Digging into the Past: Excavating Chichester’s Roman remains

Archaeologist working at uncovering roman tiling underneath layers of dirt.
CPS 1876/4: Roman remains at Fishbourne, 28 July 1963

By Jenny Mason, Team Leader (Collections Management)

Britain’s Roman past has long captured the imagination of antiquarians and archaeologists alike and surveys and excavations of Romano-British sites have taken place since the 16th century. One of the earliest, and most famous, Roman finds in Chichester was the Chichester inscription or Pudens stone. Discovered in 1723 by workmen digging a  cellar under a house on the corner of St Martins Lane and North Street, the stone is now on display at the Council Chamber in North Street.

F/PD 419: Sketch of the Roman pavement in the Bishop’s garden, Chichester

A contemporary account of the discovery of the Pudens stone highlights the risks to early archaeological artefacts – no careful excavation here. Instead, Roger Gale, a Fellow of the Royal Society writes of the moment that the stone was uncovered:

‘It lay about four Foot under Ground, with the Face upwards, by which it had the Misfortune to receive a great deal of Damage from the Picks of the Labourers as they endeavoured to raise it; for besides the defacing of several Letters, what was here disinterred of the Stone was broke into four Pieces.’, Roger Gale, Philosophical Transactions, Vol 3, pp. 391-400, 31 Oct 1723 (Lib 4479)

Whilst today archaeological finds may be captured and recorded in photographs, before the invention and widespread use of cameras the only way to record finds was to sketch them. This painstaking drawing of the mosaic in Chichester Cathedral is a wonderful example. It must have taken so much time and patience to draw this in such detail and the mosaic itself is another striking example of Chichester’s Roman history.

8 volumes piled on a desk. An open notebook with notes
Add Mss 43363-44083: Plans, trench books, etc. for excavations of the Chichester area, 1911-1982
Seven human bones - potentially from the leg and arms.
Add Mss 44058: Eastgate Roman skeleton x-rays, 1978

Fast-forward to the 1960s and 70s and archaeology looks very different. During this time, a substantial number of excavations took place in Chichester, uncovering the city’s Roman roots alongside its Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Georgian past. These excavations were extremely through and methodical, with detailed trench plans, trench books and finds books recording the different strata and artefacts found in each trench. WSRO is lucky enough to have a very detailed archive of these excavations which included St Mary’s Hospital, St Pancras, Somerstown, and Tower Street, amongst others.

Developments in technology have enabled archaeologists to uncover even more about their finds. For instance, x-rays have meant that it is possible to find out a lot more from skeletal remains which have been excavated from sites. These x-rays show Roman skeletons which were discovered in Eastergate in the 1970s, providing a very real connection with Chichester’s Roman residents.

Perhaps the most exciting Roman discovery in the Chichester district was that of Fishbourne Roman Palace – one of the most important Romano-British sites in the UK. Accidentally discovered in 1960 by a water engineer digging a trench, the extensive excavations which followed revealed the largest known Roman residence north of the Alps. Built in c. 75 CE, just 30 years after the Roman conquest, the villa potentially belonged to Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus (or Cogidubnus), a pro-Roman local chieftain. The size of the building and its elaborate mosaics and paintings were testement to his importance, and the importance of Chichester to the Romans.   

G. P. Burstow, a teacher Brighton College Junior School and a keen amateur archaeologist, recorded details of the excavations in his journals and was there at the very early stages of the dig.

‘Over to Fishbourne at last to see Barry Cunliffe’s remarkable site – a huge early Roman villa by the main Roman road to the west with the earliest mosaics found in Britain. It all made me think of Pompeii.’, 29 Aug 1961

Add Mss 12083

Later discoveries shed light on the personal and domestic life of the inhabitants of the villa.

‘Today I found a very nice pair of bronze tweezers, another bronze toilet instrument said to be a pimple remover, and a quantity of large pieces of two amphorae, besides much pottery. I had a most interesting day.’, 1 Aug 1964

Add Mss 12083

The sense of excitement at these amazing discoveries was still palpable in 1968 by which point the excavations had been taking place for seven years. Ivan Margary, who helped to finance the Fishbourne excavations wrote to G. P. Burstow

‘I was at Fishbourne yesterday where the work was going on apace. You will like to know of a further little discovery despite all the previous digging! In front of the audience chamber and centred to it is a rectangular masonry base, evidently for a statue!…Of course it now looks quite a likely place for such a feature. Suppose the statue has toppled under the boundary wall?!! What further surprises await us?’, I. D. Margary to G. P. Burstow, 9 Apr 1968.

Add Mss 14625
Text reads: The Council of the Sussex Archaeological Society together with the Sunday Times request the pleasure of the company of Mr C P B Shippam at the opening of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne by Ivan D Margary FSA at 3pm on Thursday 30 May 1968.
Add Mss 36582: Invitation to the opening of Fishbourne Roman Palace, 1968

Shortly after Margary wrote that letter, the Fishbourne Roman Palace Museum was formally opened on 30th May 1968. Erected over the excavated palace by the Sussex Archaeological Society, the museum protects and preserves some of the remains in situ and allows visitors to imagine what life might have been like in and around Roman Chichester.

Click here to find out about visiting Chichester Cathedral to see the Roman mosaic there and here to find out about visiting Fishbourne Roman Palace. You can visit The Novium’s website to discover other events which are taking place during Chichester Roman Week and to find out about how to visit the museum to see Roman artefacts.

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