Above: Artist’s impression of how the Roman Amphitheatre once looked.
The land to the SE of the Guildhall was the site of Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. After remaining empty of another 40 years, plans were drawn up some time in the 1980s to erect a new building for the same purpose on the site.
Above: The Art Gallery, on the east side of Guildhall Yard.
As is usual in London, the land was prepared and a team of archaeologists excavated the site – before building work commenced. This would have been in 1987. It was not long before the eastern part of a large ellipse forming the Roman amphitheatre was discovered. The find was considered to be so important, by the City of London, that no building work was started while new plans were drawn up to erect the proposed art gallery over the archaeological site without disturbing it in any way. The plan was to erect the building and, once opened, admit the public to the lower level to see the remains for themselves.
Like other important towns, Londinium had its own amphitheatre. After the Roman period, it lay in the ground undiscovered. Many archaeologists had puzzled over where the Amphitheatre was in London. They all agreed that there must have been one but it was not until 1987 that the Museum of London discovered its remains at Guildhall. Two stretches of the curved arena wall, enclosing a sand and gravel arena, were found.
Above: General view of the high-tech display or the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre in the basement of the Art Gallery.
Above: View looking out of a first-floor window of the Art Gallery at Guildhall yard and the black ellipse marked out on its surface. This view faces in the same direction as the picture above (taken in the basement)
Above: Close-up view of the remains of part of the elliptical wall of the arena.
First constructed about AD 70, the arena was rebuilt in stone around AD 120, with walls decorated with plaster, brightly-coloured paint and inlaid marble. The rest of the amphitheatre, including the tiered seating was made of timber. It is estimated that there would have been seating for as many as 7,000 spectators.
In autumn 1999, the Museum of London discovered the southern entrance, with two public gateways leading from the street to seating. A male skeleton was found buried beneath the entrance. Similar ritual burials at a German amphitheatre are thought to be those of gladiators.
The London amphitheatre was used for wild animal shows and by touring groups of professional gladiators. The stone threshold in one of the eastern entrance chambers had deeply-cut slots to hold a sliding trap door which released animals into the arena. Today those carefully preserved remains are on show in the basement level of the Art Gallery.