A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 7September 20, 2012 Archaeology, Blogs, LAARC, LAARC Object of the month
The Museum’s Archaeological Archive – the LAARC – is currently preparing for its last major volunteer project of the year (blogs to follow shortly). We’re also in the closing stages of our blog series ‘A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects’. Between now and December I have to cover 500 years of history in four objects. This month it’s C16th London and the theatre-loving Tudors.
The Tudor period in London’s history sees the continuation of major themes such as increased immigration and an expanding urban population coupled with expansion abroad and growing industry and trade. Whereas the medieval period saw the city’s religious precincts grow, the Tudor period witnesses both the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the reformation of the English Church (1530 – 1570).
One particular feature of this period was the development of London theatre. Purpose-built playhouses were constructed where the dramas of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) – one of the Elizabethan period’s most famous historical characters – were performed, amongst many others. Our seventh object comes from the Rose theatre, one of London’s six major playhouses.
Playhouses and theatre formed part of London’s growing entrainment venues which also included pleasure gardens, cock-fighting pits, bull- & bear-bating arenas, taverns, alehouses and brothels. Many of these licentious venues and activities had to take place outside of the city. Playhouses were no exception – a law of 1574 forcing playhouses to be built in the suburbs which is exactly where the first purpose-built theatre, called the Theatre, was erected by James Burbage in 1576.
The Rose (1587), Swan (1595), Globe (1599) and Hope (1614) were all built on London’s Southbank. Although the Globe is probably the most well-known due to its modern replication, the Rose is the most important archaeologically as it provided the first full plan of a London Tudor playhouse. Recent excavations in London have also revealed evidence of two other ‘lost’ playhouses: the Theatre and the Curtain, both in Shoreditch.
So what object to best represent Tudor theatreland in London from our archaeological remains? It was going to be a money-box, used for collecting the playhouse entrance fees (and where we get the term ‘box-office’ from), but one such object has recently had all the limelight having won our Pot Idol competition. So instead, it’s a lump of stone:
Tudor (C16th) Stone Cannon Ball
Sometimes in archaeology the material remains we excavated can seem completely enigmatic. My seventh object has been chosen precisely because of this. Normally this is where the word ‘ritual’ is reeled out by archaeologists – considered to be a one-word term meaning “we don’t know”. I normally expand on this definition to mean: “we don’t know…its function or why it’s here, but it must have had a purpose and we just haven’t worked it out yet”. When originally published, in an award winning monograph, our cannon ball was descried as “although unstratified, its presence on the playhouse site is puzzling.” I’m not suggesting some theatrical ‘cult of the cannon ball’ existed, but sometimes intriguing interpretations are put forward.
Julian Bowsher, MOLA’s theatreland guru, has recently come up with a more plausible explanation for this 4.5kg sphere of stone believing the cannon ball could have been used as an early theatrical ‘special effect’! Rolled along a plank of wood, this would have produced the sound of thunder – perfect for the opening of Macbeth:
“When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Other objects have been excavated that pertain to special effects at the Rose playhouse and Julian will hopefully be producing an article on this niche subject in the future.
Next month it’s onto the Stuarts and rather than explore the ambiguous, our object will relate to C17th London’s most notorious event…