Saturday, 8th September 2018 – Fishbourne Roman Palace, Chichester
I have no idea why but I’ve never been to Fishbourne Roman Palace. The only reason I can come up with is that we never went on holiday to Sussex (though I had an address there for a couple of decades – I didn’t do a lot of tourism and was out of the country for around 12 years of that period). Anyway, as we were on our way to Goodwood the following day, and staying overnight around 20 minutes away, it seemed like a good chance to take a look at a very large Roman site. We’d considered it in March when we went to the Members’ Meeting at Goodwood, but snow on the ground suggested we didn’t want to visit a location that is partly outdoors in those sort of weather conditions. We’d have had quite enough of the weather by the end of the weekend. Instead we went to Chichester and visited the Cathedral.
This time, however, the weather was perfectly fine, so after a 2.5 hour drive from home we pulled into the car park and parked up by the cafe. It was time first for a coffee and a piece of cake, and then we took ourselves into the museum, where we turned down the free guided tour on the grounds that we could probably find our own way round the exhibits, and that we knew enough about the Romans and their history not to need assistance interpreting what we saw.
Fishbourne is actually not just a palace, but was also a Roman military base, and it came to light in 1960 when development work on the site revealed a 1st century building. The workmen were cutting a trench to put in a water main for a new housing development, and hit an unexpected structure. It may seem a bit odd to us, given that Roman finds had been recorded more than once in the area, that they should be surprised, but surprised they apparently were. There followed a thorough series of archaeological digs, under the supervision of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, which ended in 1968 (and which I recall reading a great deal about when I was at school). Thereafter the site passed into the possession of the Sussex Archaeology Trust, who still maintain it today. There are, as the map above shows, parts that have not been excavated because they’re unfortunately under people’s houses, but there’s still a great deal to see.
I understand that flint tools and flakes from the site point to Mesolithic occupation of the area, possibly in the form of a settlement or camp, which would make sense given its proximity at the time to Chichester Harbour. It then seems to fade from history until AD 43 when the Romans fetched up very early on, using it as a military supply base in the early stages of their invasion of Britain. It had the advantage of being on a site close to the sea and thus made sense although it’s now some distance from any open water.
Its use shifted and it became a residential site and was then cleared to allow the construction of the present palace, possibly in around AD 75, this perhaps being a grand residence for a British client king, Togidubnus. Needless to say it was remodelled and redeveloped frequently to meet changing tastes and changing needs, and in or around AD 280 it burned down. There are suggestions that “A reinterpretation of the ground plan and finds assemblage by Dr Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has suggested that, given the extremely close parallels with Domitian’s imperial palace in Rome, its construction may more plausibly date to after AD 92.”
The part of the site that you can visit contains the palace and its enclosed courtyard garden, bounded to the east by a tree-lined stream. These days visitors approach the palace from the west side but in the time when it was occupied, it would have been approached from due east, from the road from the coast to Chichester.
The palace itself is massive, with four wings fronted by a colonnaded verandah round a central open space. The space is echoed by the museum building, which has a series of small rooms to one side providing the context and history of the site, and then covers the series of mosaics, many of them having subsided dramatically over the centuries. I think the ones we saw in Germany were probably in better condition, and some of them were certainly of a higher quality, but for a country on the edge of the empire (and a very cold, damp and draughty edge at that) they’re really impressive and they give an interesting slant of the changes in mosaic fashions over the decades that the palace was inhabited.
Outside, the trust has reconstructed as far as possible the formal garden, or at least the northern half of it, including a pool, and a demonstration garden, laid out in 1995 with a triclinium (outdoor eating area). There’s also a kitchen garden of ten beds containing plants grown and used in the Roman period, a small orchard, climbing vines, and a garden museum.
We nosed happily around the museum, and then took in the mosaics, ending up on the edge of one of the free guided tours whether we wanted to or not. However, we made a bid for freedom and found our way quite contentedly around all the rooms. It’s well labelled, well set out, and the walkways enable you to get a good look at the mosaics, particularly the smaller ones.
The garden could do with some TLC but as the whole place is looked after by volunteers, and as we’ve had a strange sort of summer, I’m not going to complain about that. I’m just glad that there are people willing to take on the care of such a significant site, and that they mean that people like me can visit it.