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Walking around the City of London, I’m normally too busy looking up at towering office blocks to think about what’s under my feet. But yesterday I took a tour of London’s subterranean Roman amphitheatre, and realised there’s a whole world buried beneath the city’s streets.
The monthly amphitheatre tour is led by Museum of London’s Roman Curator, Jenny Hall. Our small tour group met in the Museum of London foyer, then walked down the road to the Guildhall Art Gallery, which is built on top of the amphitheatre.
Amazingly, the ruins of the amphitheatre were only discovered in 1988, when builders were digging foundations for the new art gallery. Archaeologists had long suspected that the Roman town of Londinium had an amphitheatre. But as Hall explains, “we’d been looking outside the city wall and this amphitheatre, unusually, is inside the city wall”.
These days, the amphitheatre is six to eight metres below street level, buried under a layer of Roman rubble and rubbish. “They would knock their buildings down and also dump rubbish, so the ground level was gradually rising all the time,” says Hall.
The amphitheatre was an important building in Roman times. In its heyday, it would’ve accommodated around 6,000 people, at a time when the population of Londinium was 20,000 to 30,000.
The ruins of the 80m-wide structure have been well-preserved, and you can still see the remains of the original walls, drainage system, and even the sand that filled the arena. Sand was perfect for soaking up blood from the gruesome gladiator games, wild animal fights and executions that took place here.
In the drains, archaeologists found Roman objects including ladies’ hair pins, drinking vessels, writing tablets and lead cursings (which were used to curse people or send messages to the gods). Hall compared these objects to the litter left behind after a modern-day football match.
The Museum of London tour really brought to life the gladiators, wild animals and baying crowds that inhabited the amphitheatre in Roman times. If you want to discover this fascinating underground gem, I’d recommend booking a place on the next tour.
Museum of London tours of the Roman amphitheatre take place once a month and cost £5. Alternatively, entry to the amphitheatre is included in admission to the Guildhall Art Gallery.