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Canterbury’s Roman Theatre

A pair of service trenches, cut by South East Water to install a fire hydrant at the north-east end of Castle Street, have revealed a section of paving that probably formed part of the orchestra of Canterbury’s Roman theatre, together with masonry possibly associated with the stage.

The service trenches at the Castle Street/Watling Street junction. The greensand paving blocks
The trenches, machine excavated in an ‘L’-shape in front of the Three Tuns public house, also contained a number of live services carrying water and gas.  The paving, located only 0.5m below the surface of the street in a trench along the kerb of Castle Street, was in tightly-jointed, squared blocks of greensand probably from the Hythe or Reculver area. The blocks (0.10m in thickness and on average measuring about 1 by 1.20m) were laid over a thick bedding of mortared flints.
The second trench, crossing Castle Street, contained a large water main cut through solid flint masonry bonded with a tough Roman mortar. The masonry appeared to have been laid as a mass foundation at a key point of intersection between perhaps a stage, the edge of the orchestra, the lowest tiers of banked seats and the additus maximus, a wide, paved passage that linked the orchestra to the principal entrances and exits to the theatre, located either side of the stage.
The trenches, looking north-east towards St Margaret's StreetFlint foundation topped by three courses of Roman brick
At the north-west end of the trench cut across Castle Street and only surviving against the south-west side of the trench, the flint foundation was capped by a footing of three courses of Roman bricks perhaps forming either part of a rib wall supporting the stage or possibly a remnant of the front wall of the stage.The Roman civitas capital, laid out for the first time in the Flavian period (AD 70–80), was provided with a first theatre around AD 90, with seating supported by a gravel bank retained by masonry walls. The theatre may have been built to link with a pre-existing temple precinct, the two monumental structures separated by a wide street (perhaps the cardo) but forming perhaps parts of a single complex. A further major episode of town planning in c AD 110–20, led to the development of forum, basilica, public baths and a new temple precinct, surrounded by a temenos with internal facing portico. The central temple has yet to be located.
Central Canterbury c AD 150. Copyright Canterbury Museums.
The theatre was rebuilt in stone and brick on a monumental scale in c AD 210–20 and it is part of this building that has been exposed at the end of Castle Street. It was a colossal building for Roman Britain (a modest structure compared with similar developments in other provinces), perhaps too large an undertaking for local money to have paid for without help from the Roman state. In AD 208 the African Emperor Septimius Severus (a native of Lepcis Magna near Tripoli in Libya) was campaigning in the north of Britain – he died in York in AD 211 – and, although there is no evidence to support the theory, perhaps Septimius or his son Caracalla sponsored the development.
Canterbury's later Roman theatre in c. AD 300
The building was D-shaped measuring some 75m across the back of the ‘D’ and 57m from the back of the stage (the scaenae frons) to the outer edge of the external curving wall. The height of the theatre is difficult to gauge, but perhaps it rose to 25m above the orchestra, dominating the skyline of the Roman town. Two great curving walls separated by an opus signinum paved passage formed the cavia, supporting the upper tiers of banked seats overlooking the stage (pulpitum) and orchestra. Fragments of both curving walls have been located in service trenches since 1868 in Castle Street, Watling Street and St Margaret’s Street and since 1950 in the cellars of a number of properties. Other internal footings for symmetrically-placed radial passage walls leading from the cavia to the orchestra, for possible staircase foundations and for a series of curving walls (caissons) built to retain the gravel bank of the previous theatre and support the tiers of seats, have also been located in excavations or during service trenching. This new section of the theatre is the most significant discovery since Professor Frere’s excavations under No 3 Watling Street in 1950 and 1951 and provides us with key evidence to check the alignment of the theatre, the relative levels of the cavea pavement and the orchestra, the south-west edge of the orchestra and the stage position.Of equal interest and importance are successive post Roman deposits of street metallings that cap the surface of the pavement and a series of early south-west to north-east aligned wheel-ruts worn into the surface of the orchestra. The ruts and metallings represent the formation of perhaps one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon streets within the walls, the predecessor to Castle Street.  The street appears to have been aligned to access the theatre through the additus maximus and perhaps extended right across the orchestra, either to follow the line of a lost lane a continuation of which survives today as Picknot Alley north-east of St Margaret’s Church, or to exit the theatre through the northern radial passage wall to follow St Margaret’s Street.  The original line of Roman Watling Street ran well to the south-west of the theatre (following the line of present Adelaide Place) running along the south-west side of the temple precinct.  By the Anglo Saxon period a new Watling Street was realigned to enter the theatre perhaps through the south-east radial passage wall and across the orchestra and through the former scaenae frons (which was originally provided with stage doorways) to follow the line of Beer Cart Lane. It is even possible that this street was aligned to pass through a pre-existing opening connecting theatre and temple.
Wheelruts worn into the pavingEmergency cleaning in progressLater layers of street metallings
The new evidence therefore throws some extra light on how the old Roman theatre continued to dominate the skyline and influence the developing topography of the town, with new streets leading to a place of refuge, assembly, even a market place in the early Anglo-Saxon period and in later years into one of the largest quarries for building stone within the old Roman walls.We would like to thank South East Water for the very positive and helpful way they have responded to this exceptional discovery.

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