On the urban street corner, where Middlesex Street meets Whitechapel High Street in East London, lie the remains of an Elizabethan playhouse, the Boar’s Head. Its existence was known due to references in historic records, but until MOLA’s excavation of the site, much of its past had remained a mystery.

One of several theatrical locations on the fringes of the City, the Boar’s Head had its fair share of scandals and played host to a number of acting troupes. One of these was Derby’s men who counted amongst their number one William Kempe, an actor who specialised in comedic roles and performed in some of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays.

MOLA’s investigation of the site led to some fascinating archaeological finds, including beer glasses, fragments from Tudor money boxes and a long needle made from bone – known as a bodkin – which might have been used to tightly lace the garments worn by the actors ahead of a performance.

Before it became a playhouse, the Boar’s Head was a coaching inn with an open-air yard. In 1594, Oliver Woodliffe took over the lease and began converting its buildings into a more recognisable theatrical space, constructing tiered galleries and a stage, which had a roof added later. Although this stage was small, its rectangular shape made it easier to accommodate sword-fighting scenes, meaning that the very fabric of the playhouse could have dictated the flavour of the performances enacted there – less romantic, more rowdy.

The theatrical life of the Boar’s Head was short lived and by 1616 it had closed down. However, this was far from the end of the story. The site didn’t remain dormant for long, as our excavations uncovered evidence of light industrial production sites spread across the land once occupied by the playhouse. We recovered quantities of horn cores as well as an 18th century kiln used for making clay pipes with many of the pipes still in place.

If you would like to explore the East London theatrelands for yourself – including the location of the Boar’s Head – then download our self-guided walk and follow in the footsteps of the playwrights and poets, thespians and thugs, who once performed, caroused and brawled in these very streets.

MOLA was commissioned to carry out archaeological excavations to this site by Unite Students, with RPS Group acting as consultants. Work was monitored by Historic England.

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