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Chester’s Roman remains may provide clue to search for York’s lost amphitheatre

University of Chester heavily involved in bid to solve York's biggest Roman mystery

Pictured left to right: University of Chester professor Stewart Ainsworth, principal archaeologist with LanproMitch Pollington and Tim Sutherland of The University of York(Image: UGC)

A leading archaeologist at the University of Chester, and former Channel 4 Time Team presenter, is hoping to help solve one of York’s biggest Roman mysteries.

And he is using knowledge from the discovery of Chester’s Roman amphitheatre almost 90 years ago to help him and a team from the University of York to do so.

Professor Stewart Ainsworth, who was part of an English Heritage team involved in the Chester Amphitheatre project in 2004 to 2005, is a visiting professor of landscape archaeology.

He is working on a project which aims to start the process of finally finding York’s lost amphitheatre.

The team of archaeologists and students from York are led by research fellow from the University of York Tim Sutherland with support from professional archaeologists Graham Attwood from Magnitude Surveys Ltd and principal archaeologist with Lanpro Mitchell Pollington.

The first phase of this project, which took place earlier in June, involved the use of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment to ‘see below the ground’.

It took place during the course of the 2017 York Roman Festival and follows on from a competition held for schools and colleges, as part of the 2016 festival, to make suggestions for the site of York’s lost amphitheatre.

A team of students from York made a case, based on an examination of available evidence, for the site being at King’s Manor.

University of Chester student Rowena Young (centre) and University of York students receiving instructions on the use of GPR equipment from Graham Atwood of Magnitude Surveys (right)(Image: UGC)

This year they were given the opportunity and resources, working alongside Stewart, Tim, and the other professionals, to test the theory.

Archaeology student from the University of Chester Rowena Young, whose home is in York, came along for an afternoon and joined the team collecting data.

Professor Ainsworth said: “The King’s Manor (home of the University of York’s Archaeology Department) lies at the focus of interest in the hunt for the legionary amphitheatre.

“Although it is assumed York would have such an amphitheatre (the two other permanent Roman legionary bases at Caerleon and Chester did), its location has never been identified, although a number of factors suggest that the area of King’s Manor and St Mary’s Abbey is a possibility.”

Those factors explain why Stewart and the team are hopeful that the story of Chester’s discovery may be mirrored in York, as he explains.

“The Chester amphitheatre site was discovered by accident in 1929 during the installation of a boiler at Dee House Convent. After that, a series of excavations, mainly in the mid-1960s and latterly in 2004 to 2005, alongside a non-invasive study evaluating the influence of the amphitheatre on Chester’s subsequent urban development, refined the understanding of its scale, development, levels of survival, and how it influenced the layout of later structures around it.

“In summary, what we are doing is applying an analysis of the evidence gathered from studying the impact of the amphitheatre on influencing the historical urban landscape development in Chester, and looking to see whether similar patterns are repeated in York – and, if so, they could lead to the site of the amphitheatre.” He added: “Significantly, the arena within the amphitheatre, within which the spectacles took place, is usually an artificially created hollow in the ground. At Chester, we know that Dee House developed significant cracks associated with subsidence into the arena.

“At King’s Manor in York, the buildings too are subsiding - could they be sinking into a hollow – the arena of the lost amphitheatre?”

The evidence gathered from Chester, and how this might translate to York, was presented at a public lecture by Stewart and Tim Sutherland as part of the Roman Festival.

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