By Nic Fleming, Science Correspondent
Last Updated: 2:09am GMT 17/02/2007

Gladiatorial contests took place at the largest amphitheatre in Roman Britain, according to new evidence unearthed by archaeologists.

Finds at an excavation of the arena in Chester provide the most conclusive proof yet that it played host to grisly fights to the death for public entertainment, and reinforce the view of the town's importance in the Roman Empire.

A stone block with iron fittings was discovered at the centre of the two-storey amphitheatre, which dates back to about AD100. It is similar to one depicted in a 3rd century mosaic found at a Roman villa at Bignor, West Sussex, which shows two gladiators fighting.

It is the third such stone block found at the site and its location suggests the anchors were evenly spaced along the long axis of the arena preventing gladiators from sheltering against the arena wall and thereby giving spectators the best possible view.

Dan Garner, an archaeologist at Chester City Council, said: "Any thought that Chester's amphitheatre was used purely for military purposes such as military tattoos or drill practice can now be firmly banished.

"Up to now, we have found human and animal remains to suggest that gladiatorial games may have taken place, but the discovery of the third chain block put that suggestion almost beyond doubt.

"I dare say that people met a rather brutal end in Chester's arena some 1,900 years ago."

Tony Wilmott, an archaeologist at English Heritage, said: "There are still a number of questions: whether humans or animals were chained; whether the chains were long or short; or whether the chains passed through the ring on the stone allow-ing a degree of free movement.

"It is possible that the blocks were also used for displaying exotic animals or for executing criminals who would be cast into the arena together with violent beasts.

"What is certain is the Romans' flair for mass entertainment. By chaining victims to these blocks along the long axis, they were trying to ensure that spectators had the maximum view of whatever was happening and did so by preventing victims from sheltering against the arena wall, where they could be seen by only half of the audience."

While the archaeologists cannot be sure precisely which forms of gladiatorial encounters were staged in Chester, it is known there was a special type of gladiator called a bestiarius, who was trained to fight different types of animals.

The amphitheatre, 230ft in diameter, was discovered in 2005 beneath the remains of a later, larger arena. Half the site lies beneath a built-up area.

Previous finds include beef ribs, chicken bones, mass-produced Samian pottery bowls depicting gladiatorial scenes, a human tooth and large quantities of yellow sand — possibly brought in to soak up the blood.

Also newly discovered is evidence of eight vaulted stairways, known as vomitoria, that opened directly on to the street and served as entrances to the auditorium.

Two foundation stones that formed the base for substantial half-columns have led the archaeologists to conclude there would have been one storey of such columns.

These architectural discoveries have allowed English Heritage experts to create a reconstruction of the height and grandeur of the amphitheatre.
They found the closest parallels to be the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre of El Djem, Tunisia.

Unlike other smaller, more basic amphitheatres in Britain, the one in Chester had proper seating for about 10,000 spectators on two storeys.
The size and elaborate exterior design of the amphitheatre further underline the importance of Chester to the Roman Empire.

The new findings, made as part of a collaboration between English Heritage and Chester City Council, will be presented at the international symposium Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula: a 21st century perspective, to be held this weekend.