Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The lost amphitheater of northern England has been found on a Yorkshire hilltop in a discovery with major implications for the study of Roman Britain.

Centuries of speculation have ended with a printout from geomagnetic scanners which reveals a great tiered bank of seats below curving hummocks in a field now frequented only by a herd of cattle. Crowning the summit of Studforth Hill, the oval arena would have combined spectacles and entertainments with a magnificent 360-degree view, making it the equivalent of a national theater of the north.

The find by Cambridge University archaeologists – led by a young woman who grew up locally and was told the amphitheater legend by her grandfather – seals the importance in Roman times of the small village of Aldborough, between Harrogate and York.

It also adds to growing evidence that Britannia Inferior, as the northern province was known, was busier, more prosperous and cultured than previously thought. There have been a relative shortage of digs and studies of civilian sites in the area, compared with hundreds in Britannia Superior, today's south.

"Its discovery leaves little doubt that Isurium Brigantium, as Aldborough was called in Roman times, was the civil capital of the Britons known as Brigantes, effectively the population between Derbyshire and Hadrian's Wall," said Martin Millett, professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge.

The sweeping curve of the amphitheatre, which crowns a long series of discoveries at Aldborough, lay hidden because of changing fashions in archaeology, shortage of money for excavations and pressure for resources to go elsewhere.

The breakthrough came with geomagnetic and ground radar in which more than a square mile of cottages and pasture were turned into a grid, which Ferraby, Millett and volunteer students paced with handheld scanners and others examined on a machine akin to a lawnmower. They called locals to a packed meeting this week to announce the amphitheater had at last been tracked down.

Most of the tiered seats were quarried or hacked out centuries ago, but the high bank which forms the crown of Studforth Hill hides the surviving section. The geomagnetic scan detected a large mass of material and then tiering, which is crudely reflected by ridges in the grassy surface until it disappears under a small copse.

"We don't yet know whether the seats are stone, which would have been the best quality, or a mixture of timber and compacted earth which has been found at other sites in the UK," said Ferraby. "But there are at least four rows and an extra ridge of land behind the trees suggests that there may have been a fifth. Whatever the material, it would have been an imposing building."

The Cambridge team is now completing its geophysical survey of the Roman town's entire site, which will be analyzed for possible excavation points, possibly including the amphitheater, if funding can be found.


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