Friday, 27 June 2014

A mosaic montage part 1 - Fishbourne Roman Palace

During a recent getaway to the south coast, I managed to visit three iconic Romano-British sites that have been on my list for a long time, and I'm actually a little ashamed to say I haven't ever been to before.  Still, I took the opportunity this time with both hands and, as always, a camera.

The stars of the show at any villa are of course the mosaics, and the three villas in question - Fishbourne, Lullingstone and Bignor - feature some of the best that Romano-British (or continental in the case of Fishbourne) mosaicists could offer.  In order to not make things unmanageable and to give them all their due, I'll cover them in three separate posts.  First up...

Fishbourne Roman Palace

I have of course been cruel to Fishbourne above by referring to it as a mere villa, when of course it feels itself entitled to use the epithet 'Palace'.  On scale and grandeur, it must certainly have been a contender in its heyday in the late 1st Century.  A graphic in the museum comparing the site with scale drawings of the Flavian palace on the Palatine and Nero's Domus Aurea demonstrate that Fishbourne was on a par with the grandest homes in the Empire.  The museum itself is in need of a little TLC in some areas, and I believe that money is currently being raised to improve it.  The displays are a good introduction to the development of the site, and include some iconic objects from the excavations, which are a pleasure to see.

The visible archaeology of the building is contained within a large open structure and accessed via raised walkways, which wind their way around and provide views from various angles of the most important mosaics.  It is mind boggling to think that the remains on view constitute only a single wing of the massive complex.

Of all the wonderful mosaics on show, two particularly piqued my interest.  The first is unsurprising as it is one of the finest mosaics anywhere - the 'cupid on a dolphin' mosaic, which features the chubby winged chap surrounded by sea creatures, elaborate cups and borders ofguilloche and floral designs, all contained within a chequerboard.

The second mosaic is one that demonstrates the development of the house, as it shows a 2nd Century Medusa laid directly over an earlier, late 1st Century, black and white geometric floor.  Sadly the Medusa roundel has half disappeared, but its a wonderful example of archaeological stratigraphy in action.

One of the highlights of the original palace would have been the formal gardens - perhaps the only place in Britain where such formal horticulture could have been seen in the late 1st Century.  Now sadly reduced in size to about half of the original scale, on a sunny day the gardens are still a pleasant place to wander.

I can't leave Fishbourne without giving mention to a building on the site that I fear most visitors won't venture into - the Collections Discovery Centre.  This is effectively a storage and conservation facility which has a public focus.  Although sadly there was nothing to be seen happening while I was there, it was still nice to peer through windows into their stone store and read some of the wall panels about their work and some of the individuals who have been at (and found love at!) Fishbourne over the years.  Overall, the ambition to have the importance of such unglamorous behind the scenes work highlighted to the public is laudable and I hope that there is a suitable programme of activities to make best use of it.  The corporate sponsorship was also an interesting angle, and one that, love it or hate it, seems to be something that we will need to see a lot more of in future if the current political attitude towards heritage funding continues.


  1. Hi, I am planning to take a class of 9-10 year olds to either Lullingstone or Fishbourne. Which do you think would be the best choice?

  2. Hi Suzi,

    Sorry for not replying to your comment sooner - I hope its not too late!

    Lullingstone is a wonderful site, but to get a sense of the sheer grandeur that Roman society could offer, I think it has to be Fishbourne. The mosaics and the layout are excellent, and the site seemed to me to be better equipped to deal with school groups, with the museum and outdoor gardens on site.