Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex

Fishbourne Roman Palace was discovered in 1960, when a water main was being laid. From evidence found, it became apparent that the site developed from three distinct phases of building. The first building seems to have comprised of two granary stores supported on a series of wooden piles, and dates from around the time of the Roman invasion (cAD43). No military camp has been discovered nearby, but remains of military equipment was found around these two buildings, suggesting that this site may have been a military supply base, perhaps for a fort based at Chichester.

Soon after its construction the military site was abandoned, the buildings dismantled, and the area where the easterly granary store stood was then redeveloped with a timber dwelling. This comprised of two separate structures linked by a probable arcade, containing a total of 12 rooms, the southern-most structure having smaller rooms and thought to be that of the servants' accommodation.

In approximately AD65-75, the timber dwelling was demolished and a much more elaborate stone building was erected. Although this now lies under the modern houses on the south side, and the A27 road, the residents allowed some excavations to be undertaken which revealed the plan. There were a range of rooms to the east, a bathhouse to the south, and other connecting corridor to the north and west, allowing for a central courtyard. The west range is believed to have contained the servants' quarters.

The final phase of building began in AD75, when the Flavian Palace was constructed, and it is the remains of this palace that are visible today. Built around a central courtyard in a symmetrical arrangement, Fishbourne Roman Palace consisted of four wings, its main entrance situated in the eastern wing, and a large apsidal audience chamber in the western wing. This was approached via a driveway through the centre of the formal gardens and flanked by a decorative hedge.

Throughout the next two hundred years or so, Fishbourne Roman Palace was continually developed and considerable changes were made. The palace was sumptuously decorated, most of the rooms having mosaic floors, and in several places new mosaics were laid over the original ones. The walls, and maybe the ceilings, would also have been highly decorative, as surviving plaster fragments show. During the late 3rd century there is clear evidence of a serious fire, and this seems to have decided the fate of the palace when it destroyed large areas.

Fishbourne Roman Palace was never rebuilt, and was gradually reduced to rubble after continual use as a local quarry. During the 4th and 5th centuries there were several Saxon burials within the remains, but from that time the site appears to have lain dormant, until its rediscovery in 1960.

Today, it is only the surviving north wing that can be seen, and this is protected by a permanent, covered viewing building. The collection of mosaics in this wing is quite extensive, and the near-complete 'Cupid on a Dolphin' containing some 360,000 tesserae is a remarkable piece of art. Outside, the northern half of the formal garden, complete with its decorative hedgerow flanking the entrance drive, has been re-created, and it is from the gardens that one can really appreciate the vast area that Fishbourne Roman Palace once occupied.


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