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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and as such there are several special events going on. One such event, Shakespeare’s London, taking place at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney, is a tour of the archive which includes a look at artefacts discovered at London’s Elizabethan theatres. I booked this pretty much as soon as I heard about it, as I love both history and Shakespeare.

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Mortimer Wheeler House

The Archive is held at Mortimer Wheeler House; I looked up how to find it and I’m glad that I did, as it isn’t the easiest building to find. It’s located in east London, north of Old Street, just below the canal. We waited in the foyer for the tour to begin; there were quite a few of us, so we were taken around in two separate groups. As we explored the Archive, we were able to learn more about it, as well as the history of theatres in Shakespeare’s day.

The Museum of London Archaeological Archive is part of the museum’s Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive. Over the past century, nearly 8,500 archaeological sites have been investigated in Greater London: this archive holds information relating to all of these, with full archives for over 3,500 of them. There is also an archaeological library collection. It has been officially recognised as the largest archaeological archive in the world.

The Archive is of international significance, the primary source of evidence for early London. As archaeology itself is a destructive process – accessing one layer usually involves removing another – the only evidence of its existence is in the archive. There is an online catalogue containing information about object collections and archive records, and the Archive can also be visited for research purposes. This is free, but you need to make an appointment.

Early in the tour we got to play “archive lottery” – choosing a number and taking the relevant box off the shelf to see what it contained. Our box wasn’t particularly exciting, containing bits of pottery – however, as our tour guide (one of the Archive’s volunteers) explained, pottery is actually a really valuable tool for dating a site. We were subsequently introduced to some very special artefacts relating to the theatre.

Theatres like the Globe, the Rose and the Curtain, popular in Shakespeare’s day, were actually known as playhouses: the term “theatre” tended to refer to indoor, private theatres located in houses (similar to the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). However, for the purposes of the tour they were referred to as theatres. We saw a cannonball that was found on a theatre site, once used to help create the sound of thunder (a similar item from the Rose Theatre is about to go on display at the British Library as part of their Shakespeare exhibition). Some of the smaller artefacts that we got to handle included copper pins, seals for rolls of cloth, and fragments of tobacco pipes. We also saw – but because of its fragility, understandably weren’t allowed to touch – an almost complete leather boot from the Elizabethan period: an incredible sight.

Many of the small items recovered were things which could have been dropped easily in the tightly packed, busy atmosphere of the playhouse. Gambling dice and makeup brushes were also found, as were tokens used to gain admittance into the playhouse. Money boxes were used to collect payment; when they were full, they were smashed, and the contents counted. They were kept in the money box office – what would later become the box office.

The area around Southwark where most of the theatres were situated was also known for bear-baiting, and the skull and bones of a bear and of a dog, possible rivals in the ring, are testament to this. The bear bone that we saw had tooth marks on it – possibly chewed by a dog after the poor dead or dying bear was discarded.

In a small room with a table, we were able to look at newspaper cuttings and letters related to the discovery and excavation of the Rose Theatre in 1988. When an archaeological excavation began on this site, no one had any idea just what an incredible find would be unearthed. The discovery sparked a campaign to retain and restore the site (the original developers just wanted to cover it over), and inspired a change in the law, meaning that excavations are now required when developers take over a site in London.

It was once thought that the hazelnut shells found at the Rose site indicated that theatregoers ate hazelnuts during performances, in the same way we might eat sweets or popcorn today. However, it is now thought that the thick layer of hazelnut shells would have provided cheap and effective flooring – especially as, with long performances and no toilets, groundlings would often just go where they stood – it makes me cringe to imagine walking over a spongy, urine-soaked floor of shells, but I guess they would have been used to it!

Finally, we ended up in a ceramics room, looking at some of the Shakespeare-related items held in the Archive. These included whole, and nearly whole, money boxes (which were always green, seemingly), and a figurine of Othello and Iago. We got to have a look around the room for a while before leaving, at some of the impressive collections which ranged from Roman amphorae to Victorian hot water bottles.

I absolutely loved my trip to the Archive and would recommend it for all those interested in London’s history. The Shakespeare tours are taking place again on 16 April, so it’s not too late if you want to take part.

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