Archaeologists have excavated the foundations of a caregiver, or holding cell, where gladiators, convicted prisoners and wild animals waited before being brought into the Roman Amphitheater at Richborough in Kent.
Jim Holden / English Heritage

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman gladiators, convicted prisoners and wild animals eagerly awaited their fate in a small room in the Richborough Amphitheater in the south-east of England. Now reports Jack Malvern for London Times, archaeologists have identified the ruins of this ancient caregiver, or holding cell.

The cell and other finds made in the colony, including animal bones, pottery and coins, testify to Richborough’s importance to Roman Britain, said Paul Pattison, senior historian of the properties at English Heritage, in a statement. Originally installed in the first century AD, the site remained in use until the end of Roman rule in 410 AD.

“The discoveries we made during the Richborough excavation are surprising and exciting, and dramatically transform our understanding of the structure of the amphitheater and the nature of the adjacent habitat in the city,” Pattison adds. “We have always known that the Roman fort at Richborough was an important place for the Romans … and now we have been able to gather evidence that much of the town outside the fort may also have been settled until at the very end. “

Holding cell for gladiators and convicted prisoners found in a Roman amphitheater in England

Roman coin discovered during excavations

Jim Holden / English Heritage

Known then as Rutupiae or Portus Ritupis, Richborough was where Roman troops first landed during the conquest of Britain in 43 CE. According to English Heritage, the site became a supply base for the Roman legions and ultimately a civilian settlement with a large fort.

“As Richborough is coastal, it would have provided a link between what was then called Britannia and the rest of the Roman Empire,” Pattison told CNN’s Hannah Ryan, “and, because of that, all kinds of Romans who came from all corners of the empire would have passed and lived in the colony.

In addition to the amphitheater, archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a triumphal arch and other structures in and around Richborough. Made of chalk and grass, the amphitheater was large enough to accommodate 5,000 spectators. It is said to have hosted shows and public entertainment, such as wild animal hunts, executions and gladiatorial fights.

Holding cell for gladiators and convicted prisoners found in a Roman amphitheater in England

An artist’s rendition of what the Richborough Settlement Triumphal Arch may have looked like

Illustration by Peter Lorimer / English Heritage

This year’s excavations revealed that the stadium walls were made of chalk blocks coated with mortar and painted red, yellow, black and blue, a rarity for Roman amphitheatres in Britain.

“They probably originally contained painted scenes, possibly figurative scenes of what goes on in lecture halls,” Pattison told Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian. “We don’t have that detail yet, but we have the painting and it’s a great start. Since we only excavated a tiny fragment of the wall, this bodes well for better-preserved painted scenes elsewhere in the circuit.

Archaeologists know the piece now considered a carcer since 1849. As the Times explains, experts originally believed that space was a gateway to the arena. However, upon reaching the foundations of the room during recent excavations, they realized that the six-foot-high stone walls had only one opening: an exit for those who were to appear in the stadium.

“If you let your imagination run wild then it’s scary to just sit there,” Pattison told the Times. “You can imagine what it is. Once you know what’s going on there, it’s pretty emotional. You can imagine the worst aspects of Roman life.

Holding cell for gladiators and convicted prisoners found in a Roman amphitheater in England

The team nicknamed the cat Maxipus.

Jim Holden / English Heritage

Researchers have uncovered a wealth of artifacts during excavations, which began in mid-September and are expected to end this month. The finds include bones of slaughtered animals, coins, personal items, pottery fragments and the skeleton of a cat.

Archaeologists have dubbed the almost intact feline Maxipus, BBC News reports. Little is known about the bones, except that they were deliberately buried outside the amphitheater in the domestic section of the colony.

“Normally you would expect it to have been dismembered by predators, but it’s almost finished, so it looks like it was deliberately placed where it hasn’t been disturbed,” Pattison explains to the Guardian.

Archaeologists from English Heritage and Historic England have collaborated on recent excavations. They plan to exhibit some of the new finds in the renovated Roman Fort and Richborough Amphitheater Museum next summer.