Archaeologists from MOLA today unveil their initial findings from the detailed excavation of The Curtain Theatre, in London’s Shoreditch. Archaeologists have revealed that the theatre appears to be a rectangular building, measuring approximately 22m x30m, rather than being polygonal.
Having broken ground just less than a month ago, early findings from the excavation, of what is one of Shakespeare’s least historically documented playhouses, suggest that the structure, in places, reused the walls of earlier buildings, with the back section of the playhouse being a new addition.
Walls survive up to 1.5 metres high in places, and archaeologists have been able to identify the courtyard, where theatregoers stood, and the inner walls, which held the galleries where wealthier audience members would have sat.
The team of expert archaeologists has also discovered artefacts including a fragmentary ceramic bird whistle, dating from the late 16th century.
Bird whistles were children’s toys but in this context may have been used for sound effects in theatrical performances. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, staged at the Curtain Theatre in the late 16th century, there are numerous references to bird song, such as “That birds would sing and think it were not night”.
Archaeologists also found personal items, including a bone comb. Combs like this were used for grooming and would have been an essential item used by actors backstage, just like today. The team also came across a mount and a token.
Archaeologists will continue to excavate the site for another month, delving deeper into the story of this historic theatre. The public can book tours to visit the site on Fridays from 20 May to 24 June. Tours are free but spaces are limited so booking is essential. Full details can be found at www.mola.org.uk/events.
Fragment of a bird whistle discovered at The Curtain Theatre. The dimple would have been made when a hole was punched into the body to attach a short tubular mouthpiece.
Once the dig is complete, the remains of the Curtain will be preserved in-situ, and the artefacts uncovered and records taken during the excavation will then be studied in detail by MOLA specialists.
A display of the finds will sit alongside the theatre remains as part of a cultural and visitor centre at the heart of The Stage, a new £750m mixed-use development backed by Cain Hoy and designed by architects Perkins+Will, including 33,000 sq ft of retail, over 200,000 sq ft of office space, and more than 400 homes. The development will also feature over an acre of vibrant public space including a performance area and a park.
Heather Knight, the Senior Archaeologist leading the dig on behalf of MOLA, commented:
“Archaeologists and theatre historians have long pondered what the Curtain Theatre looked like – this long-awaited excavation is now starting to give up the secrets of this historic site.”
“The preservation of the remains of the Curtain is exceptional and every day new things are coming to light. Among the artefacts we have uncovered so far, the bird whistle is my favourite find as it may have once been used as a sound effect replicating bird song in plays such as Romeo and Juliet. Theatre producers at that time were always trying to find new ways to animate their productions and delight audiences.
“The detailed excavation of the Curtain is still ongoing – we continue to search for more evidence of this early playhouse and look forward to sharing our findings with the public, who are invited to book free tours of the site.”
Jonathan Goldstein, Cain Hoy’s Chief Executive, added:
“These findings are the essence of what The Stage is all about. We are combining Shoreditch’s past, present and future, by preserving the internationally important Curtain Theatre at the heart of a world-class development.
“This mixed-use scheme is set to be a hub in East London, combining state-of-the-art offices, retail and residences with unique public amenities, while remembering the site’s underlying rich history.”
A series of events for the public has also been organised around the excavation and to tie in with the Shakespeare400 celebrations. The calendar is available online at www.thestageshoreditch.com, www.mola.org.uk/events and www.shakespeare400.org.