Holding cell for gladiators and wild animals uncovered in excavation of Richborough Roman amphitheatre

Archaeologists excavating a rare Roman amphitheatre at English Heritage’s Richborough Roman Fort © English Heritage

A cavity in the arena wall at Richborough Roman amphitheatre has been revealed to be a carcer, or cell for holding people and animals, English Heritage has revealed.

The discovery was one of a number made during an archaeological excavation of the Roman amphitheatre by the charity including the almost complete skeleton of a purposefully buried Roman cat, and traces of painted decoration to the plaster face of the arena wall; the first known instance on any Roman amphitheatre in Britain.

© English Heritage

Other finds from the excavation also reveal that Roman settlement at Richborough may have continued right across the town until the very end of Roman rule at the turn of the 4th/5th century. This excavation will form part of a major refurbishment and re-presentation of the site and museum which will take place this winter and open in summer 2022.

The amphitheatre at Richborough provided the inhabitants of the town with a place for public spectacles and entertainment such as wild animal hunts, executions and gladiatorial combat.

A reconstruction of the Richborough triumphal arch as it may have looked from the waterfront in about AD 120. © Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorimer)

The excavation has provided further evidence of Richborough’s place as one of the most important Roman sites in Britain, finally revealing details of how it was constructed: the exterior arena wall was up to 6m wide and made of carefully stacked turf, with the outlines of individual turves still visible.

© English Heritage

The interior wall, defining the arena, was made of mortared chalk blocks with a rendered and plastered face, on which are traces of paint in what once would have been vivid reds and blues, a discovery which is unprecedented in amphitheatres in Britain.

© English Heritage

The use of chalk and turf as building materials is an exciting discovery, perhaps suggesting that the amphitheatre may have been built early in the Roman period, in the 1st century AD. Also uncovered in the amphitheatre was a feature first revealed during the Victorian excavation in 1849, but unexplained until now. New evidence from the present excavation has been able to identify this as a carcer, or cell. The cell, with its high walls reaching almost 2 metres, would have held those who entered the arena to meet their fate, whether wild animals, criminals or gladiators.

Numerous small finds have been unearthed during the excavation, including butchered animal bones, coins, items of personal adornment and pottery fragments which provide the evidence required to show that the Roman town at Richborough was occupied by civilians right through until the end of the 4th century AD – the entire Roman period in Britain.

© English Heritage

One unusual and moving discovery was the almost complete skeleton of a Roman cat, nicknamed Maxipus by the team who uncovered it, which appeared purposefully buried on the edge of a ditch outside the amphitheatre, in an area of domestic settlement.

© English Heritage

Paul Pattison, English Heritage Senior Properties Historian, said: “The discoveries we’ve made during the excavation at Richborough are startling and exciting, and dramatically transform our understanding of the structure of the amphitheatre and the nature of adjacent settlement in the town. We’ve always known that the Roman fort at Richborough was an important place to the Romans, until the very end of their rule, 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.”

© English Heritage

Tony Wilmott, Senior Archaeologist at Historic England, said: “Amphitheatres are a unique Roman creation and this one – which could seat as many as 5000 spectators – may have been constructed in the 1st century AD in the early phase of Roman rule. The evidence of painted decoration we have found on the arena wall, a unique find so far in amphitheatres in Britain, is remarkable, and a wonderful reminder that aspects of Roman culture abroad were also a feature of life in Roman Britain.”

© English Heritage

Remaining puzzles include two badly burnt rectangular areas, bright red-orange in colour, which are believed to be the remnants of Roman buildings that stood against the turf outer wall of the amphitheatre. It is not yet known what function these buildings fulfilled, but it is possible they stood on each side of an entrance leading up to the seating bank of the arena. Their destruction by fire must have been dramatic, though the reason is unknown.

A reconstruction of the port town of Richborough at its greatest extent in about AD 120, based on evidence from geophysical surveys and excavation © Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorimer)

The excavation at Richborough amphitheatre, in conjunction with specialists from Historic England, is taking place between mid-September and mid-November 2021. A major refurbishment and re-presentation of the on-site museum will take place in winter 2021 and open in summer 2022 – a project made possible thanks to support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

For more information, visit: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/richborough-roman-fort-and-amphitheatre/


  1. The Romans colonised and enslaved us Britons. All statues of Roman emperors should be torn down, and Italy should apologise for their past crimes.

  2. Britain opted for Brexit in 400CE when the British leader Brosius Johnsoni booted out the last Roman legion stating that Britannia was going to see an age of optimism.
    401CE – The Dark Ages.
    402CE – War with the Franks over fishing rights.
    410-500CE -Under new management the Angles, Saxons and Jutes make a take over bid.
    409CE- Brosius Johnsoni retires to Rome having sold out of the property market in Londinium. His fellow emperors Biggus Dickus Raabinius, Lysistrata Trussle, Prittius Patelos, Rishikus Sunakus and Savid (Did you know my dads a chariot driver)Javidi, are turned into statues by Alaric the Goth.
    There is a lack of decorum in the forum when riots break out over a shortage of toilet parchment.

  3. I have’nt heard of the woke brigade going on and on and on about the Roman ruins in Rome and their direct link to the slaves who built them.The Muslim empires who enslaved the peoples they conquered.Nazi Germany,Spain in South America,France in the Caribbean,Arab slave traders in Africa,Japan during WW11.The Vikings.

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