Roman Palace in Fishbourne
Roman Palace in Fishbourne
- archaeological gardens
- basins (vessels)
- presence chambers
- terrace gardens
- vegetable gardens
Fishbourne Roman Palace was accidentally discovered during the digging of a water main trench in 1960. The discovery led to nine seasons of excavations (1961-69) that showed the site had developed from a military base at the time of the Roman invasion in AD 43 to a sumptuous palace by the end of the first century CE. Carefully excavated by Barry Cunliffe, using techniques of environmental archaeology, the garden excavations at the palace have long served as a model in the development of Roman garden archaeology, although the findings did not initially prompt the investigation of other gardens in Britain. Today the site has been developed for display and education.
The palace contains gardens within its internal courtyards, as well in a larger area to the south, where terraces and other landscape architectural features lay between the residence and the deep water channel (Fig 1.). The main garden of the palace is located in the large central courtyard, and dates to the late 1st century CE. Only the northern half has been excavated, while the remainder lies beneath the gardens of adjacent houses. The garden is bisected by a wide path leading between the entrance to the villa and a large audience hall. Lining the path, bedding trenches in alternating rectangular and semi-circular patterns survived as patterns of dark gray loam against an ochre-colored clay and gravel subsoil. Similar cuttings were found along the colonnades.
Pollen samples were taken in the garden areas in the hope that traces of pollen had survived from flowers and shrubs that had grown in the garden. Unfortunately, only a small quantity of pollen from weeds of cultivation, such as plantain and daisy, remained. As no positive archaeobotanical evidence for specific plants survived on site, literary sources were used to select plants that would have survived in the conditions of this northern province. Pliny the Younger refers to clipped box lining the edges of the pathways in the gardens of his Tuscan estate. This lime-loving shrub would have been very appropriate in the deliberately marled loam of these trenches, so, in 1968, it was planted and has thrived. Figure 2 shows the excavated trenches, and figure 3 shows the replanted box.
On the eastern side of the formal garden, alternating tree-pits and post holes were found. The pattern suggested an original arrangement of trees or shrubs planted against a trellis. Again, Pliny the Younger mentions espaliered apples in his gardens, and these have been successfully established at Fishbourne. Less successful was the effort to establish Italian cypress in the location of a large tree-pit found towards the western side of the garden.
Beneath the surface of the garden, the excavators discovered lines of ceramic pipes. They ran from the remains of the base of what is assumed to have been a water storage tank in the northwest corner of the formal garden. One line of pipes probably fed a pool in the entrance hall while others supplied small semi-circular basins set in recesses in the box hedging. Half a marble basin was found in the 1960's.
There is circumstantial evidence for there having been a vegetable garden in the angle between the ends of the north and west wings of the palace where there is a dark, humus-rich soil containing heavily abraded pottery, suggesting that the soil had been intensively cultivated. It also had its own water supply, provided through wooden pipes with iron collars.
Limited excavations to the south of the palace revealed an artificial terrace which bore evidence of landscaping, including a pool, a gravel path, possible bedding trenches and what may have been the base for a column or statue. Excavations to the east of the palace in the mid 1980's uncovered evidence for semi-formal gardens.
late 1st century CE - unspecified
1961-69, mid 1980s
- M. Carroll, Earthly Paradises. Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology. London: The British Museum Press, 2003, 86, fig. 66; 101, fig. 79
- M. Carroll, They came, they saw, they gardened. The Garden: Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 128.6, 2003, 460-463, figs. p. 462
- Barry Cunliffe, Excavations at Fishbourne, 1961-1969, Vols I & II, The Society of Antiquaries, London, 1971.(worldcat)
- B. W. Cunliffe, A.G. Down, and D. Rudkin, Excavations at Fishbourne 1969-1988, Chichester, 1996.(worldcat)
- B. Cunliffe, Fishbourne Roman Palace, Tempus, 1998. (worldcat)
- Amina-Aïcha Malek, A Sourcebook of Garden Archaeology, Bern: Peter Lang, 2012.(worldcat)
Kathryn Gleason (ORCID:0000-0001-6260-8378)
21 Apr 2021