British Museum blog

Archaeological findings at Shakespearean playhouses

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Snacking Through Shakespeare: A Theatre Goer’s Fork looks at what it would have been like inside Southwark’s playhouses.

Fruit seeds and nutshells from the Rose Theatre © Museum of London


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

Excavations have been carried out at the sites of quite a range of Shakespearean playhouses, including from the site of the Theatre built by James Burbage in 1576, the Rose built in1587. We’ve also found a small area of the Globe built in 1599 and another small area of the Hope built in 1614.

The excavation at the Rose playhouse in 1988-90 was certainly the largest excavation and has produced the greatest amount of evidence about the construction of these types of buildings. It was the first time we’d seen one of these playhouses for 400 years. Being able to understand the layout of these buildings and the position of the stage and the galleries have been very important discoveries.

But we’ve also recovered many artefacts that enable us to look at the average Elizabethan theatre-goer in terms of foodstuffs, clothing and personal items.

There are a number of contemporary accounts saying that you could buy food and drink within these theatres. Amongst the groundlings standing in front of the stage, people would have sold their wares, rather like the old cinema usherettes with a tray on a strap around their neck. The theatres didn’t have any room for a bar or foyer in a modern sense so things like nuts, apples, fruit, beer, or wine, or water could all be bought inside.

We know that people were eating shellfish; oysters, muscles, periwinkles, whelks, we even found a cuttlefish. The groundlings would have just dropped the shells on the ground, although they would have been swept up at the end of the day – most of the shells we’ve found are in the dumps at the back of the building.

In contrast, the richer members of the audience sitting up in the galleries would have probably brought their own food, drink, glasses and cutlery. Everybody had their own set of cutlery, although that usually meant a spoon and a knife because forks were very rare at this time.

A plan of the excavation at the Rose playhouse. The fork featured in today's programme was found in the top left corner of the stage. Click on image to enlarge. © Museum of London

The fork that features in today’s programme was found in a layer underneath the stage area of the Rose. We know it was buried there in 1592 because, like many buildings, the Rose underwent a series of alterations and enhancements and a new second stage was built at that date. Amongst the debris, in between the two stages, was this fork.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Snacking Through Shakespeare:
A Theatre Goer’s Fork

Find out more:
Museum of London Archaeology
Excavations at the Rose

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Thanks for posting the information I will have to tune in! :)

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Construction of St Peter’s Basilica began #onthisday in 1506. It was completed 120 years later. This print by Giuseppe Vasi was made in 1774
#print #art #history #Rome #Italy Happy 134th birthday @natural_history_museum! Here’s the British Museum before the natural history collection moved to South Kensington
#giraffe #history #BritishMuseum #museum Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble, of which the Mediterranean has many natural sources. A relationship has often been assumed between the pure white of freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty. For centuries this has been a subject of fascination and controversy. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo revived the Greek idea of the human body but denied the use of colour. This was partly due to negative associations with the painted saints of the medieval period. During the European Enlightenment of the 1750s onwards, and increasingly into our own time, the preferred aesthetic was a truth to materials. Painting and gilding were seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

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To make more room for the increasing collections held by the British Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This eventually became the Natural History Museum. These images show some of the natural history specimens on display, including giraffes and a mastodon!
In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
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This drawer was once part of the materia medica - a sort of pharmaceutical cabinet - in the collection of Sloane. The cabinet had several drawers, each carefully constructed to keep out destructive insects. Some drawers had small compartments like this example, others contained glazed boxes with seeds, fruit, bark, roots, gums and resins inside. Each had a label written by Sloane with a catalogue number. The botanical or medicinal name of the subtance, where it came from and who collected it were then recorded in his catalogues of his collection.
As Sloane's interest in natural history grew along with his income, he was able to widen the scope of his collection from being primarily medical to being more encyclopaedic, representing the widest possible variety of substances and artefacts for his own reference and for others to consult.
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