Fish­bourne Palace

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A while back I went to Fish­bourne Palace. In the 1960s engin­eers digging a new drain in a village just outside Chichester discovered some Roman mosa­ics. When they were excav­ated, they turned out to belong to the one of the largest Roman palaces outside Italy. My thing I wrote for Story­board this month is based on it (and yes, the build­ing really does look like a swim­ming pool). No one is one hundred percent sure who it belonged to, the most common guess is Tiberi­us Claudi­us Cogidub­nus, the local chief­tain /​ Roman ally /​ client king, but there are no inscrip­tions or histor­ic­al records either back­ing it up or prov­ing other­wise.

The mosa­ics that are left are extremely high qual­ity, the sort you would find in Italy, and many have simil­ar designs to ones found in Pompeii, show­ing this wasn’t just some back­wa­ter trying to copy Roman fash­ions and not quite getting it right. The build­ing formed a square around a court­yard garden, but only one side of the build­ing and half of the garden are excav­ated, because houses were built on the other side before anyone knew there was a palace under­neath. The palace burnt down in the 3rd century (so there are no walls left, which is a pity because there would prob­ably have been some fant­ast­ic fres­cos), and was later used as a camp by the Saxons, who buried a few bodies there, leav­ing some skel­et­ons in odd spots in the middle of Roman floors.

If you are think­ing that someone crouched down on the floor, indi­vidu­ally putting every square in, that’s not how it was done. The people and other detailed parts would be made mirror-imaged in a work­shop and tempor­ar­ily glued on to canvas exactly like modern mosa­ic bath­room tiles, once the piece was installed, the glue would be dissolved, and the gaps, back­grounds and basic patterns filled in on site. Here is a mosa­ic from Italy of some Roman women play­ing volley­ball and discus in bikinis (seri­ously)

If you ever did Latin at school in the UK at any time after the 1960s, it’s prob­ably with the Cambridge Latin Course (good old Caecili­us now has his own twit­ter account). The palace, Cogidub­nus, and a (fiction­al) plot to pois­on him feature heav­ily in the books. There was a very compre­hens­ive guided tour, but you could see a little flick­er of irrit­a­tion on the guide’s face any time people asked ques­tions that were obvi­ously from the school text­book.


The gardens. The soil was tested, and they planted the same plants as would origin­ally have been there. The same thing has been done in Pompeii to great effect.


Modern recon­struc­tion of an outside dining area (a triclini­um). The Romans tended to eat lying down unless they were in a hurry. The couch area would be spread with cush­ions, and the food and drink would go on the little shelf in front. The food would be pre cut up into finger portions in the kitchen. Indoors would have the same arrange­ment of three couches, except there would be a kind of coffee table in the centre.


Plants in the garden. There was also a herb and veget­able garden with histor­ic­ally accur­ate plants. The Romans intro­duced quite a few new crops to Britain.


Some remains of painted plaster floors.

melted lead

Drips of melted roof lead from the fire which destroyed the palace.


One of the Saxon skel­et­ons.

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