As PrimTech finished by lunch time on the Sunday, I thought I would spend the afternoon at Fishbourne Roman Palace. The weather was beautiful, which was an advantage as part of the Palace attraction is listed as the formal gardens.
The site is situated just around the corner from a big main road, near to Chichester, and I realised pretty quickly that the palace on show at the actually museum is about a quarter of what was actually once present on the site. At least part of that palace and its surrounding gardens and buildings lies under the main road, with another chunk under the 1960s housing that backs onto the palace garden.
The site itself was discovered when a utilities pipe was being put across a field prior to plots of land going on sale. Despite uncovering some stunning stuff, the lack of proper protection laws in place means that the owner of the land was able to keep selling off large chunks of land. This means that one whole wing of the palace is underneath houses and gardens that were only built recently, and could have been saved. This is exactly the kind of situation I foresee returning if the government gets to go ahead with its current bonfire of planning protection.
Luckily enough a local man who was interested in archaeology and happened to be the inheritor of a large fortune managed to secure the remains of the land, saving the north wing of the palace from destruction. Excavations uncovered a sequence of rooms with some really stunning mosaics, both in terms of number and skill. It is these mosaics that form the body of the museum, preserved in situ under a long low building which also houses a small gallery describing the history of the site and some of the finds. Recent additions include a very nice cafe and a large storage building for all of the objects recovered from this, and nearby, sites.
The museum itself is run by the Sussex Archaeological Society, who have guardianship of a small number of properties in this area. Considering that they lack access to everything English Heritage or the National Trust have, they do a really good job here. The buildings are a little dated in appearance, and the gallery is in need of a modernisation, but that’s nothing that a Heritage Lottery Grant couldn’t fix. The people who work there are clearly very dedicated and very knowledgable.
If you visit, make sure you take advantage of one of the talks run by a volunteer, as these people seem to be fonts of knowledge and really make the context of the building come alive. In addition you will need to buy the guidebook to get much benefit from the site, but it is very reasonably priced. The extended information on each of the mosaics and interpretation boards is great, but the guidebook’s more intensive discussions of the site are rather hard to make sense of, and I found it very difficult to relate the previous buildings it discusses to the current palace.
Much is made of the fact that this palace is very early, and very luxurious, and that can’t be denied. However if you visit the audio-visual display as well as speaking to a guide and reading the book (as I did) this point is a little laboured. At least half the site is covered with an imitation of the formal gardens that they say there is archaeological evidence for, which are okay but not exactly exciting. A small side garden designed to contain Roman period plants and interpretation boards was a little lack-lustre when I visited and is symptomatic of the general lack of updating at this museum.
If you don’t make the most of the site, the admission price of £7.90 for an adult (a rather measly 90p reduction for students) will seem like mediocre value as you’ll be round the gallery and mosaics in an hour or less. Add in the guide’s talk, the audio-visual, the gardens and buying and reading the guidebook brings up the price to almost £10, but will extend your visit to two or three hours. Go a little bit further and enjoy the very reasonably priced cream tea in the lovely cafe next door, and you’re there for a long Sunday afternoon.
All in all, the museum and site is well worth a visit, but only if you’re interested in the Romans or mosaics. For a general visitor it lacks something, particularly when compared to the big sites run by English Heritage. In particular you can’t help but get the impression that the hey-day of the site was the 1970s-1980s, and that the gallery and museum buildings have changed little since. I don’t believe that’s any fault of the Trust necessarily, and particularly not of the staff and volunteers. If this was a site run by a national charity or government I would be much more critical, but with the limited resources available to small archaeological societies, and the massive importance and fragile nature of this site no doubt limiting what they can do, I can’t be too harsh.