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They have also dug up drinking vessels and pottery shards, including a piece of 16th-century jug decorated with the face of an Elizabethan gentleman, distinctive in his ruff and pointy beard.

The site lies behind white boards on a side street in Shoreditch, a scruffy area of bars and clubs east of London’s business district. In Elizabethan times it lay outside the city walls _ free from regulation by city leaders hostile to theaters and other disreputable entertainments.

“It was called the suburb of sin,” said Museum of London archaeologist Heather Knight. “It has always been the area of entertainment and fun.”

The Theater was London’s first successful playhouse _ previously, plays had been staged in inn yards and other makeshift spaces. There is evidence that an earlier venue, The Red Lion, was built outside the city in the 1560s but lasted only a few months.

It’s thought plays including “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Merchant of Venice” _ as well as works by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd _ were performed at The Theatre, which served as a base for Shakespeare’s troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men.

But by 1598, a dispute with the site’s landlord threatened to leave the company homeless. Shakespeare and his colleagues took drastic action: over the Christmas holiday, while the landlord was away, they dismantled the building and hauled its stout oak beans into storage. In the spring, the timbers were ferried across the river and used to build a new theater, the Globe.

The archaeologists say they should finish their excavations next month, after which Tower Theatre hopes to begin erecting a new theater on the site. The company has planning permission, a design and 4 million pounds ($6 million). It is campaigning to raise 3 million pounds more _ backed by celebrity thespians including Ian McKellen and Michael Gambon _ and hopes to start construction in 2012.

The remains of the original theater will be displayed under glass as part of the new building, but the structure will be thoroughly modern.

“We’re not trying to recreate the 16th-century theater,” said Tuerk. “We’re trying to recreate the spirit of the 16th-century theater.”

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Online:

The Theatre: http://www.thetheatre.org.uk

Museum of London: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk