of the timber-framed seating, the arena was deepened and therefore a new arena wall is thought to have been built. The new seating also required new access arrangements and so a stairway was constructed.

Possibly in the late 2nd century, though dating evidence is yet to be analysed, the amphitheatre was extended and enlarged. A new outer wall was built and while the original four entrances were still in use, the seats in the upper tiers were now accessed by vomitoria (vaulted stairways situated behind the seating). Pairs of piers flanked the entrances while between each entrance and vomitoria was a single pier. These piers were identified by Thomson as buttresses, however are now interpreted as piers since they were only one stone thick and didn't go any deeper than the base of the foundations.

In 2001-3, re-examination of the upstanding masonry of the east entrance revealed that it underwent many alterations. This entrance comprised three passages separated by walls which may have separated animals from human participants. Evidence suggests the central passage underwent a complex series of modifications and that the outer passages were blocked early on.

The post-holes which Thomson believed were evidence of a platform used in military parades is now thought to have been a small timber building. While no dating evidence was found, it is believed to have been built between the end of the Roman use of the arena and the 11th-12th century when stone was removed to extend the town walls and build the cathedral church of St John. One of the vomitoria and possibly the east entrance were blocked within this time period also, suggesting that the structure was no longer in use as an amphitheatre as this would have been counter-productive to their purpose.

From the fifth century onwards the amphitheatre may have been used as a fortified settlement for occupation or as a refuge and therefore the north entrance may have been the only one still in use, which is suggested by the metalled path leading from here to the timber buildings in the centre of the arena. Amphitheatres were used as early post-Roman fortifications elsewhere in Europe and the building of the church of St John immediately outside in the east entrance in the 7th century may be further evidence of the existence of a settlement at the amphitheatre. (7)

This issue of Research News focuses on the Chester Amphitheatre Project which begun in 2003 and was funded and implemented by English Heritage and Chester City Council. The articles in this issue provide an overview of the survey methods used, highlight new finds, discuss research into sampling strategies which were informed by the Chester project, and, detail access and outreach activities that formed part of the project.

The post-Roman history of the site is discussed in an article by Dan Garner and Tony Wilmot, entitled 'The amphitheatre site after the Romans'. They outline how, during 1960s excavations, post-Roman deposits within the northern half of the amphitheatre were removed by machine, thereby losing key evidence from this period.

The excavations undertaken by English Heritage and Chester City Council revealed early medieval occupation of the arena, with the arena wall disappearing by the 14th century. Evidence of successive medieval buildings in the arena and cavea was discovered and are thought to have been collegiate in function. Environmental evidence indicative of feasting in the 16th century and finds such as a gold ring from the Tudor period suggest the site was of a wealthy holding at this time.

It is thought that one of the buildings revealed during excavation may have been demolished in the 1645 siege of Chester. This was because many of those close to the walls suffered this fate in order to deny cover to attackers.

Evidence dating to the 17th and 18th centuries consisted of the remains of cess pits and the garden to Dee House, which was built in around 1730. Two of the three trenches dug by archaeologists lay within the area which was the garden to Dee House and St John's House in the 19th and 20th centuries. (8)

This brief report issued by the English Heritage Research Department contains the results of analysis of material which was thought to provide evidence of metal working on the site of Chester amphitheatre. The report concludes that there is little evidence of metal working taking place here and that the material discovered is most likely evidence of a small amount of iron smithing which took place during two construction phases of the amphitheatre. (9)

Chester Roman amphitheatre, used by the 20th Legion for entertainment and training purposes, was the largest ever built in Britain. Two successive amphitheatres were built on the site, the designs of which differed from one another as well as all others to built in Britain. The first of the two amphitheatres had a small shrine next to its north entrance.

This website contains some historical information about Chester amphitheatre, an excavation history and details regarding current work at the site. (10)

This booklet contains an historical overview of the Chester amphitheatre and the results of the survey undertaken by English Heritage and Chester City Council. It contains photographs of the excavations and finds as well as historical photographs and illustrations. (11)


Sources :
Source Number : 1
Source : Ordnance Survey Map (Scale / Date)
Source details : OS 1:2500 1962
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 2
Source : Archaeologia : or miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity
Source details : plans photos illus (F H Thompson)
Page(s) : 127-239
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 105, 1976
Source Number : 11
Source : Chester amphitheatre: from gladiators to gardens
Source details :
Page(s) :
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Source Number : 3
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : F1 DJC 09-MAR-76
Page(s) :
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Vol(s) :
Source Number : 4
Source : The English Heritage visitors' handbook 1998-99
Source details :
Page(s) : 169
Figs. :
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Vol(s) :
Source Number : 5
Source : Heritage Unlocked: Guide to free sites in the North West
Source details :
Page(s) : Dec-13
Figs. :
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Vol(s) :
Source Number : 6
Source : English Heritage Historical Review
Source details :
Page(s) : Jul-23
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 1, 2006
Source Number : 7
Source : The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain
Source details :
Page(s) : 135-143, 183-185
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 8
Source : Research News
Source details :
Page(s) : Jan-33
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 4, SUMMER 2006
Source Number : 9
Source : Assessment of evidence for metal working from Chester amphitheatre
Source details :
Page(s) :
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Source Number : 10
Source : World Wide Web page
Source details : Chester West and Chester Council. Chester Amphitheatre [accessed 11-JUN-2010]
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Monument Types:
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Extended late 2nd century
Monument End Date : 200
Monument Start Date : 167
Monument Type : Amphitheatre
Evidence : Structure
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Built AD 80-90
Monument End Date : 90
Monument Start Date : 80
Monument Type : Amphitheatre
Evidence : Structure
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Altered around AD 96
Monument End Date :
Monument Start Date : 96
Monument Type : Amphitheatre
Evidence : Structure
Monument Period Name : Early Medieval
Display Date : Partly demolished 11th-12th centuries
Monument End Date : 1066
Monument Start Date : 1001
Monument Type : Amphitheatre
Evidence : Structure
Monument Period Name : Early Medieval
Display Date : Between 5th & 11th-12th century
Monument End Date : 1066
Monument Start Date : 410
Monument Type : Settlement
Evidence : Sub Surface Deposit
Monument Period Name : Medieval
Display Date : Between 5th & 11th-12th century
Monument End Date : 1200
Monument Start Date : 1066
Monument Type : Settlement
Evidence : Sub Surface Deposit
Monument Period Name : Medieval
Display Date : Partly demolished 11th-12th centuries
Monument End Date : 1200
Monument Start Date : 1066
Monument Type : Amphitheatre
Evidence : Structure

Components and Objects:
Related Records from other datasets:
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (County No.)
External Cross Reference Number : CH 85
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : EH Property Number
External Cross Reference Number : 147
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : National Monuments Record Number
External Cross Reference Number : SJ 46 NW 75
External Cross Reference Notes :

Related Warden Records :
Associated Monuments : 1086170
Relationship type : General association

Related Activities :
Associated Activities : Primary, CONVENT, SOUTERS LANE/LITTLE ST JOHN STREET
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1929-01-01
End Date : 1929-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LITTLE ST JOHN STREET (SOUTH OF)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1930-01-01
End Date : 1931-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, ST JOHN'S HOUSE (CELLAR)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1934-01-01
End Date : 1934-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, 19 LITTLE ST JOHN'S STREET
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1934-01-01
End Date : 1934-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LITTLE ST JOHN STREET
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1957-01-01
End Date : 1959-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, ST JOHN'S HOUSE
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1960-01-01
End Date : 1960-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, AMPHITHEATRE
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1961-01-01
End Date : 1961-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, AMPHITHEATRE
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1964-01-01
End Date : 1964-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, AMPHITHEATRE
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1965-01-01
End Date : 1969-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, FIELD OBSERVATION ON SJ 46 NW 75
Activity type : FIELD OBSERVATION (VISUAL ASSESSMENT)
Start Date : 1976-03-09
End Date : 1976-03-09
Associated Activities : Primary, DEE HOUSE
Activity type : EVALUATION
Start Date : 1993-01-01
End Date : 1993-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, DEE HOUSE CAR PARK
Activity type : EVALUATION
Start Date : 1994-01-01
End Date : 1994-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, CHESTER ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 2000-01-01
End Date : 2005-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, CHESTER ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE
Activity type : GEOPHYSICAL SURVEY
Start Date : 2002-01-01
End Date : 2002-12-31