The Fishbourne excavations of 1961-1969 uncovered the remains of an impressive Roman palace, adorned with elaborate mosaics. (ALL IMAGES: Fishbourne Roman Palace / Sussex Archaeological Society)

This month marks 50 years since Fishbourne Roman Palace, one of the great archaeological discoveries of the 1960s, opened its doors to the public. The site continues to hold wide appeal for visitors and researchers alike. Here, Betina Blake and Katrina Burton explore how our understanding of the Roman structures has evolved, and how the anniversary is being celebrated.

 

Given how influential its discovery would prove, it is remarkable to remember that Fishbourne Roman Palace was found quite by chance, uncovered in 1960 by contractors for the Portsmouth Water Company who were digging a trench to lay a new water main. During the course of their work, in a field near Chichester, West Sussex, they uncovered substantial wall foundations and the unmistakable traces of a mosaic floor. Luckily, this was enough to halt the work and bring in the archaeologists, so that the Roman finds could be explored in greater detail.

The site’s archaeological potential became abundantly clear during a trial excavation carried out over Easter 1961 under the direction of Barry Cunliffe – then still an undergraduate at Cambridge University – aided by Margaret Rule (1928-2015; she would go on to be the first curator of the Fishbourne Museum, and later was lead archaeologist during the raising of Tudor flagship the Mary Rose in 1982.) Subsequent excavations that summer uncovered an astonishing array of building remains, representing some 22 rooms and eight mosaic floors. This was only the North Wing of a much larger complex, dating to the late 1st century AD. It was quickly becoming apparent that this was a site of huge significance, and the resulting publicity from those early excavations helped ensure the preservation of the site for future investigations.

One of Fishbourne’s polychrome mosaics: the famous Cupid on a Dolphin design.

PRESERVING THE PALACE

Fishbourne’s survival was secured once and for all in December 1962, when local archaeologist Ivan D Margary generously purchased the land and gave the site into the care of the Sussex Archaeological Society – an independent charity focused on the history and archaeology of Sussex. Ivan also funded the construction of a state-of-the-art cover building that spanned the entire length and breadth of the North Wing. Thanks to the foresight of this key benefactor, the foundations of the Roman Palace museum were laid, and the site continues to be managed and cared for by the Sussex Archaeological Society to this day.

The purchase of the site was not the end of the Fishbourne story, though. Excavations continued on site throughout the 1960s, and each season brought with it new discoveries that helped fill in the details of this unique site. Boasting an estimated 100 rooms, Fishbourne was not simply a large Roman villa, but something truly palatial both in scale and in the quality of its decoration. This was a complex directly comparable with Nero’s Golden House in Rome, and it remains the largest domestic Roman building ever discovered this side of the Alps.

Beyond its impressive dimensions, the palace is most famous for its stunning collection of mosaics, many of which emerged early in the excavation campaign. The North Wing houses the most complete examples, with several very high-quality black and white geometric mosaics that are some of the earliest mosaics known in Britain. There were also striking later polychrome designs, such as the celebrated Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic, and another colourful surface depicting the head of Medusa. These were wonderful discoveries, but they had further surprises to give up.

Then and now: the cover building displaying the palace’s North Wing shortly after the museum opened in 1968, and the same structure as it looks today.

Once excavated and exposed to fluctuating temperatures that cause their tesserae to expand and contract, mosaics can blister, requiring them to be re-laid on a new, stable bed – and it was during just such conservation work, in 1979, that archaeologists found that one of the colour mosaics (Cupid on a Dolphin) had been laid directly on top of an earlier monochrome design (see CA 217). This is now known as the Fortress Mosaic; it comprises a central panel of 16 squares, each containing a geometric pattern, the whole of which is surrounded by a complex border depicting a fortified town wall.

EVOLVING EVIDENCE

As new details of the palace’s make-up became clearer, so too did its timeline: in 1963, excavations on the East Wing uncovered evidence of much earlier activity than was expected. Traces of a timber structure – interpreted as a Roman military granary similar to one found at Richborough – together with small finds of armour and weaponry suggest that the site was in use around AD 43, possibly as a short-term military encampment for Legio II Augusta before they moved westwards. This intriguing aspect of the site’s pre-palace occupation is a subject that is still under research to this day.

Photographs and stories from the 1960s dig – and the later investigations in the 1990s – form part of a display marking the museum’s 50th anniversary.

Indeed, in 1995-1999, additional excavations carried out by the Sussex Archaeological Society, headed by David Rudkin and John Manley, revealed more information about the area directly to the east of the palace. Of particular interest were the remains of an imposing courtyard building that has been compared to a principia or military headquarters (CA 152 and 187). This investigation also uncovered a substantial ditch containing quantities of local Late Iron Age Atrebatic pottery, as well as some early imported wares, including an Arretine cup made in 10 BC-AD 10. Combined with the discovery of part of a sword scabbard in the ditch fill in 2002, this provides further evidence of a potential early military occupation of the site.

The palace’s final days are equally enigmatic: the investigations uncovered evidence of a catastrophic fire that tore through the complex c.AD 280. The heat was so intense that lead and glass from the windows melted, and some of the ceramic roof tiles were re-fired. At the time of the blaze, building works had been under way, with the palace’s owners having a brand-new hypocaust (under-floor heating system) put in; after the fire, the site was completely abandoned. There is no evidence that the owners ever returned or rebuilt on the site, but there is also no clear indication of why. The rapid destruction by the fire was a boon for future researchers, helping to ensure the long-term survival of the Roman archaeology, but it remains a mystery as to why no one rebuilt on the site.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 340. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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