Excavate Stage Right! – YAT Takes to the Stage in Exciting New Dig
York Theatre Royal
2015 - 2016
York Archaeological Trust is excavating underneath York Theatre Royal’s stage as part of the theatre’s £4.1 million major redevelopment.
York Theatre Royal is one of the oldest and most prestigious theatres in England. The first theatre building was opened in 1744 and in 1764 moved slightly further south, where a new theatre was built incorporating the remains of St Leonard’s Hospital, one of the largest and most important medieval hospitals in England. York Archaeological Trust is currently undertaking a major archaeological excavation within the theatre to investigate and record these highly important remains as part of the theatre redevelopment.
The team began by excavating a deep layer of accumulated dust underneath the stage, recovering several 20th century costume items and other artefacts lost through the stage boards including a pair of leather spats, a moth-eaten flat cap, cigarette packets and an abundance of sequins.
Beneath the stage dust and sequins was a demolition layer of limestone rubble, brick and tile fragments which, on removal, revealed a post-medieval cobbled yard surface and a sequence of limestone block walls.
Gateway to the Past
A stone gateway, located backstage, has been a source of speculation to theatre staff and players for many years. Once thought to have been a gateway to the Royal Mint, which was moved to the hospital precinct in 1546, or a medieval gateway in the St Leonard’s Hospital precinct wall; it is only now starting to give away its secrets.
The structure is a great example of how archaeological discoveries can be hidden in plain sight, as recent investigations have given this fine piece of architecture a new place in the theatre’s early history. It is now thought to have been built in the mid-18th century as, rather fittingly, a theatrical entrance to the original theatre building, which historic maps suggest was once occupied by the Royal Mint and located slightly further north of the present site from as early as 1744.
Also of interest is a stone-lined well, found within one of the store rooms under the stage. This may have been contemporary with the hospital, and archaeological evidence suggests it was in use until the theatre was moved out of the mint building to its current location slightly further south in 1764.
Parts of the 13th century hospital buildings within the 18th century theatre were revealed when York Archaeological Trust excavated the Keregan Room, south of the current works, in 1989. The present team is exposing further 13th-century building foundations, related to the same hospital building, in the auditorium. Finds discovered so far include stone buttress foundations and limestone block walls. These discoveries are beginning to suggest that there was an impressive limestone building, roofed with green-glazed tiles on this site – more details to follow.
Ground works by the main contractor, William Birch and Son, began last week in the auditorium under archaeological monitoring and since then the archaeologists have made new and important discoveries. The team have uncovered the limestone foundations of the north wall of one of the 13th century hospital buildings and a number of the plinths and pillar bases for the rib-vaulted ground floor. Within the building are mortar floors overlaid by thin layers of occupation deposits, evidence of activity within the building. The works provide an exceptionally rare opportunity to unpick, excavate and sample the deposits within the rooms and hopefully to understand both the layout and potentially the use of the building interior.
Ben Reeves, Project Officer for York Archaeological Trust, comments, “It is amazing that, considering all the alterations to the theatre since 1764, so much of the medieval hospital has survived under the stalls and elsewhere within the building. The remains are an exciting and important discovery for both archaeologists and the public, offering an opportunity to investigate and understand more about one of the City’s most fascinating and little understood sites.
For more information on York Theatre Royal’s redevelopment, visit their website.