Archaeologists Set To Explore Chester's Roman Amphitheatre

By David Prudames | 20 January 2004
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Shows an aerial photograph of the Chester amphitheatre as it is today. A large, sloped grassy bank is surrounded by a road and several buildings.

Photo: the amphitheatre lay un-excavated for hundreds of years and has subsequently been built around and even on. © Chester City Council.

Chester City Council and English Heritage are set to join forces to conduct an archaeological survey and improve visitor facilities at Britain’s largest Roman amphitheatre.

Over the next two years, the council and English Heritage will carry out a large-scale archaeological research programme on the site to help inform a decision on whether to undertake a full excavation.

The amphitheatre was first excavated in the 1960s and is known to have formed part of the settlement that grew around Deva, one of Roman Britain’s most important strategic forts.

Chester City Council Culture Manager, Paul Gover told the 24 Hour Museum how a series of non-invasive techniques will be used to build an accurate picture of what is below the surface.

"We’ve agreed a two year programme of work to give us a clearer picture of what’s there," he explained.

Shows a photograph of a group of Roman re-enactors dressed as legionaries and marching in step.

Photo: the Romans could soon be on the march again in Chester. © Phil Sayer.

Using ground penetrating radar and an electro-magnetic survey, there won’t be any digging just yet, but the results could also reveal what happened to the site when the Romans left.

"This isn’t simply about excavating down to a Roman amphitheatre," said Paul. "It’s about finding out how the site has been used in subsequent periods and who knows what we might find."

It is believed that an amphitheatre was first built on the site soon after the establishment of Deva, around 70 AD, and at its height, the building could accommodate up to 8000 spectators.

Now a scheduled ancient monument, which has been open to the public since 1972, there have been various calls for a full excavation, but the existence of a Grade II listed building, Dee House, on the site has been a stumbling point.

"If a decision is made to excavate, that implies the demolition of a listed building and obviously there is national policy around that," said Paul. "You don’t go demolishing listed buildings for the sake of it."

The project will cost around £500,000, which would be split between the council and English Heritage, and includes the transformation of a nearby visitor centre into the Chester Amphitheatre and Research Centre.

Shows a photograph of the amphitheatre as it appears today. There are a number of walls and the stump of what used to be a pillar at the front of the image, while there is a large red-brick building in the background.

Photo: © Chester City Council.

With a physical view of the site, visitors will be able to follow the progress of the work whilst examining finds and learning about it from interpretative displays and working archaeologists.

"Obviously this is about the archaeology," added Paul. "But it’s also about the profile of the place and its impact on the tourism economy as well as being something of interest to local people."

Preliminary reports from an impact study suggest the project would attract an extra 40,000 visitors to the city each year, which could result in a £5 million boost to the local economy.

"We are delighted to be working in partnership with Chester City Council on the amphitheatre project," added David Miles, chief archaeologist for English Heritage.

"We are committed to developing a major community project that will provide many opportunities for the local population to be actively involved in making the most of this exciting city centre attraction."

The project also has the backing of the Amphitheatre Steering Group, whose members include the Chester Amphitheatre Trust, Chester Civic Trust, Chester Attractions Consortium and Chester Archaeological Trust.

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