Archaeologists uncover the stage and other treasures at Shakepseare's Curtain Theatre

By Richard Moss Published: 10 November 2016

Archaeologists throw new light on Shakespeare's world after uncovering the stage and other artefacts at The Curtain Theatre

a small ceramic head in the shape of a lion
A lion head Flask © MOLA
Archaeologists working on a dig at the early Elizabethan theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were performed have discovered a stage which is much longer than first thought - with evidence of an unusual passageway beneath.

The latest findings at the Curtain Theatre pose the question as to whether the length of the stage affected the plays Shakespeare wrote for the Theatre, which is one of London’s earliest theatres built specifically for performance and entertainment.

A three-month detailed excavation by MOLA archaeologists has confirmed that the theatre on Curtain Road in Shoreditch was a purpose-built structure at the rear of another building.

Experts are now hoping to uncover more secrets about the relationship between the unusual shape of the stage, the production and staging and the mysterious backstage areas through further detailed analysis.

a photo of archaeologists excavating brick walls and basement
Archaeologists on site at the Curtain Theatre© MOLA
a broken clay figuring showing legs astride a barrel
Clay figure of Bacchus astride a barrel© MOLA
a photo of three clay pipes
Early 17th century clay tobacco pipes© MOLA
Describing the find as “exciting and significant”, Heather Knight, MOLA Senior Archaeologist said the discovery “could transform our understanding of the evolution of Elizabethan theatres”.

“It also raises questions about the function of the theatre and the types of entertainment that might have been staged here,” she added.

“For example, did the unusual shape and layout of the Curtain stage influence the plays such as Henry V and Romeo and Juliet that he wrote before his company moved to the Globe with a different stage? As well as drama, could the Curtain’s stage space have been used for sporting spectacles?

“With the excavation now complete, our plan is to do more in-depth analysis of the finds and further research that will shed some light on some of these mysteries.”

Historians believe the Curtain Theatre was purpose-built to house plays and activities and was a place where people came to be immersed in entertainment.

It had timber galleries with mid and upper areas for those who could afford to spend a little more, and a courtyard made from compacted gravel for those with less to spend.

a photo of two carved bone pieces
Horn fan arms© MOLA
a photo of several pieces of glass beads
Glass and stone beads© MOLA
a photo of two ceramic balls
Ceramic alleys - children's game© MOLA
The Curtain Theatre is also one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people paid money to see performances and be entertained.

Fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found, which would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is the origin of the term we still use today.

Glass beads and pins, which may have come from actors’ costumes, were also unearthed along with drinking vessels and clay pipes, which are likely to have belonged to revelling theatregoers and actors.

For the moment, the excavated remains of the Curtain Theatre, which takes its name from Curtain Road, have been carefully covered over with a protective membrane and a special type of pH neutral sand, while construction of The Stage, a new £750m mixed-use development backed by a consortium led by Cain Hoy and designed by architects Perkins+Will, continues.

a pottery shard with a flower design
A bartman jug medallion© MOLA
a photo of green glazed ceramic jar tops
16th century money pot finds© MOLA
a photo of an archaeological dig
The Curtain Theatre site© MOLA
a fish-shaped piece of carved bone
Fish shaped bone gaming piece© MOLA
a photo of a broken comb
A bone comb.© MOLA
A display of the finds will sit alongside the remains of the theatre as part of a cultural and visitor centre at the heart of the completed development, which will also feature 33,000 sq ft of retail, over 200,000 sq ft of office space, more than 400 homes, and over an acre of vibrant public space including a performance area and a park.

Watch a video about the excavation:

Find out more about the Curtain Theatre excavations on their website: