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A visitor's guide to Roman Chester
Chester Amphitheatre and Roman Sites (Chester)
Member Name: collingwood21
Chester Amphitheatre and Roman Sites (Chester)
Date: 28/01/02, updated on 28/01/02 (169 review reads)
Advantages: Free to visit, excellent preservation, all within a short walk of each other, good public transport to get into city centre
Disadvantages: Interpretation could be better
Chester’s historic city walls are famous, and for good reason. They are well preserved (being largely intact in many places) and encompass the old city as a defensive structure, as it was so close to the border with Wales. These days, they are a tourist attraction, popular for walking along to see many of the sights located in the city centre, which is a very enjoyable (and free!) pastime (also very romantic on a summer’s evening). There are many places around the walls were you can on and off them, all of which are well signposted so you won’t have any trouble finding your way. At various points, panels have been added by the city council to mark notable historic features and tell you about what can be seen from that point.
The walls have not just become popular in modern times though – Jonathan Swift wrote a short poem after he visited them:
“The walls of this town
Are full of renown,
And strangers delight to walk round 'em,
But as for the dwellers,
Both buyers and sellers,
For me, you may hang 'em or drown 'em”
On Vicar’s Lane, just beyond Newgate, lies the Chester amphitheatre. This is currently the larges
t site of its type to be excavated in Britain, and an excellent view of it can be gained from the city walls at this point. Only half of the structure can be seen as, by an unfortunate turn of fate, the other half just happens to lie beneath a convent registered as a listed building. There is many an archaeologist who would love to see something happen to that building so that they could get their hands on the material that lies beneath, even if it does belong to nuns!
The amphitheatre has it origins in a timber structure built in the AD70s by Legion II who were based at Chester – when they got posted overseas though, the Legion XX (which has the longest association with the city) moved in and rebuilt it in stone. The circular edifice would have been used for training and entertaining the troops (although probably not for gladiator shows – no Russell Crowe here I’m afraid) until AD350. Of the nineteen amphitheatres known in Britain, only three (including this one) are of the military type (the others being in York and Caerleon) making this an internationally important site.
The site was rediscovered in 1929 quite by accident (as so many things are in archaeology) when the convent gardener happened to dig a pit in the grounds. By happy coincidence, a member of the local archaeology society recognised the remains for what they were, and excavations were undertaken by the society and Liverpool University during the early 1930’s – this was accompanied by many protests to the city council to save the site from threatened expansion plans for the city centre. Work is still carried out on the amphitheatre from time to time, with the most recent being a small scale dig by students from Chester College and the society in summer 2000. The amphitheatre was opened to the public in 1972, although interpretation of the site provided by English Heritage is seriously lacking, and unforgivably neglects to mention therole the Ches
ter Archaeology Society played in the discovery, protection and excavation of the site. Entrance is free and it is open “at any reasonable time”
-The Roman Garden
This is not strictly a Roman site in the sense of the amphitheatre, but is worth a visit nonetheless – it is located a short walk along the walls, again just off Newgate. Here is presented a collection of ancient stonework, including assorted columns and the remains of a hypocaust (Roman underfloor heating) system that have been gathered from various points around the city and reassembled amongst lawns and shrubbery. The garden was established in 1949 by the curator of the Grosvenor Museum and the city engineer as Chester’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain.
The gardens are quite a strange sight, as the collections in them are so oddly out of place – they remind me of the follies you see in the gardens of eccentric landowners. Still, it provides a calm and peaceful setting for anyone wanting to get away from the busy city centre and just walk or sit in a quiet place. They are placed between walls and river, far enough away from the main streets to get away from noise, but not so far that they require a long walk to get to them. Again, entrance is free.
-The Elliptical Building
This is a truly unique site, and although not on display to the public, is worth a mention here because of its importance to Chester. The building (named after its plan) would have been situated in the centre of the legionary fortress, built out of finely dressed stonework and entered through a colonnaded portico (huge arched doorway raised on massive stone piers). By anyone’s standards, then, this was something very special and nothing like it has ever been found anywhere else in Britain. Two problems remain about it though – what on earth was it, and why was it left unfinished?
Many ideas have been suggested as to w
hat the elliptical building could be – a market, school, palace or weapons store have all been proposed – but none of these quite seem to fit. Perhaps then it had a religious function, or was intended to be a monument to commemorate a victory or success. Evidence suggests that a pool and fountain were going to be added to the centre of the building, so this may indeed back up these ideas, although to be honest I have a little bit of scepticism. Whenever faced by a mystery, archaeologists inevitably wheel out the word “ritual” to try and explain things they haven’t go the foggiest idea about, and that seems to be what is happening here. The truth is noone knows what the elliptical building was intended for, and because of the unfinished nature of it, we may never be certain.
This is a project I have only recently discovered, when I was in Chester a couple of weeks ago. The department store Browns of Chester are currently expanding into a neighbouring site, and have been good enough to pay for a full archaeological investigation of the new plot before any construction work takes place – this is an important move, as this area lies right in the city centre. Best of all though, a viewing area has been provided by the store on the first floor that overlooks the excavation area below, so shoppers can watch archaeology as it takes place. Information boards on Roman Chester and photos of artefacts found are on display near the viewing area, and are updated weekly. It is very rare that commercial concerns work so closely with archaeologists, so this enterprise is to be commended – not only can more be learnt about the history of Chester, but it also serves to raise the profile of archaeology with the public. I have been unable to find out exactly when the project is on display to, but it should certainly be running into spring 2002, and hopefully the summer as well.
e, then, are the main features of Roman Chester. Visitors can learn more by visiting the Grosvenor Museum where many finds from Roman excavations have been put on display in 2 of the ground floor galleries. The museum is open 10.30am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 5pm on Sundays – for more information, see my op on the subject or visit www.chestercc.gov.uk/heritage
Other useful sites are:
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