Holding Cell for Gladiators, Doomed Prisoners Found at Roman Amphitheater in England

Researchers initially thought the structure was a passageway to the ancient arena

Carcer
Archaeologists excavated the foundations of a carcer, or holding cell, where gladiators, doomed prisoners and wild animals waited before being brought into the Richborough Roman amphitheater in Kent. Jim Holden / English Heritage

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman gladiators, doomed prisoners and wild animals anxiously awaited their fate in a small room at the Richborough amphitheater in southeastern England. Now, reports Jack Malvern for the London Times, archaeologists have identified the ruins of this ancient carcer, or holding cell.

The cell and other finds made at the settlement—including animal bones, pottery and coins—speak to Richborough’s importance in Roman Britain, says Paul Pattison, senior properties historian at English Heritage, in a statement. Initially settled in the first century C.E., the site remained in use until the end of Roman rule in 410 C.E.

“The discoveries we’ve made during the excavation at Richborough are startling and exciting, and dramatically transform our understanding of the structure of the amphitheater and the nature of adjacent settlement in the town,” Pattison adds. “We’ve always known that the Roman fort at Richborough was an important place to the Romans ... and now we have been able to gather evidence that much of the town outside the fort may also have been settled until the very end.”

Holding Cell for Gladiators, Doomed Prisoners Found at Roman Amphitheater in England
Roman coin discovered during the dig Jim Holden / English Heritage

Known then as Rutupiae or Portus Ritupis, Richborough was where Roman troops first landed during the conquest of Britain in 43 C.E. According to English Heritage, the site became a resupply base for Roman legions and, eventually, a civilian settlement with a large fort.

“As Richborough is coastal, it would have provided a connection between what was at the time called Britannia and the rest of the Roman Empire,” Pattison tells Hannah Ryan of CNN, “and, because of that, all sorts of Romans who came from all corners of the empire would have passed through and lived in the settlement.”

In addition to the amphitheater, archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a triumphal arch and other structures in and around Richborough. Made of chalk and turf, the amphitheater was large enough to seat 5,000 spectators. It would have hosted public spectacles and entertainment, such as wild animal hunts, executions and gladiatorial combat.

Holding Cell for Gladiators, Doomed Prisoners Found at Roman Amphitheater in England
An artist's rendition of what the Richborough settlement's triumphal arch may have looked like Illustration by Peter Lorimer / English Heritage

This year’s dig revealed that the stadium’s walls were made of mortared chalk blocks that were plastered and painted in red, yellow, black and blue—a rarity for Roman amphitheaters in Britain.

“They probably originally contained painted scenes, perhaps figurative scenes of what happens in amphitheaters,” Pattison tells Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian. “We don’t have that detail yet, but we have the paint and that’s a really good start. Given that we’ve only excavated a tiny fragment of the wall, it bodes well for better-preserved painted scenes elsewhere around the circuit.”

Archaeologists have known about the room now believed to be a carcer since 1849. As the Times explains, experts originally thought the space was a passageway to the arena. Upon reaching the room’s foundations during the recent excavation, however, they realized that the six-foot-tall stone walls had just one opening: an exit for those destined to appear in the stadium.

“If you let your imagination run riot, then it is spooky to stand in there,” Pattison tells the Times. “You can imagine what it’s like. Once you know what sort of things happen there, it is quite emotive. You can imagine the worst aspects of Roman life.”

Holding Cell for Gladiators, Doomed Prisoners Found at Roman Amphitheater in England
The team dubbed the cat Maxipus. Jim Holden / English Heritage

Researchers have discovered a trove of artifacts during the dig, which began in mid-September and is set to conclude this month. Finds include butchered animal bones, coins, personal items, pottery fragments and the skeleton of a cat.

Archaeologists nicknamed the nearly intact feline Maxipus, reports BBC News. Little is known about the bones except that they were purposefully buried outside the amphitheater in the domestic section of the settlement.

“Normally you would expect it to have been dismembered by predators but it’s almost complete, so it looks like it was deliberately placed where it wasn’t disturbed,” says Pattison to the Guardian.

Archaeologists with English Heritage and Historic England collaborated on the recent excavation. They plan to display some of the new discoveries in the refurbished museum at the Richborough Roman fort and amphitheater next summer.