The lost theatre of Petuaria

Clive Ashman reflects on the search for an elusive Roman building which figures in his novel ‘MOSAIC’, beginning with the page where it’s first mentioned:

“The bathhouse was near the barracks. It had probably been built originally for military use, but the decline in the garrison and growth of the town seemed to have led to its take-over for the civic good. It was a rambling establishment of concrete-lined rooms which had gradually been added-to over the years as required. Next to it was the first monumental building he’d found in Petuaria. A theatre, whose embanked semi-circle of stone seats faced a pros­cenium stage of classical pillars and ornamental doorways. It was entirely deserted and grass was forcing its silently-violent way through the paving, whilst a lagoon of yet more stinking and stagnant water filled the area between the lonely stage and its empty seats. It looked as if the flanking-walls at the side had already received the attentions of stone-robbers, removing the dressed limestone for other more menial projects. It was a long time since any actor had declaimed in this melancholy place.”

It feels poignant when life comes full-circle but – after first writing about a derelict theatre at Petuaria Civitas Parisorum (Brough-on-Humber) in my fictional ‘MOSAIC’ (2008) – that was the overriding sensation when, in early September 2020, I found myself scrabbling away with a trowel in a sandy trench down there, seeking the very building. Privileged to be enlisted with a knowledgeable bunch of volunteers in the first proper search for that important structure to be made in nearly ninety years. Twelve years after ‘MOSAIC’ came out and suddenly life might be imitating art – but what if my description gets disproved? 

The historical status of what’s nowadays just a nondescript, grassy playing-field across at The Burrs has been well understood for centuries. Its perimeter encloses a significant chunk – maybe one third – of an ancient walled town, but few professional archaeological examinations of the site have actually been held here.

In fact the last proper ‘dig’ carried out at The Burrs was during the 1930s, in the shadow of a looming World War that would render nearby Hull the second most-bombed city in Britain, after London. Even in April 1945, weeks before Hitler’s suicide, the last dregs of the Luftwaffe were still flying down major Hull thoroughfares like Holderness Road, machine-gunning shoppers. 

Back in the 1930s, when Philip Corder and his team dug Bozze’s Field (as The Burrs were also known) these were horrors yet to come, so he and his helpers in collar-and-tie could concentrate on uncovering the eastern defences of Late Roman Petuaria. Finding its ramparts and ditches, and those ‘D’-shaped bastions capable of mounting mechanical, bolt-firing guns, maybe bigger catapults.

It was his faithful assistant, Bertie Gott, who in 1937 actually unearthed the famous inscribed stone recycled in Roman times for use in its walls. Sometime around AD 140, its formalised wording recorded the gift to a grateful community of the proscaenium stage donated by local magistrate and social-climber, Marcus Ulpius Januarius himself. Why, when ‘MOSAIC’ came out, we ensured it included on a flyleaf my own drawing of his inscription – the original of which can still be viewed at the Hull & East Riding Museum, in the High Street of Hull’s Old Town:

Fact is, before it closed in the Noughties, ‘Blockbuster Video’ was probably the last surviving outlet in Brough-on-Humber for disseminating popular culture. Why it must feel galling today for the taxpayers of Brough and Elloughton to realise that, eighteen hundred years previously, their forebears in Petuaria once enjoyed the facility of a proper theatre. But ‘Sic Transit Gloria’, as Brough folks like to say….  

There this cultural discrepancy might have rested, if not for the march of modern technology and the impetus given by a happy combination of civic figures and academic firepower. Where a community archaeology project run by the Brough Playing Fields Association (PFA) in conjunction with the excellent (but imperilled) Archaeology department at the University of Hull, has been driving efforts to survey the field with a view to excavation.

Back in the halcyon days of ‘Time Team’, the popular C4 TV archaeology programme, once a televised dig hit the buffers or its celebrity archaeologists got stuck, the cry would go up: “Get Geofizz….!” Here at Petuaria, that fifth emergency service was provided by the amazing Ground Penetrating Rader (GPR) equipment of David Staveley. After his devices had trundled over The Burrs like a Mars Explorer, the Petuaria they revealed was most definitely not that failed town dismissed by John Wacher in his ‘Towns of Roman Britain’(1974) but a teeming settlement packed with streets, workshops, and housing; busy to the end of Roman Britain. A defended enclosure towards whose middle, and amongst the square or rectangular sheds, glowed a distinctly ‘D-shaped’ structure. That specific shape which – around the Greco-Roman world – is generally the footprint of a theatre. A gift from Januarius?

On the basis of its ghostly imprint, a community team from the PFA – guided by a small team of professional archaeologists led by Iron Age & Roman East Yorkshire expert, Dr Peter Halkon of Hull University – enlisted a volunteer squad of mainly local diggers – plus me – to find if that’s what it really was. With the government slackening ‘lockdown’ and this site a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the permission to excavate won from Historic England was limited to two weeks only. Assembling all the necessary people and equipment needed for such a project probably took much longer. With all the usual construction industry or professional archaeology operational protocols to be emplaced, then rigorously observed, this must have been quite a task.

Organizing and running any dig is always a complex business, but in a Time of Covid the necessary extra hygiene and safety precautions prescribed for us diggers by (medical) Doctor Nicholas Somerton – amongst others – added an extra layer of procedures to be followed. Though since Nick was down there too – digging furiously away beside my own trench and insisting his the deepest – they were hardly issued from an ivory tower.

Under all this experienced oversight, with masks duly worn and social distancing observed, a huge, linear trench gradually opened-up above the mysterious ‘D-shaped’ structure suggested by GPR. Over the allotted fortnight and between us, vast amounts of soil, earth, and rock were painstakingly removed in buckets and then sieved by a great many volunteers, both young and old. Some were absolute beginners, others experienced and knowledgeable enthusiasts; successful graduates or PhD students from Dr. Halkon’s popular courses at Hull University or else principled and highly skilled metal-detectorists like Dave Haldenby or Chris Hannard. And it was usually thanks to these latter guys that most of the few coins found here would be discovered – one each from Carausius and Allectus (hero and villain respectively, in my “TWO-EIGHT-SIX”) or that lovely silver Antoninianus of the Empress Julia Domna (central on the cover to my latest book, ‘LAWYERS of LUGVALIO’) whose metallic image I so briefly held on my palm, down there in that trench.

Yes, but did they find the theatre….? you ask me, impatient of all this. Well, that’s more a matter for the proper archaeologists than conscientious labourers like me, but reporting from my own small corner of a very long trench – and based upon what I heard them tell visiting journalists – we certainly found a pretty-big* building. (*NB: please treat this as a non-technical term). Since most other coin evidence seems to date the lowest level we reached to the early 300s AD, Januarius’s legendary theatre from the 140s AD would have long been demolished by then, absorbed into the town’s defences maybe forty years before – by the time of ‘TWO-EIGHT-SIX’. And if there are any traces of it left in that piece of ground where we looked, then they rest rather deeper than our team could dig in a fortnight.

The massive linear structure occupying my minor corner might have looked to the uneducated eye like heavy-duty rubble, but it’s thought to have comprised the core of a much larger, high-status, Roman building; probably dating from the early fourth century. Dating from the time of Constantine ‘The Great‘ then – a man declared emperor by his British legions at nearby York, during that hot July of AD 306. Most remembered now for suspending the Christian persecutions and being baptized into the Church on his deathbed, in a busy career he also executed two of his sons, then boiled his wife to death in a sauna; not to mention founding Constantinople and attending that conference of bishops which settled the Nicean Creed.

Dating from his era but, as Candidus noticed himself, with its flanking walls already stripped of their finer facing-slabs by stone robbers just as he mentioned, this building in our trench probably once boasted a heated room, even rooms. It would certainly have been decorated by painted wall plaster, and based on the many pieces we recovered, one internal wall at least would have been decorated in cream, red, green, black and – most expensively of all – purple paint. 

Considering the thickness of its rubble walls and even if it no longer is or never was a theatre, this Late-Roman structure was possibly still some sort of a public building, one which may well have stood more than two stories high. At the other end of our long trench, a uniformly-flat surface which others unearthed down there probably represented the spacious courtyard to its centre. A space producing no actors’ masks but plenty of evidence of Roman Britons’ well-known taste for fast-food: especially oysters, whelks, and mussels. Whitstable-on-Humber then, but no Theatre Royal?

Whatever the status of this imposing building, the real triumph for ‘Petuaria ReVisited’ surely rests in the great interest and deep pleasure this project inspired in the local community – not just for those taking part but everyone passing-by and catching-up on our daily progress. Witnessing the local pride and increased understanding about major historical events on their very own doorstep, what sense of place it gave them, represents a palpable good. Though the team camaraderie enjoyed and personal satisfaction obtained by each of my fellow volunteers in helping carry out archaeological investigations on such a scale; at such a significant location and in brave defiance of a global epidemic; was perhaps the happiest outcome of all. For everyone involved.

That – and finding myself down on my knees in the mud and debris of a Roman town I’ve written about, in both my first two books. Almost like Candidus…….

Nick Somerton:

Beautiful piece Clive. I am enjoying your book too. Where shall we dig next?
I am getting withdrawal symptoms!

September 23 2020, 09:51 pm

Clive Ashman:

Hi, Nick, and thanks for your kind words re the blog. Glad to know you’re enjoying ‘TWO-EIGHT-SIX’ too.

And even if we didn’t find the theatre this year – there’s always next. With the digging season over and ‘Petvaria’ back to playing fields, you won’t find many other Roman urban sites being unearthed in the north, this side of 2021. Not even Aldborough.

So here’s hoping the PFA get permission for another go, maybe earlier in the year? I know Marcus Ulpius Januarius would be pleased – I think we owe him nothing less, don’t you?

Best wishes, Clive

September 25 2020, 09:25 am

By voredabooks

Website for a publisher of a series of historical novels and other books concerning those - roughly - four hundred years when Britain was a province of the mighty Roman Empire.

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