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Gladiator cell among finds discovered in Kent amphitheatre

A cavity in the arena wall at Richborough Roman amphitheatre in Kent, has been revealed to be a carcer, or cell for holding people and animals, according to an announcement by English Heritage.

Gladiator cell among finds discovered in Kent amphitheatre
Richborough amphitheatre excavation [Credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage]

The discovery was one of a number made during an archaeological excavation of the Roman amphitheatre by the charity including the almost complete skeleton of a purposefully buried Roman cat, and traces of painted decoration to the plaster face of the arena wall; the first known instance on any Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Other finds from the excavation also reveal that Roman settlement at Richborough may have continued right across the town until the very end of Roman rule at the turn of the 4th/5th century. This excavation will form part of a major refurbishment and re-presentation of the site and museum which will take place this winter and open in summer 2022.

The amphitheatre at Richborough provided the inhabitants of the town with a place for public spectacles and entertainment such as wild animal hunts, executions and gladiatorial combat. The excavation has provided further evidence of Richborough’s place as one of the most important Roman sites in Britain, finally revealing details of how it was constructed: the exterior arena wall was up to 6m wide and made of carefully stacked turf, with the outlines of individual turves still visible. The interior wall, defining the arena, was made of mortared chalk blocks with a rendered and plastered face, on which are traces of paint in what once would have been vivid reds and blues, a discovery which is unprecedented in amphitheatres in Britain. 

Gladiator cell among finds discovered in Kent amphitheatre
Roman coin unearthed during the dig [Credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage]

The use of chalk and turf as building materials is an exciting discovery, perhaps suggesting that the amphitheatre may have been built early in the Roman period, in the 1st century AD. Also uncovered in the amphitheatre was a feature first revealed during the Victorian excavation in 1849, but unexplained until now. New evidence from the present excavation has been able to identify this as a carcer, or cell. The cell, with its high walls reaching almost 2 metres, would have held those who entered the arena to meet their fate, whether wild animals, criminals or gladiators.

Numerous small finds have been unearthed during the excavation, including butchered animal bones, coins, items of personal adornment and pottery fragments which provide the evidence required to show that the Roman town at Richborough was occupied by civilians right through until the end of the 4th century AD – the entire Roman period in Britain. One unusual and moving discovery was the almost complete skeleton of a Roman cat, nicknamed Maxipus by the team who uncovered it, which appeared purposefully buried on the edge of a ditch outside the amphitheatre, in an area of domestic settlement.

Gladiator cell among finds discovered in Kent amphitheatre
Painted plaster wall of amphitheatre [Credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage]

Paul Pattison, English Heritage Senior Properties Historian, said: “The discoveries we’ve made during the excavation at Richborough are startling and exciting, and dramatically transform our understanding of the structure of the amphitheatre and the nature of adjacent settlement in the town. We’ve always known that the Roman fort at Richborough was an important place to the Romans, until the very end of their rule, and now we have been able to gather evidence that much of the town outside the fort may also have been settled until the very end.”

Tony Wilmott, Senior Archaeologist at Historic England, said: “Amphitheatres are a unique Roman creation and this one – which could seat as many as 5000 spectators – may have been constructed in the 1st century AD in the early phase of Roman rule. The evidence of painted decoration we have found on the arena wall, a unique find so far in amphitheatres in Britain, is remarkable, and a wonderful reminder that aspects of Roman culture abroad were also a feature of life in Roman Britain.”

Gladiator cell among finds discovered in Kent amphitheatre
The skull of a cat, nicknamed Maxipus by the excavation team, found at the site
[Credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage]

Remaining puzzles include two badly burnt rectangular areas, bright red-orange in colour, which are believed to be the remnants of Roman buildings that stood against the turf outer wall of the amphitheatre. It is not yet known what function these buildings fulfilled, but it is possible they stood on each side of an entrance leading up to the seating bank of the arena. Their destruction by fire must have been dramatic, though the reason is unknown.

The excavation at Richborough amphitheatre, in conjunction with specialists from Historic England, is taking place between mid-September and mid-November 2021. A major refurbishment and re-presentation of the on-site museum will take place in winter 2021 and open in summer 2022 – a project made possible thanks to support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Source: English Heritage [November 01, 2021]

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