During the four years that I have been Chair of the Council for British Archaeology North West group, we have had to face some challenging threats and issues to the archaeology of the region. Amongst the most severe has been the impact of local government cuts on the provision of archaeological planning services. These affected all services across the region, but especially those in Merseyside and Lancashire (see my blogs from December 2015 and January 2016).
The recent debate on the future of Dee House in Chester, which lies above part of the Roman amphitheatre, has been another issue where the views of the group were called upon. This is not a new problem. The current debate centres around the future of the listed Dee House. Should it be granted a 150 year lease and planning permission for redevelopment into a hotel and other venue, or could it be demolished in favour of excavating and displaying the rest of the amphitheatre?
Ever since the chance discovery of the amphitheatre in the late 1920s variations of this debate have come and gone, always ably fought by our colleagues at the Chester Aechaeological Society. The last was in the late 1990s, when the argument for a Jorvik Centre-style visitor attraction was made and rejected (as recorded in our journal Archaeology North West). The most recent debate has been led by those wanting to demolish Dee House rather than see it conserved in order to excavate the amphitheatre remains beneath. The catalyst was the prospect of the Council, who own the building, granting a 150 year lease to a potential developer in order to kick-start renovation of the building. As our leading Roman historian Prof Mary Beard noted in her column in the Times Literary Supplement on 26 August 2016 ‘it raises all kinds of issues about how best to incorporate the ancient heritage into the modern city-scape.’
CBA North West’s position has not changed since the last time the issue was raised. The costs of excavating the rest of the amphitheatre are huge, the results uncertain, excavation destructive, and the loss of one form of heritage in favour of another unacceptable. In August 2016 the group were invited to join the panel at the ‘Great DEEbate’ on the future of Dee House and the Chester Amphitheatre. Held in Chester Town Hall on 30 August and called by the city’s MP, Chris Matheson, it was an opportunity for all sides to air their views. A summary of the debate can be found here:
Much passion was evident in the hall on both sides. I would suggest that we need to harness the passion shown for the exploration of the archaeology and heritage of the Roman amphitheatre and the 18th and 19th century Dee House for the WHOLE of the city’s heritage. The story of Chester is bigger than that of its Roman amphitheatre.
CBA North West has since written to Cheshire West and Chester Council restating the position of the group on the future of Dee House and the Chester Amphitheatre. This is the text of that letter.
The Council for British Archaeology North West has been watching with interest the debate over the future of Dee House and any impact this might have on the Roman amphitheatre. On behalf of our members I am writing to urge the Council to look for a sustainable future for Dee House that conserves the listed building without compromising the archaeology beneath and around the structure. CBA North West does not support the demolition of Dee House in favour of excavating the remains of the amphitheatre. Excavation is an expensive and destructive process that is only undertaken where absolutely necessary. The archaeology of any period is a finite resource that is irreplaceable. We cannot support the further investigation of the amphitheatre, a large proportion of which is already on display, at the expense of Dee House. There is, though, an opportunity in conserving Dee House to tell the whole story of this part of Chester on one site, which we would urge the Council to consider.
Cheshire West and Chester Council has now (September 2016) agreed a deal with a developer to renovate Dee House and turn it into a hotel, restaurant and cafe with some sort of visitor centre. This is welcomed by CBA North West, but we will keep an eye on how this proceeeds, so as to make sure that the development is sympathetic to both Dee House and the amphitheatre.