Fishbourne Roman Palace revisits historic archaeological dig with 50th anniversary exhibition

By Richard Moss | 24 August 2010
a photo of a guide and a group of people looking at a mosaic floor

(Above) A guide at Fishbourne Roman Palace shows visitors the mosaics uncovered 50 years ago. © Sussex Archaeological Society

Exhibition: Ruins, Rotas and Romance, Fishbourne Roman Palace, Chichester, August 28 – December 15 2010

In common with many of our major archaeological discoveries, the Roman Palace of Fishbourne near Chichester was discovered accidentally – by workmen laying a pipe.

On this occasion, in 1960, what the men with the water main had stumbled upon was one of the largest Roman Palaces in England. An early Roman conquest example, it was built in the 1st century AD complete with hypocaust and near-perfect 2,000 year-old mosaic floors, which had lain preserved under the Sussex soil for centuries.

The dig to uncover and preserve it was one of the biggest systematic Romano-British excavations of its time. Overseen by Sir Barry Cunliffe, it spanned nine years and drew in hundreds of people from all walks of life and corners of the globe to the tiny hamlet outside Chichester – all of them keen to be part of history.

a black and white photo of a group of people excavating a trench

Volunteers from all over the globe flocked to Fishbourne to help excavate the Roman mosaics. © Sussex Archaeological Society

Now the Museum that was established to keep many of the stunning mosaics and other discoveries in situ is revisiting the historic archaeological dig with a 50th anniversary exhibition.

Rare records including diaries and photographs from the 1960s, uncovered during a recent re-organisation, reveal a fascinating insight into life on Britain's largest archaeological excavation.

"It is fascinating to see the actual people who worked on the dig, to read what was on their minds and find out more of the social history side of the palace's rediscovery 50 years ago," says Museum director Christine Medlock.

Diary entries and handwritten notes show what was current at the time, including the 1966 Beatles album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club's Band and the blossoming of romance among the Roman ruins – sometimes even ending in marriage.

The archive and photographic treasures, which haven't seen the light of day for a mere half century, may not compare to the splendour of Fishbourne's 20 mosaic floors or its stunning collection of excavated Roman finds, but they offer a fascinating insight into the people who uncovered them.

Admission £4 – £7.60 (family ticket £21). Open 10am – 5pm (4pm from November).

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