Raising The Curtain

This week, fellow LAARC volunteer Guy organised a brilliant Friday afternoon visit for himself, John and me (aka, the Dice Brigade). London was home to some of the most famous Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres, playhouses and theatrical spaces including The Globe, The Rose, The Theatre and The Curtain. This visit was to the ongoing excavations at The Curtain in Shoreditch (the overall site has been called the Stage by the developers).

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The Curtain was one of the London theatres in which the plays of Shakespeare were performed during his lifetime. Indeed, this is the site of the first performance of Henry V, and Shakespeare himself acted there.

MOLA, Museum of London Archaeology, has been carrying out these excavations and now the site has been opened up for visits. The tour started off with a talk about the site and excavations, and some key points to look out for on the site. Only five of these Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres have been excavated and MOLA has been involved in all five of the excavations, so they know what they’re looking at.

What was, possibly, most surprising about the site was that it didn’t look something like this…

Map L85c no. 7, detail of Globe

It looked something like this!

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Rather than the “Wooden O” of Henry V‘s Prologue, The Curtain was a rectangular structure, constructed from a combination of a pre-existing tenement building at the front, a boundary  wall at the back, and two new side galleries to connect the two, with an internal yard.

On site, the front part of the theatre has been pretty comprehensibly trashed by later buildings, huge chunks of 1970s concrete, in particular, mean that only a few scant traces remain.

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There is a little bit of the entrance to the theatre and a sliver of the yard surface still in-situ though.

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The stage end of the theatre is a bit of a different matter, as there are some really good remains still in-situ.

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Here we could get an proper idea of the size of the theatre, and it’s really pretty big. To take the photo above, I was standing at  about the mid-point between the two side galleries. Looking in this direction, the side gallery is about where the ground begins to slope upwards in the trench. There is a blue line, but it might be a bit difficult to see.

In this close-up you can see part of the low wall that formed a platform onto which the wooden super-structure was built. This kept the wooden elements out of the wet marshy ground.

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In front of the wall is a hard, compacted surface which made up the yard where the Groundlings stood to watch performances.

The archaeologists haven’t yet found any traces of the stage, but they do know where it would have been.

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As there was a lot of later redevelopment in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the theatre being converted back to tenements, there are also the remains of flats, drains, floors and hearths from these later periods.

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There was also something that I’d never even heard of before, the remains of a knuckle-bone floor.

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This is literally an area of flooring, on the inside of the entrance to the building, which is made from the cut-off foot bones of sheep. These were embedded into the floor to create a sort of door mat on which boots could be cleaned before entering the building.

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The current redevelopment of the site is, as with so many London sites, for (luxury?) flats. However, the developers seem to be taking their responsibilities particularly seriously when it comes to recording, preserving and making accessible the history of the site to the local community and the general public more widely. We were told that the archaeologists have been given a, frankly, remarkable length of time to excavate the site. Significantly,  not only are the remains going to stay in-situ and on display, but there is also going to be a performance space built into the new development. Time will tell if this comes to fruition but it’s heartening that some developers are at least thinking about their impact on the communities that they (sometimes) crash into. This is particularly striking in contrast to the current government’s attempts to weaken legislation in relation to the archaeological investigations and recording of sites for development. We stand to end up back in a situation where developers are allowed to do this (below) to the site of the first performance of Henry V without even ensuring that the destroyed archaeology has been properly recorded.

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If you think that we should be taking our heritage seriously, have a read of this for more information – http://rescue-archaeology.org.uk/2016/06/17/rescue-says-government-response-to-stop-destruction-of-british-archaeology-neighbourhood-and-infrastructure-bill/

Thanks to Guy for organizing this visit and getting the tickets and thanks to MOLA for opening up the site for visits. For more on this excavation, follow MOLAs excellent blog here

– http://www.mola.org.uk/blog/excavating-shakespeares-playhouses-rose-curtain

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4 thoughts on “Raising The Curtain

  1. Sunny, green wit’ envy. But for once I have heard of something you have not. There is a knucklebone floor close enough to Vindolanda for it to be an objective – and a damned appropriate one – for next year’s Skull Walk! T

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