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Roman roads discovered at Chester theatre site

Archaeologists exploring the site of Chester’s proposed £40.5 million theatre have discovered the remains of two Roman roads.

Roman roads discovered at Chester theatre site
The roads have been discovered yards from the original orchestra pit and running parallel alongside the present Northgate Street [Credit: LP Archaeology]
Initial work on potential foundations for the new theatre began last month within the former Odeon, the basement of Commerce House and two buildings in Northgate Street.

Archaeologists believe both roads would have serviced the original Roman fortress and have described them as the most exciting finds in the area in the last 20 years.

Mike Morris, project manager for the historic environment service, said: “At present we have exposed small ‘keyholes’ of what could be islands of survival within larger areas lost to cellar and foundation construction.

“However, it is true to say that we are delighted to find more archaeology surviving than was thought to be the case.

“It could mean that discovery of the roads will also lead to the survival of the foundations of buildings that may well have existed alongside them.”

The theatre site lies in the northern part of the Roman fortress and its footprint covers an area which includes barrack blocks and accommodation, which could have been part of the governor’s enclave.

The roads – both created from sandstone rubble and in one case also gravel – were discovered yards from the original orchestra pit and run parallel to Northgate Street.

Already four of the trial trenches being dug to carry out exploration of land to be used for the foundations of the new theatre have revealed Roman and medieval remains.

A section of sandstone wall – thought to be part of a medieval town house – has been discovered near the Odeon’s boundary with Hunter Street and fragments of Roman and medieval pottery in other trenches.

Mr Morris said: “Whilst it is still too soon to make definite forecasts, the excavations may well give us a clue to the purpose of a large mystery building believed to have been sited within the area.

“Most Roman fortresses across Europe were built to the same pattern, but Chester is certainly larger than most and one theory about the building is that its purpose was to house visiting dignitaries.”

More than 20 trial trenches are being dug to help determine whether the foundations of the theatre will have to be specially designed to protect any important archaeology.

Mr Morris believes the roads – about one foot beneath the Odeon’s surface – were not discovered during the original excavations in the 1930s because archaeologists were working on a tight schedule.

Work on the project is pressing ahead despite the Arts Council’s decision to reject Cheshire West and Chester Council’s funding bid of £5 million.

Project director Graham Lister and Cllr Stuart Parker, executive member for culture and recreation, have given assurances the ambitious scheme will go ahead – and on time.

Source: ChesterFirst [February 21, 2013]

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