Behind the Brick Curtain with Jane Sidell

My job is Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, which is amongst the most fantastic in the world of archaeology. I get to help protect the most important archaeology in London, and try my hardest to make sure everyone is communicating information about these sites so the public can understand appreciate the heritage that is all around them. It might be through tweeting, blogging, traditional publication and putting up interpretation panels. But another key part of my job is to look out for new discoveries which might make the grade for designation as a scheduled monument. This means it has to be nationally important, a good and rare example of the type and well preserved. At this point, my Historic England colleagues will start to research the site to decide whether to recommend to the British Government whether the site should be added to the Schedule of Monuments and so be legally protected in future. There are approximately 20,000 Ancient Monuments in England at present and I’m visiting an excavation today where we have a new site that might well meet all the criteria. Read on…

It is being excavated by MoLA, the Museum of London Archaeology team, led by Heather Knight, @Heather1576 who is an expert in Playhouses (theatres) of the Elizabethan period – the late 16th to early 17th centuries. The site is that of the Curtain Theatre, known to be built in the late 16th century, probably 1577, was constructed of brick, timber and with stone and gravel , and the careful excavations are unpicking the different phases on site. Being London, which has been densely built up since the Roman period, there are multiple phases of stratigraphy. Unfortunately, whilst brick of this period is quite dateable, good building material is often re-used and it’s a tricky job to understand the sequences here. The building has also defied our historic understanding, which suggested that the structure would be basically circular, like the better-known Rose and Globe Theatres, however, it seems to be rectangular, and follows the tradition of inn-yard performances which used rectangular scaffolds for the actors.

Excavations at the Curtain Theatre

Excavations at the Curtain Theatre

The excavation has good and unusual archaeology surviving, and it is strong evidence of culture and leisure in the Elizabethan period. But does that make it nationally important? One of the things we look at to understand a site’s significance is the historic associations.  What people and events are associated with a site? Well the Curtain Theatre  was home to several troupes of actors including the  Queen’s Men and also The Lord Chamberlain’s Men from 1598. William Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and historic evidence suggests that the plays Romeo and Juliet and Henry V premiered here. In terms of important people and events, it really doesn’t get more exciting! The plays of Shakespeare are performed today all round the world in many languages (even Klingon), and his language still pervades modern English. The Curtain is one of the key sites where this all began so now we’ll wait until Heather has finished her assessment of the site, and then my colleagues will decide whether to present the Curtain to our government for scheduling. In the meantime, I get to stand on the site where someone said for the first time:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!