Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

Marlowe Theatre 2010

The Trust recently completed the main phase of a series of works during the redevelopment of the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. So far our involvement has included two phases of evaluation, three excavations and a watching brief.The theatre lies in the northern quarter of the city, close to the western bank of the east branch of the River Stour. It is situated on a block of land bounded by the river to the east, St Peter’s Lane to the north-west, St Peter’s Street to the south-west and a road known as ‘The Friars’ to the south-east. St Peter’s church occupies the western corner of this block, with the more extensive thirteenth-century Dominican Friary complex on the east side. Much of the area, however, appears to have been open land throughout the centuries, as part of the flood plain of the River Stour.
Marlowe: flooded siteMarlowe: overall site plan

 The Roman building (Area A)

The earliest activity on the site lay to the west of the theatre where a substantial Roman town-house was identified. Boreholing of the area indicated that this lay on a peninsula of high ground that projected out into the surrounding marshland towards the Roman line of the Stour. Although heavily truncated during the building of the theatre in the 1980s, the remnants of five rooms were identified.

Three of these were sunken with one containing twenty-five pilae stacks (see photo) upon which would have sat a tiled floor. The arrangement formed part of a heating system and showed that this was a building of some considerable status. A doorway leading from this room was found to have a timber threshold block, a unique find for Canterbury and unusual on a national level. This door was later blocked up, perhaps reflecting a change of use within this part of the building. The remaining rooms had clay floors with two distinct phases of occupation identified. Many of the rooms appeared to have been plastered, the plaster fragments recovered during the excavation generally painted red, white and black. The central area contained a courtyard within which beam-slots relating to two phases of timber building were also identified.

After abandonment the walls of the building were robbed (parts removed for use elsewhere) on at least two occasions, the latest of which occurred in the medieval period, perhaps during the construction of the friary buildings. Several large medieval pits were also cut in the area during this period and a wooden platter, again an unusual find, was recovered from one of these pits.

Marlowe: pilae stacksMarlowe: Roman threshold

 Medieval riverfront (Area B)

Immediately to the east of the theatre the excavation of a lift shaft and associated structures revealed lines of preserved timber revetments relating to the river which lies 25 metres to the east. Two phases of these were excavated with a third line identified in section. The revetments ran across the area on a north-west to south-east alignment and were constructed from vertical wooden posts and horizontal planks with substantial deposits of gravel and domestic rubbish used to infill the gaps between them. A repair was noted in the earliest phase caused by the partial collapse of the revetment. Four phases of reclamation were recognised, with preliminary analysis of the timbers and pottery suggesting that the earliest dated to the early fourteenth century perhaps contemporary with the foundation of the friary.

 Marlowe: excavation of revetments

Post-medieval buildings (Area D)

An excavation along The Friars street frontage was undertaken (following an earlier evaluation) under the direction of Tania Wilson. The earliest remains identified in this area of the site were the remnants of the friary boundary wall. The excavation also revealed the walls of a building on the street frontage, probably constructed after the dissolution of the friary. This is probably the building shown on Thomas Langdon’s map of 1595. It appeared to have been completely demolished and rebuilt in the seventeenth century before its final demolition at some point before 1752. Subsequently two buildings were constructed on the site in the early 1800s and these are shown on Fenner’s map of 1825. They appear to have been constructed for commercial and domestic use and were likely demolished in advance of the construction of the Friars Cinema in 1933. The former Friars Motor Company building may also have been erected around this time.A further small excavation is still to be undertaken during the construction of three large manholes. This is likely to uncover further Roman remains, hopefully the northern limit of the building.

Marlowe: Area D excavation in progress
 The Trust would like to thank Canterbury City Council for funding the project and ISG Jackson together with Anderson Construction for their considerable help on site without which the excavation could not have taken place. Perhaps most importantly the author would like to thank the members of Trust staff who assisted on an excavation which was undertaken in, at best, unpleasantly wet conditions, particularly on the site of the Roman town-house where over half a metre of water flooded the excavation area every night!
James Holman, Project Officer

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