FISHBOURNE PALACE & BIGNOR VILLA
After leaving Portsmouth, we drove over to Chichester where we had booked into a hotel for the night, as next day we planned to visit one of the best Roman Palace remains in Britain, specifically famous for its beautiful mosaics - and as you all know, I love a good mosaic !!
As a bonus, when we finished looking round Fishbourne Palace, Russ suggested that as we were in the area, we may as well visit a second smaller Roman Villa, also known for its mosaics, which was only about five miles away - Bignor Villa isn't quite as big as Fishbourne, but oh, the treasures they had there were beautiful !!
So come and see some of the best mosaics in Britain, all around 1900 years old !!
Although local people had known of the existence of Roman remains in the area, it was not until 1960 that the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe first systematically excavated the site, which had been accidentally uncovered by workmen when a water main was being laid. The Roman villa excavated by Cunliffe's team was so large that it became known as Fishbourne Roman Palace, and a museum was erected to protect and preserve some of the remains in situ.
In size, it is approximately equivalent to Nero's Golden House in Rome or to the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, and in plan it closely mirrors the basic organisation of the emperor Domitian's palace, the Domus Flavia, completed in AD 92 upon the Palatine Hill in Rome. Fishbourne is by far the largest Roman residence known north of the Alps. At about 500 feet (150 m) square, it is larger in size than Buckingham Palace.
A modern museum has been built by the Sussex Archaeological Society, incorporating most of the visible remains including one wing of the palace. The gardens have been re-planted using authentic plants from the Roman period. A team of volunteers and professional archaeologists are involved in a continuing research and excavation programme on the site of nearby, possibly military, buildings. The last dig was in 2002, but even so, there are so many artefacts to work on that they have enough to keep them going for a few years yet !!.
The final phase palace comprised four large wings with colonnaded fronts, forming a square around a formal garden The north and east wings each consisted of suites of rooms built around courtyards, with a monumental entrance in the middle of the east wing. In the north-east corner was an aisled assembly hall. The west wing contained state rooms, a large ceremonial reception room, and a gallery. The south wing contained the owner's private apartments. The palace also included as many as 50 mosaic floors, under-floor heating and an integral bathhouse.
Below is a floor-plan of the excavated North wing, with all the mosaic floors drawn in situ...
This plan below, shows the original floor-plan on the top, with subsequent re-development of two centuries later, by later owners, below.
WHO LIVED THERE?
Initially, there was a substantial stone-walled house, built over old granaries, which included a courtyard garden with colonnades and a bath suite. It has been suggested that the palace itself, incorporating the previous house in its south-east corner, was built around 73–75 AD. With regard to who lived in the Fishbourne palace, the accepted theory, first proposed by Barry Cunliffe, is that the early phase of the palace was the residence of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus (or Togidubnus), a pro-Roman local chieftain who was installed as a local king of a number of territories following the first stage of the conquest.
Another theory is that it was built for another native, Sallustius Lucullus, a Roman Governor of Britain of the late 1st century who may have been the son of the British prince Adminius. Two inscriptions recording the presence of Lucullus have been found in nearby Chichester and the redating, by Miles Russell, of the palace to the early AD 90s, would fit far more securely with such an interpretation. If the palace was designed for Lucullus, then it may have only been in use for a few years, for the Roman historian Suetonius records that Lucullus was executed by the delusional emperor Domitian in, or shortly after AD 93.
The palace outlasted the original owner and was extensively re-planned early in the 2nd century, being subdivided up into a series of lesser apartments. Further redevelopment was begun in the late 3rd century, but these alterations were incomplete when the north wing was destroyed in a fire c.270 AD. The damage was too great to repair, and the palace was abandoned and later dismantled.
THE MUSEUM ARTEFACTS
There is a substantial museum area at Fishbourne, with hundreds of artefacts recovered in various digs, including jewellery, gaming counters and dice, locks, keys, bits and pieces of clothing, pottery, roof tiles, bits of wall frescoes and lots of mosaic tessera, of course !! They also have a plaster cast of a small spiral section of Trajan's Column to give you an idea of the contemporary era of the house, around 100 AD. This particular section shows the Roman galleys crossing over the River Danube.
Ancient gaming counters recovered at Fishbourne.
Bronze locks and keys, and other bits and pieces !!
A model of a Roman galley:-
Of course, as well as gorgeous mosaics on the floors, the walls were lavishly decorated too, with scenes in panels painted on wet plaster, a technique called fresco - some of the best used natural pigments which meant the colours were beautifully muted and subtle - rusty-red, indigo blue, turquoise and sea-green, and saffron yellow !! Some of the fragments of wall frescoes reconstructed to show how the pattern probably looked when it was in situ:-
A reconstructed section of wall decoration, with the fragments in place:-
Sections of the frescoes would have had pictorial paintings of flowers, fruit and birds, on the left, and certain floors were tiled in quite a modern style, rather than fine mosaics, right :-
The survey of decorative material used in walls and flooring allows us to truly understand that no expense was spared in the building of this palatial structure. There were two kinds of marble from Turkey; quartz from Guernsey; limestone, green and white marble from France; brown breccias and green marble from Greece; and two kinds of marble from Italy, including the famous white crystalline marble from Carrera.
They also found lots of roof-tiles of course, as the entire palace would have had these all over the roof - some of them bore footprints from various animals and children wandering round the place when they were being made !!
Lots of iron nails of various sizes, which look very similar to modern ones:-
A particularly beautiful section of floor tiling, or it may have been a bit of wall decoration:-
They kindly reconstructed a whole room to give you a really good sense of what this palace must have looked like - as you can see, the Roman way of life, if you were rich, was pretty sumptuous !!
The museum was a fascinating glimpse into the real way of life in this amazing palace - lots of reconstructed and hands-on stuff - we were all intrigued by the tiny bits and pieces they have uncovered, and then - Russ found the dressing up box...
THE MOSAICS !!
Here is the whole hangar-like building built over the uncovered floor-mosaics, with suspended walkways so that you can walk all round each floor - the Roman rooms are delineated by very low walls to show the layout of the North wing of this amazing palace !!
Here is a section of the under-floor heating system, showing the low piles of tiles that created the space below the floor to fill with heated air from the furnaces - clever stuff and very like our modern central heating !!
This is a sadly very damaged, but very stylised peacock mosaic - this was a popular motif in Roman villas and usually signified an entrance hall floor
Russ and Adam went ahead of me while I took lots of pics...
This is the biggest and most complete floor mosaic at Fishbourne - a superb example of the mosaicist's art !! It depicts a central motif of Cupid riding a dolphin, in a plaited rope border, surrounded by the winged sea-horses, the hippocampus - a mythological creature with the head and body of a horse and the coiled tail of a huge fish or sea-serpent, and often depicted with wings too. These creatures accompanied Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, (or Poseidon in ancient Greece) There are stylised cockle shells in the corners and huge wine cups in the middle section round the centre. All round the outside is a narrow border of leaves and flowers, and the occasional bird.
Best of all, here's what is thought to be the artist's signature - an important thing if he wanted to get more work from his client's wealthy friends !!
Here is one of the sea-horses - aren't they beautiful ?!!
Right next to this floor, in the next but one room over, there was an unexpected sight - an exposed grave of someone buried here, probably much later in medieval times...this is one of four skeletons uncovered here, thought to be buried about three or four hundred years after the palace burnt down.
This is a much smaller mosaic than the Cupid design, but nevertheless a beautiful one, even though it isn't complete !! It has a Celtic knot design in the middle, a recurring motif in Romano-British villas, and probably a sign that the mosaicists were local artists, rather than brought in from Italy or elsewhere !! There would have been a lot of overlapping influences in art of this period, and these would have, in their turn, influenced mosaics back in Rome...
Lots of these mosaics were in black and white, signifying earlier work, and lots of them used geometric patterns of cubes, squares and triangles, with some perspective illusions included within the design !!
A pattern resembling a modern brick wall was also a popular border design...
Here, you can clearly see the fact that there is an earlier floor under the top one, which was a fairly common practice then, just as it is today, rather like laying a new layer of lino over an old one. See the ravages of nature being allowed to grow over the floor, resulting in moss and algae damage...
A beautiful detail from a coloured mosaic floor of a terracotta amphora, the ancient pointy-bottomed pot used for wine and olive oil...
THE ROMAN GARDEN
This was without doubt another highlight of this place - the fact that they have recreated a section of the ancient herb and vegetable garden, showing the beautiful pergolas with vines growing over them, and covered walkways going off in various directions. There was also a recreation of a triclinium, an outdoor eating place - the ancient Roman version of our modern garden table and chairs...
Around the back of these pergolas, there were rectangular beds growing all kinds of herbs and flowers, and apples, pears, plums and berries of all kinds...
THE RESEARCH CENTRE
An added bonus to our visit was the fact that you could go and have a quick look at the Research Centre, where all the stuff that they haven't looked at yet, was stored. We found huge sections of Roman piping, and a chest of drawers packed with all kinds of pottery shards, which had Russ simply beside himself with excitement...
This is the store-room, photographed through the locked doors, and as you can see, there is plenty of stuff to keep your average archaeologist going for a few years yet !!
The best thing in this storeroom was a huge section of mosaic floor that has yet to be examined !!
Fishbourne Palace is a great place for a visit, especially if you have kids, and/or go on a day when they do some re-enactment of some kind. Troops of Roman Centurions have a habit of cropping up on a regular basis here...
Next, we went off to visit a much smaller Roman house - this time a villa. This part of Sussex is simply awash with Roman villas apparently as it was a very popular place to settle, if you were wealthy. Lovely countryside, sunny climate and fairly good access to the coast meant that there are loads of Roman ruins everywhere - you just have to know where they are !!
Bignor Roman Villa is way out in the country, up hill and down dale, and round numerous tiny country lanes. It is situated right in the middle of a field, and is run by a couple of staff who are very friendly indeed - accompanied by their little dog, they sell tickets, answer any questions and serve tea in the cafe - a very homespun feel to the whole place !!
The Roman site is still owned by the Tupper family, who still farm the land around - they had a beautiful gold and carnelian intaglio ring that was excavated in the corridor area, which is only seen in photos in the museum - we e-mailed them, out of curiosity to ask where it was, and apparently it has been stolen twice, and so it is now under lock and key somewhere safe !! Fair enough...
The first thing you see when you go in is a museum room with lots of historical explanations about how the villa was uncovered, and lots of artefacts they have discovered there. There is a model of how the villa would have looked when it was complete, which is pretty much essential to help you understand what you're looking at !!
George Tupper discovered the villa in 1811 when his plough hit a large stone. The large stone turned out to be the hexagonal fountain or well that was in the central courtyard area, which came to be known as the Summer dining-room. The villa was almost entirely excavated by John Hawkins who lived at nearby Bignor Park, and the antiquary, Samuel Lysons. Opened to the public in 1814, it rapidly became a popular tourist attraction with nearly a thousand entries in the visitors' book in the first nine months.
By 1815 the remains of a substantial villa had been uncovered and protective buildings had been erected over several of the mosaics. In 1818 Samuel Lysons read his third and final paper on the villa to the Society of Antiquaries. He had already published a series of engravings of the villa with the help of Richard Smirke and Charles Stothard. These engravings together with his three papers and his and his brother's correspondence with Hawkins form the only record of the original excavations. Excavations ceased in 1819 after Samuel Lysons' death.
Here's one of the engravings of the original discovery of the biggest floor, in the dining room, showing the underfloor heating system where the floor has caved in, in the middle.
No further work was undertaken on the site until 1925 when S. E. Winbolt did some minor work. Between 1956 and 1962 Sheppard Frere re-excavated parts of the villa in the first attempt to determine its chronology. Since then Thomas Tupper, the direct descendent of the discoverer, whose family still owns the site, has undertaken further excavations: with Margaret Rule in the 1970s, and David Rudling in the 1980s.
Here's a superb aerial view of the site, clearly showing the layout of the whole villa - the eastern side is still under the earth, but you can see the outline in the grass, and the south-eastern corner has a tiny maze which you can see in the grass on the ground, and the remains of a square arrangement of something beside it too. The main rooms of the villa have been built over with 19th century thatched buildings to protect them which are of interest in themselves !!
You enter the site on one side and wander from building to building, looking at wonderful mosaic floors and artefacts as you go !!
THE LITTLE MUSEUM
This is one of several skeletons they have uncovered here, and one of two babies. They believe that this child died from one of the many diseases that ran rife amongst youngsters that we could easily cure today probably !!
A Roman tile with the makers mark stamped on it - a remarkable find actually, and great for identifying tiles made by the same manufacturer !!
Again, roof tiles with animal tracks indented into them - this one has deer hoof marks !! This has been a very common thing in the villas we've looked at recently in Britain, and we wondered whether it was a good luck practice maybe ?!!
Oh look - Russ found the dressing up box again !!
THE MOSAICS !!
Surprisingly, even though Fishbourne Palace is so vast and has so many well-preserved mosaic floors, to my mind, the mosaics at Bignor were more interesting and more colourful, and actually there were many more complete ones too.
THE CENTRAL AREA WITH A WELL
At the central area of Bignor Villa is a hexagonal marble well - this was what George Tupper's plough struck which led to the original discovery of this villa !! The well is surrounded with hexagonal sections, with some of the best mosaic-work I've seen anywhere !! A superb design featuring the head of Ganymede in a circular motif, surrounded by female figures bathing, to echo the shape of the marble well, an unusual pattern layout for a mosaic in any Roman Villa that we've been to so far !!
Beautiful details of motifs, patterns, and borders illustrate the fine quality of these mosaics, and make them of world class compared to other Roman sites in Britain.
Here below is the mosaicist's signature - an 'IR' above the figure of a dolphin. Just like at Fishbourne, this was an important mark !!
Here is the main motif, showing Zeus, in the guise of an eagle, abducting Ganymede because he was the most beautiful of human beings, bearing him off to Olympus to become the cup-bearer of the gods.
See the fineness of the tiny tessara which means the mosaicist can depict the best gradation of shading and detail of things like the feathers and strands of hair...
Adjoining this main room was a tiny little antechamber with a superb little mosaic floor that is protected under wire - when we looked closely, we saw why - the tessera were being eaten alive by moss and algae down at one end, and they were trying to save it from the ravages of being exposed to light and air...
Look at how sorry it looks !!
THE WINTER DINING ROOM
In an adjoining building was that original dining-room floor, caved in to show the under-floor heating system, that was in the engraving above - it was one of the first things uncovered back in the 19th century by the Tupper family. This mosaic is another superb example of a finely detailed design depicting the head of Venus in a circular motif flanked by huge birds on either side, and wide borders of scrolls of foliage and heart-shaped flowers coming from a centre urn. Below that is a wide plaited border and then a panorama of gladiators fighting each other. Below them is where the floor disappears into the hole, but below that are figures of Cupid and other
Interestingly, there was a tiny section of floor which emerged out from under the protective barrier, allowing people to walk on it, and the colour was much darker and richer, from being polished underfoot by hundreds of shoes !! This photo below is the only one that I haven't enhanced slightly to show up the colours !!
Compare this to these two sections below, which haven't been retouched at all either !!
In another building was the longest mosaic floor in Britain, and indeed, anywhere north of the Alps apparently - running for 24 metres - almost 79 feet !! This had a four-panel design at the head depicting the Four Seasons - only Winter now remains, and here she is in her thick woollen cloak !!
Here's the mosaic-floored corridor, only one third of which is uncovered - this floor extends for the length of 79 feet, most of which is hidden under the grass at one end !!
THE BATH-HOUSE COMPLEX
Just south-east of the main buildings is an excavated and exposed treasure - the Frigidarium, the Cold Plunge, of a bath complex - truly the sign of a wealthy household !! This one has been reconstructed by archaeologists in the 1990s.
Next to the Frigidarium was a small building housing the famous Medusa mosaic - this room was thought to be the changing rooms for the baths themselves, which were adjacent.
The whole place is fascinating and also well worth a visit - and we did Fishbourne Palace and Bignor Villa in one day easily !! These two Roman sites come highly recommended if you're visiting Britain for a while, or if you live here and fancy a really interesting day out !!
Next up :-
NAVIGATING LONDON'S HISTORIC WATERWAYS !!
We returned to London that evening, and had a few days off before preparing for my birthday party on Saturday. On Monday, we set out to collect the canal narrow-boat we had booked for the next four days, to travel the length of London' historic waterways from Willow Marina in Hayes, West London, right over to the East-end - the Limehouse Cut, round the River Lea navigation, where the Olympic Park is sited and down the Hertford Canal, then back into the Regent's Canal and the Grand Union Canal, and back to Hayes again - what a marvellous and eventful trip we had !!