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Chester Amphitheatre

History
Chester has the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain, used for entertainment and military training by the 20th Legion, based at the fortress of 'Deva' (Chester). Excavations by English Heritage and the Council in 2004-5 revealed two successive stone-built amphitheatres with wooden seating. The first included access to the upper tiers of seats via stairs on the rear wall, as at Pompeii, and had a small shrine next to its north entrance. The second provided seat access via vaulted stairways. The two buildings differed both from each other and from all other British amphitheatres, underlining the importance of Roman Chester.

Today, Chester's Roman amphitheatre is a shadow of its former glory. Trapped within the modern urban landscape, it is difficult to picture the ancient ruin as the major city landmark it was more than 1,600 years ago.

English Heritage, Chester Renaissance and Cheshire West and Chester Council have worked together to improve access, landscaping and surroundings for this rare and important monument.
The amphitheatre is a Scheduled Ancient Monument owned by English Heritage and managed by Cheshire West and Chester Council.

Recent Work

The presentation of Chester's Roman amphitheatre has been improved:

  • Reconstruction of the foundations of the walls of the two successive amphitheatres found during archaeological excavations in 2004-6, together with the base of the timber seating bank (Areas A and B). 
  • Resurfacing of the arena, entrances and areas around the walls to match the original materials.
  • Construction of a path around the outer wall of the amphitheatre to link together all parts of the site and make it more accessible. This incorporates a bridge over the north entrance with steps into the arena.
  • Reopening of the walkway across the middle of the site and opening up Area B to the public.
  • Installation of new signage and information panels. These present the results of the latest discoveries about the amphitheatre and include a mural on the retaining wall at the back of the arena.  
  • New architectural lighting

 

Plan of Ampitheatre Improvements


Following The Work

The site had previously been landscaped in 1972 after a series of excavations from 1957 to 1969. After over a generation this was inevitably looking tired. In addition, public interest led to large-scale re-excavation between 2004 and 2006 and to a demand for the presentation of the results of the recent work. These pages include an archive record of the excavations and finds from 2000. The amphitheatre is Chester’s most prominent Roman monument and attracts many thousands of visitors including schoolchildren every year. There was thus a clear need to overhaul the landscaping of the site, bringing the interpretation up to date and making it more attractive and accessible.

Photo showing The amphitheatre as it was laid out after the excavations of the 1960s

The Amphitheatre Today

 

History of discovery

Chester’s Roman amphitheatre was discovered in 1929, when a short stretch of the curved outer wall was discovered during construction of an extension to the Ursuline convent (Dee House). Excavations between 1930 and 1934 for the Chester Archaeological Society established the northern limits of the amphitheatre, the size of the arena and the positions of two of the entrances.

The first section of amphitheatre wall to be discovered behind Dee House in 1929
The first section of amphitheatre wall to be discovered behind Dee House in 1929

At this time Chester Corporation was planning to build a new road that would remove the awkward bends of Little St John Street. This would have run across the middle of the amphitheatre. After much campaigning and negotiation, the Ministry of Transport vetoed the planned new road. The Chester Archaeological Society bought St John’s House, an eighteenth-century town house occupying much of the northern half of the site, while Chester Corporation agreed to purchase adjoining properties. This ensured that the northern half of the amphitheatre could be excavated once money was available and allowed the worst of the bends in the road to be removed while still avoiding the site.

The line of the proposed new road that would have cut across the amphitheatre. St John’s House is on the left, Dee House on the right. Taken in the 1930s.

The conclusion drawn from the 1957-1969 excavations was that the amphitheatre had first been built entirely of timber, probably at the same time as the foundation of the legionary fortress in the 70s of the first century AD. About AD 100 this was replaced by a stone amphitheatre with two outer walls; this survived until the fourth century.

Small-scale excavation by Chester City Council’s Archaeological Service between 2000 and 2003 showed that these conclusions might well be wrong. Much larger scale re-excavation by the City Council and English Heritage between 2004 and 2006 showed that the inner wall and the timber seating both belonged to the first amphitheatre, while the outer stone wall belonged to a later version of the structure.

Area A of the amphitheatre during excavation in 2006, showing the outer walls of successive versions of the amphitheatre. The slots left by ground beams of the timber seating can be seen on the left.




 











Area A of the amphitheatre during excavation in 2006, showing the outer walls of successive versions of the amphitheatre. The slots left by ground beams of the timber seating can be seen on the left.

After the end of Roman rule it is possible that the amphitheatre was converted into a fortified base for a local warlord. Later, the east entrance may have been turned into the crypt of the original, seventh-century, St John’s church

How to find out more

Ainsworth, S & Wilmott, T 2005. Chester amphitheatre: from gladiators to gardens. Chester City Council and English Heritage

Matthews, K J 2003. Chester’s amphitheatre after Rome: a centre of Christian worship. CheshireHistory 43, 12-27

Newstead, R & Droop, J P 1932. The Roman amphitheatre at Chester, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society new series 29, 5-40

Thompson, F H 1975. The excavation of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester.  Archaeologia 105, 127-239

Wilmott, T 2008. The Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Stroud: Tempus

Wilmott, T ed 2009.  Roman amphitheatres and spectacula; a 21st-century perspective. Papers from an international conference held at Chester, 16th-18th February 2007. Oxford: Archaeopress. (British Archaeological Reports International Series 1946)

 

 

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The amphitheatre is a Scheduled Ancient Monument owned by English Heritage and managed by Cheshire West and Chester Council.