Archaeologists blow the whistle on Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre unearthed at Shoreditch

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle - Credit: Museum of London Archeaology

A 450-year-old children’s bird whistle is among artefacts unearthed by archaeologists excavating Shakespeare’s historic Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch.

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle - Credit: Museum of London Archeaology

The Elizabethan playhouse recently discovered at a building site in Curtain Road, by Great Eastern Street, appears to be a rectangular building, measuring about 65ft by 90ft, rather than polygon like “the wooden O” playhouse narative in Shakespeare’s Henry V, as historians expoected.

“Every day new things are coming to light,” senior archaeologist Heather Knight said.

“Among the artefacts we have uncovered so far, the bird whistle is my favourite as it may have once been used as a sound effect replicating bird song in plays.

“Theatre producers at that time were always trying to find new ways to animate their productions.”

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle - Credit: Museum of London Archeaology

The ceramic whistle was a common children’s toy, but in this context may have been used for sound effects in theatrical performances.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was staged at The Curtain in the late 1500s, has references to bird song such as, “That birds would sing and think it were not night”.

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The dig by a team from Museum of London Archaeology broke ground only last month—but has already unearthed a wealth of information about the theatre and everyday artefacts from the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Archaeologists and theatre historians have long pondered what the theatre looked like,” Heather added. “This excavation is starting to give up the secrets of this historic site.”

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle - Credit: Museum of London Archeaology

The experts believe the Elizabethan builders reused the walls from earlier buildings in places, with the back section of the playhouse being a new addition.

Walls survive up to five feet high in places with archaeologists able to trace the courtyard where theatregoers once stood—and the inner walls which held the galleries where wealthier Elizabethan gentry would have sat.

The archaeologists also uncovered personal items such as a comb made from animal bone. Combs would have been an essential item for actors backstage, like today. They also found a theatre token that had laid buried for four centuries.

The theatre remains are being preserved on the site as part of the new £750m Stage housing and commercial complex, with the artefacts on display as part of a cultural and visitor centre.

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle

Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds 16th century bird whistle - Credit: Museum of London Archeaology

A series of public events is also being organised around the excavation to tie in with the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.

The dig continues for another month. The public can book tours on Fridays from today, up to June 24—they’re free, but spaces are limited and need to be booked online.

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