Mosaics, mud and a midden:Excavations of a Roman Palace

Take a hole in the ground, some willing volunteers and a spot in the English landscape and you have the potential to discover something amazing. There have been lots of people on this spot before you in the last few millennium and with a bit of luck they will have left something behind.

All I managed to find were some bits of broken pottery, some oyster shells and a few animal bones, but they were 2000 year old bits of pottery and they were left there by some wealthy Romans. Ok, so it was a midden, an ancient rubbish tip, but exciting all the same. I was in Sussex, at the Fishbourne Roman Palace, taking part in an archaeological dig to try and discover more about this palace site.

It was the cutting of a water main trench in 1961 that unearthed the first evidence of this Roman site and led archaeologists to begin excavation on, what turned out to be, one of the largest and most elaborate first century Roman palaces in Europe. Its elaborate design that included bath suites, formal gardens and a hypocaust (under floor heating) has led to conjecture as to who the high ranking occupant would have been. It is generally thought to have been King Togidubnus, a client king of the Attribates tribe who controlled a substantial part of south-western Britain and was also known to have aided the Emperor Vespasian.

Attempting to unearth the remnants of these ancient people is not as glamorous as one might think. There’s a lot of mud (particularly in the English climate), high expectations that you will be the one to discover the find of the season but, ultimately, there’s a lot of nothing. It’s the little things, though, that really make you glad to be there. Someone, 2000 years ago, drank from the cup that was tossed on the rubbish heap, broken and forgotten. Someone opened those oysters and ate them  – maybe at a banquet or even at one of those legendary Roman orgies. Someone walked this very spot, that you are now digging on, dressed in a toga and possibly wearing the gold jewellery that has come to light in previous excavations.

Today the Fishbourne Roman Palace is open to the public and its biggest drawcard is its mosaics. One of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in Britain it includes the famous Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic complete with representations of sea panthers and sea horses. This floor was laid in the second century and when lifted for conservation, was found to be covering an earlier first century mosaic.

In room 13 is another example of one mosaic being superimposed upon an earlier one, with the original geometric pavement being replaced around AD 100. The centre of the new mosaic depicts a head of Medusa, if you look closely you can make out part of her right eye and eyebrow and some of her snaky hair. These two mosaics have been left in situ and you can also see ruts running across the floor that were gouged by medieval ploughing.

Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed by fire at the end of the third century leaving us, 1700 years later, to try to piece together its design and its history and to speculate on its occupants and their lifestyle. If you are heading to the south of England it is well worth a visit.

Fishbourne is just outide Chichester off the A27

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