Roman history as Chichester prepares for The Novium

By Ben Miller | 04 July 2012
A photo of a child and an adult dressed in Roman helmets carrying a sign for a new museum
New Museum: The Novium, Chichester, opens July 8 2012

Noviomagus Reginorum, the Roman Baths remains hinting at the stories behind historic Chichester, used to remain preserved by the carpark they were found under during the 1970s.

A photo of a tall intricately carved brown and yellow pot with an animal shape on it
A Caistor ware beaker pot from the St Pancras Roman cemetery is believed to have been buried with the cremation of a child
Now, finally, they have been given the public prominence they deserve, sweeping across the ground floor of The Novium, a new centre with uplifting views of the West Sussex city’s magnificent cathedral.

There are 500,000 years of history to account for in this three-storey building, so what should we look out for?

“There are too many to mention,” says Catherine Coleman, the Learning and Participation Officer at the £7 million centre.

“I think visitors will be surprised at the size of the remains of the Baths. We’ve got a film which helps to bring the remains back to life, showing how they would have once been used.”

She also mentions an undersea hedgehog and a prehistoric elephant tusk, discovered in a lobster pot in Selsey and now part of a curiosities case.

“We are really lucky that we have had so many features and stories to choose from,” adds Collections Officer Anooshka Rawden.

A photo of an ancient silver archaeological ring against a pink background
A dolphin buckle was found during excavations at the County Hall in Chichester
“We have been able to bring it to life using the latest technology. We’ve worked with a number of experts to provide the most exciting experience possible for visitors of all ages.”

Its predecessor, the District Museum, in the Little London area, was a charming 18th century house where space was at a premium among age-old cabinets and creaky staircases which never had room to accommodate comprehensive displays.

The museum itself carries an interesting and turbulent history in its wake: founded in 1831 amid a society clamouring to be educated about the Industrial Revolution, the 90-member initial committee bought its original North Pallant home for £400, but it moved to South Street two years later after suffering financial problems.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 saw interest in the place grow again, drawing widespread artefact donations of varying quality, but during the 1890s intrigue dwindled again – apparently members showed greater fondness for card games and snooker inside the venue – and by 1924 the collection had been completely sold.

A photo of a tall brown wood carving of an impish tribal figure
One of the earliest gifts to the museum was a Fanti Doll - a wooden fertility doll from Ghana, donated to the museum in 1831
It was eventually resurrected in the disused Little London corn mill in 1961, proceeding to grow enormously thanks to continuous excavations around the city. It has had a remit for educational and advisory services since becoming the Chichester District Museum in 1974.

“This was the biggest move in the museum’s history,” says Museum Manager Tracey Clark, calling the team’s task “an extremely challenging operation”.

“Unlike your average house move, we not only packed the collections into large boxes marked with the room they were to go into, but also made sure that every individual object was safely packed and protected for the move. We needed to make sure we could track each object at every stage.”

Volunteers helped organise 350,000 objects, moving into a new home which, appropriately, had to be built on piles rather than foundations in order to protect archaeology beneath the ground.

A photo of a human skeleton buried in a shallow ditch of clay and mud
The museum collection includes human remains from Roman, Saxon and medieval cemeteries discovered in the District
“Chichester has got a big story to tell,” reflects Clark. “We’ve decided to display a large number of objects that have never seen the light of day before alongside some which may be recognised from the old museum.

“Together, these tell the story of the District and the people who have lived here and influenced its development.”

The most impressive might be the Chilgrove Mosaic, a 4th century showstopper discovered at a Roman villa. One of the four sections weighs 500kg, standing opposite the Baths.

“The new museum is magnificent,” says local councillor Myles Cullen, who makes the area’s cultural heritage seem as enviable as usual when namechecking the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Fishbourne Roman Palace, Pallant House Gallery and the cathedral among a honeypot for lucrative tourism.

“We know that the museum will attract local people and visitors from far and wide – it will give a major boost to the local economy.

“The area is internationally recognised for its attractions. We hope that The Novium will help to enhance this reputation even further.”

  • Open 10am-5pm (4pm Sunday, closed Monday during winter months). Admission £2.50-£7 (family ticket £16.50). See Culture24 for our review and some of the star objects from the new displays.

Notes from The Novium:
  • Singer Robbie Williams once donated some old postcards to the museum when he lived in the district.
  • The last time the Municipal Moon lantern, dated to around 1600 and one of the star exhibits, was used in a procession was at the opening of Chichester Festival Theatre. The lantern was carried in front of the Mayor of Chichester when he made official visits at night.
  • Archaeologists working at The Novium site in the 1970s found the remains of the baths, evidence of their decline, and remnants of Saxon pottery production, Medieval housing, a pub and a school.
  • One of the earliest gifts to the museum was a Fanti Doll. This is a. wooden fertility doll from West Africa donated to the museum in 1831.
  • Another object is a Victorian rock cake that had been carried around by the owner, who also slept with it under her pillow for 40 years.

See the video of the remains of the Roman Baths at The Novium:

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