(CNN) — A team of archaeologists may have discovered the oldest purpose-built theater in London beneath a construction site in Whitechapel.
The Elizabethan playhouse, known as the Red Lion, is believed to date from around 1567, Archaeology South-East, part of University College London's Institute of Archaeology, said in a press release.
No physical evidence of the theater had been found before and its exact location has never been confirmed, but a combination of evidence means dig director Stephen White is "97% sure" it's the Red Lion, he told CNN.
White emphasized the site's importance in the history of the theater, as the Red Lion marked a shift from performances in inn yards to shows in dedicated performance spaces.
The dig took place in Whitechapel, east London.
He described the builder, John Brayne, as an "unsung hero" and "godfather" of Elizabethan theater. Brayne was a grocer and entrepreneur who recognized the moneymaking potential of a theater and set about building a prototype at the Red Lion, White said.
Almost 500 years later, White and the team discovered the timbers in an advanced state of decomposition at the site of a housing development at 85 Stepney Way in London's East End.
"The fact they survived at all is nothing short of a miracle," said White, who predicted the timbers would have disappeared if the site had been excavated 10 years later
The discovery of the timbers adds to cartographical and documentary evidence from two lawsuits between Brayne and carpenters working on the building's construction.
This 3D model shows how the stage would have looked.
In 1567, legal papers described timber scaffolds at "the house called the red lyon," and archaeologists say this suggests they were "substantial."
The 1569 lawsuit talks about a "farme house called and knowen by the name of the Sygne of the Redd Lyon" that has an outdoor stage and seating, according to the press release.
It also gives the dimensions of the stage: 40 feet north to south and 30 feet east to west, at a height of 5 feet off the ground.
Archeologists discovered a rectangular timber structure in January 2019, which fitted the dimensions of the stage per the 1569 lawsuit.
After starting life as a farmstead that served beer, as was common at the time, the Red Lion built a stage by the late 16th century. It then became a formal inn, a business that continued until at least the 18th century.
The team then discovered remains of buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as evidence that they had become part of a complex in the 17th century.
This late 17th-century mug with a Royalist medallion of Charles II was found at the site.
Two of the buildings discovered have been identified as beer cellars.
"Tudor period inns needed somewhere cool and secure to store their drink, as beer would have gone off much more rapidly than it does today," said Michael Shapland, UCL Archaeology South-East's historic buildings specialist.
Numerous artifacts such as beakers and drinking glasses, mugs, bottles, tankards and ceramic cups provide further evidence that the site was in fact the Red Lion.
In 1576, using the Red Lion as a prototype, Brayne built The Theatre, Shoreditch, where a young William Shakespeare's plays were performed in the 1590s.
The next stage for the project is to dig into the findings and start to map out in more detail what the buildings were used for, White said.