Once hidden and forgotten beneath the basement floor of the gloomy Commerce House and the Odeon Cinema that lies adjacent, the tantalising mysteries of Chester’s Roman past are being uncovered on the site cleared for construction of the new theatre. Archeologists chip carefully away in their trenches at the layers of earth that hold the remains of two Roman roads that once ran through the heart of the Roman fortress. They have been described as the most exciting finds in the area in the last 20 years. It’s an opportunity to make better work of preserving Chester’s immense cultural history.
The fortress was known as Deva Victrix, and was for 300 years the home to an imperial legion, the elite units that won and held the Roman Empire under eagle standards. Deva governed a vast swathe of territory that included much of Wales as well as the entirety of North West England. This was at the very edge of the known world and therefore held great strategic importance.
The men at work do not have much time. Once Christmas passes through, construction on the new theatre will take over. But they have already uncovered parts of another time, including a roadside gully and roof tiles brought over from the Roman works depot in Holt that lay just over the Welsh border.
Councillor Mike Jones said: “The roads are too badly damaged under the Commerce House which was built in the 1960s, but there are exciting ideas where it extends under the Odeon. I hope they will work”.
The theatre site lies over what was once the northern part of the Roman fortress, of which much remains unknown, an area which includes barrack blocks and what could have been part of the Governor’s villa.
The roads, running parallel alongside Northgate Street, were missed in earlier excavations by archaeologists in the 30s. The present-day project, carried out by Cheshire West and Chester Council’s historic environment team and their contractors, Earthworks Archaeology Services (EAS), aim to find if any special requirements are needed to protect the remains.
David JP Mason, author of ‘Roman Chester’, who has lent his expertise to the dig team, stressed the crucial role of the project: “The exploration and preservation of the city’s Roman heritage, and indeed of any other age, is important. Every archaeological site is unique and once gone can never be replaced.
“Preservation either in situ or by detailed recording before removal is in fact a principle enshrined in planning law and has been such since 1990”, Mason added.
Dr Peter Carrington, member of the Chester Archaeological Society, said caution was needed to prevent further damage: “Given that so many remains of international importance were destroyed between the 1960s and 1980s, it is imperative to minimise further losses and to ensure that the results of any new excavations are properly analysed and published.”
There’s an element of mitigation about the project, which some may see as not enough with such a delicate material. 5.31% of the significant archaeology on site will be destroyed by groundworks over the theatre’s construction, according to the calculations of EAS, over the 5% given by the English Heritage as “the maximum permissible area of destruction”.
The city has failed in its role to protect and preserve before, as Mason explained: “Many of its most impressive archaeological remains were destroyed with either no or very limited investigation in the 1960s”.
Such examples of rich history being lost by neglect and expansionism were, Mason went on: “the main bath-building of the legionary fortress with underfloor heating systems and mosaics still intact after 1500 years were destroyed to make way for the Grosvenor Precinct. Even as late as 1969 another bath-building, with walls still standing to a height of 4 metres or more, was destroyed to allow the construction of the Forum office and shops complex.
“With a modicum of imaginative design, these remains could have been preserved and placed on display as a major tourist attraction whilst still allowing the development to take place”, he added.
Deva was the largest fortress in Britain in its time, and it has endured through the ages. At least some of it has. The Amphitheatre is a national monument. The city walls stand firm. The main streets of the present-day city centre follow the alignment of the principal streets of the fortress. Later this month, on the Saturnalia festival, people will parade the streets to praise the Roman deity. There is still life in Roman Chester. But care must be taken in the theatre dig and all such opportunities for preservation, to see that Chester’s history does not vanish under rubble.