History and architecture of the Chester Roman Amphitheatre

Chester was one of the leading strategic outposts of the Roman Empire, and a testament to Chester’s importance to the Roman Empire is that it is home to the largest Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.

River Dee 2

The amphitheatre history

Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre was built in the late first century AD. Only around two fifths of the amphitheatre is visible, with the remainder lying beneath the ground in an unexcavated state.

There were two amphitheatres constructed on the site. The original amphitheatre was built by Legio II Adiutrix, a Roman legion formed by the Emperor Vespasian. It was rebuilt by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix legion. The amphitheatre was located at the south east corner of Chester’s Roman fort known as Deva.

The amphitheatre construction

The amphitheatre’s exterior wall measures 95.7 metres by 87.2 metres, and is 11.5 metres high, which is about twice the height of Chester’s city walls. The arena is 58 metres by 49.4 metres and covers an area of 2,230 square metres.

Although built by the Roman military and sometimes used for military training, its primary use was for entertainment including cock fighting, bull baiting, and combat sports such as boxing, wrestling and gladiatorial combat.

There were four major entrances in the north, south, east and west of the amphitheatre and 8 minor entrances. The entrance visible today is the northern one. Through this entrance, animals and combatants would walk to the main arena.

Next to this northern entrance is the altar to the goddess Nemesis. The altar seen today is a replica made in 1966, with the original housed in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum. The Grosvenor Museum also houses many of the smaller artefacts found at the site, though not all are on public display.

Grosvenor

The amphitheatre could seat an audience of around 8,000. Adjacent to it were many buildings including dungeons, store rooms, and food stands.

The arena floor was sunk about a metre below ground level. A set of stairs ran just inside the north corridor and this lead to a small room where the Roman officials who supervised the site were housed.

The decline of the amphitheatre

The amphitheatre stopped being used around 120 AD. This was probably because the Twentieth Legion headquartered in Chester was posted to build Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England. The site became derelict and was used as a rubbish dump.

Walls from Northgate 2

During the medieval period some of the amphitheatre stones were removed and used on the construction of Chester City Walls and the nearby St John’s Church. The site became forgotten and several houses were built on the site. In Georgian times, Dee House was built over the north end of the site.

St. John the Baptist Church

The rediscovery and redevelopment

The story of the discovery and development of the amphitheatre in the 20th century is one of drama and controversy. Despite the importance of this historic site, and it being the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain, its existence has been threatened on more than one occasion.

The amphitheatre remained forgotten from Chester’s history for a long time, but this did not stop speculation about its existence. In 1889, W Thompson Watkins, wrote a book on Roman Chester in which he claimed that the Romans must have built an amphitheatre in Chester, but he had no idea where it was located.

In the early 20th century, WJ Williams, a keen amateur archaeologist, knew that most large Roman Forts locations also contained amphitheatres and this convinced him that there should be one located somewhere in Chester.

In 1929, work on the Georgian Dee House gardens included removing a large holly tree and this revealed large masonry pieces. WJ Williams was asked to look at the remains and he thought that they indicated the existence of an amphitheatre. This led to small scale excavations which were carried out in 1930 and 1931 by the Chester Archaeological Society. These revealed a wall that was the entrance to the amphitheatre and confirmed that the WJ William’s speculation was correct. The Roman amphitheatre had been rediscovered after hundreds of years.

The Archaeological Society wanted to carry out more extensive excavation but these were blocked by existing plans to build a new road across the site. Though preparatory work for the new road revealed further evidence of the Roman Amphitheatre, the sites historical importance did not stop the road building plans. Despite the ancient significance of the site, many members of the city council favoured retaining planning permission for the road and this would have prevented any excavations of the site. During the 1920s, the subject of the road through the Roman amphitheatre was a hotly debated topic in the local and national press.

Fortunately, members of the City Improvement Committee, sensitive to the importance of the site, delayed the tender process for contractors wanting to build the road. This gave the Chester Archaeological Society time to launch an appeal for funds to be used to divert it. The appeal was successful, with prominent figures such as the Duke of Westminster and several Lords contributing, as well as members of the public. The then considerable sum of £24,000 was raised and this was considered enough to change the route of the road.

There was still the question of planning permission for these route changes, and due to the slow pace of Chester Council, it was not until 1933 that a new route for the road was approved.

The Archaeological Society was then faced with the task of raising enough money to finance an archaeological excavation of the site. They purchased the 18th Century St John’s House and leased it to the council, and invested the rent received in a fund designed to finance excavations. After enough money was raised, excavations were planned for 1939, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, these excavations had to be postponed.

The City Council left St John’s House in 1957, by which time the invested rent money was enough to finance a large scale excavation of the amphitheatre. In 1960, excavations to uncover the full extent of the amphitheatre were started.

These first excavations revealed wooden remains. This led some archaeologists to conclude that the original amphitheatre was constructed from wood, but later research found that the wooden structures were the seating, with the majority of the amphitheatre constructed from stone.

Excavations continued from 1960 to 1969. After exposing much of the site, work began on preserving the site by strengthening the walls and other stone work.

Controversy over development of the site

In 1987, the company Deva Romans Centre Ltd, headed by Tony Barbet, proposed developing Dee House and fully excavating the remaining hidden area of the amphitheatre site. He then wanted to reconstruct a full-size replica of the site and run it as a tourist “Roman experience” attraction. His plans included a mini theme park with replica Roman galleys on the River Dee, a toga-themed restaurant, and reconstructed Roman battles in the arena.

River Dee 4

Tony Barbet also planned a more serious side to the venture with a visitor’s centre and museum.

The Chester Civic Trust objected to this commercialisation of the site. Some in the council saw the proposals for a museum as a threat to the city’s existing museum services. After much discussion and a public enquiry, permission was given to demolish Dee House and allow the building of the new Roman amphitheatre attraction. Before work could commence, Tony Barbet ran out of money and planning permission for his Roman experience lapsed.

Further controversy

In 1998, the city council, which now owned Dee House, and building developers David Mclean Ltd were reported in the press as having talks about building a hotel next to the amphitheatre. In return for planning permission, Mclean promised to fund further excavations of the site and would consider demolishing Dee House.

Though many people wanted to preserve Dee House, the then leader of the City council, John Price supported the scheme and thought that the demolition of Dee House was a price worth paying to uncover the rest of the Roman Amphitheatre. Dee House at the time was in a derelict condition, but still had it supporters who wanted to preserve the Georgian listed building.

Mclean’s commissioned architect Edward Cullinan, who designed a semi-circular hotel building which would stretch from the Southern end of the amphitheatre to the Bishop’s palace. These plans changed and were replaced by ones to build a new County law court, office block and car park near the amphitheatre site. Though the public was assured that the new buildings would not cover the amphitheatre site, the car park plans showed that they would cover portions of the amphitheatre.

Many prominent politicians expressed their concerns about the development. In 2000, Sir John Watson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said that any development on the site would adversely affect Chester’s tourism. In May 2000, John Gummer, the former environmental secretary, made a strongly worded attack on the amphitheatre development proposals. At the 2000 Conservative party Conference, Chester City councillor Eveleigh Moore Dutton addressed the conference and criticised the courthouse project as “outrageous and contrary to the will of the people of Chester.”

Despite the opposition, the Court House was built in 2001 with portions of the amphitheatre buried beneath its car park. Cobble areas on the car park now indicate areas under which parts of the amphitheatre are covered.

More excavations

Small scale excavations of the site began in 2000, when pots decorated with images of Gladiators were found. This led to speculation that the pots were sold as souvenirs to amphitheatre visitors.

The 2000 excavations found that much damage had been done to the site because of the way previous excavations were carried out in the 1960s. A decision was made at the time to remove all post Roman remains using bulldozers, which destroyed many artefacts. Roman drains were destroyed and replaced by concrete drains in an effort to improve drainage to the site.

Despite the rough excavation methods during the 1960s, the site that is visible today remains largely an original Roman structure though portions of the stonework have been stabilised and repointed to preserve them.

In 2004 a joint initiative by Chester Council and English Heritage called The Chester Amphitheatre Project was formed to start new excavations and manage the area. Excavations in 2004 and 2005 led to farther discoveries, including a large outer wall set in a deep trench.

In 2005 the archaeological Channel Four program Time Team did further excavations on the site.

The future

There is still a lot of interest in excavating the remaining sections of the amphitheatre. Dee House is still standing and many people want to demolish it to allow more extensive excavations of the site. The supporters of the demolition argue that the Roman amphitheatre is so important that it should take precedence over conserving Dee House.

In the past few years, there have been several proposals for developing the amphitheatre site. Some proposals reference the Viking Centre in York, which attracts large numbers of visitors eager to experience a taste of Viking life. A proposal for a similar visitor experience plans on restoring Dee House, making it a high-tech visitor centre. This would also generate income for the project.

Visit today

Despite the controversy, the Roman amphitheatre remains as a monument to Chester’s Roman past. It is open during daylight hours and is free to visit. The venue also hosts outdoor theatre productions and other events.

Visitors are free to walk around the site, and there are two spaces that overlook the arena. One is grassed over and the other comprises a section of the original stone area where spectators sat. Between these two areas is the northern entrance that leads to the arena section. Behind the arena, sections of the amphitheatre are still covered by Dee House, which remains in a derelict condition.

Squirrel at Queen's Park

Thanks to its rich history, the Roman amphitheatre is one of Chester’s top tourist attractions and is one of several fine examples of Roman architecture in the city.

 

Posted by Mark
May 18, 2016
Features

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