Tour and Discussion of the Fishbourne Roman Mosaics


                                                       An overview 

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Many thousands of years ago, somewhere, perhaps on a sandy beach, a young child makes a face of his mother, father or younger sibling, using a pile of varying shaped and coloured pebbles gathered together from the shores of the beach. Excitedly, the child calls to his parents to come and view his efforts before the in-coming tide destroys his creation. The parents praise the child’s efforts and, suitably encouraged, the child returns to the beach at a later date with friends and they all begin to make images in the sand with the pebbles. Perhaps competitions are arranged and families have beach parties when the children’s efforts are shown, discussed and judged. Over the course of time this child grows up and with practised skills learned from the beach, wishes to make one of their creations more permanent. 
These humble beginnings of human imagination and skills, lead eventually to the creation of the mosaic floors which many of us enjoy today. The materials used over time progressed from coloured pebbles to natural coloured stone, now known as tesserae. The tesserae in Britain range in size from 0.5cm to 4cm and are usually sourced from the local natural stone.
The architect, Vitruvius, in the first century BC, tells us that a sound base for the mosaic to rest in was most important. He goes on to say that the soil should be levelled and rubble, mixed with lime, should be rammed tightly down. Upon this a layer of powdered pottery mixed with lime should be used to create the bedding for the mosaic. This should then be covered with a fine layer of mortar in which to lay the tesserae.

There seems to be very little historical evidence of whom these craftsmen were and the methods they employed to create and lay their mosaics. By the time mosaics were laid in Britain the art was many centuries old. Many modern mosaicists use, what is called, ‘the reverse’ method or the ‘indirect’ method – both linked to what is known as prefabrication. Whether these methods were used by the ancient craftsmen are open to debate as no known proof is available.
What I am trying to encourage through this article is for visitors, not just to view mosaics with their eyes just as works of art, but also to open their minds and imaginations to what, perhaps, these mosaics may be trying to tell us.

The Corridor

The first mosaic to view is to the right, just past the model in the foyer. It is a mosaic corridor created in the 2nd century to link the North Wing to the West Wing. Looking at it now, damaged by blistering and agriculture, it is difficult to see the original design. But it consisted of 22 alternating red and grey boxes, each box containing diagonal crosses made up of 9 smaller boxes of grey and red, the red being made of recycled tile and the grey possibly Kimmeridge shale, from Dorset. The pattern of this floor becomes much clearer when delicately moistened with a damp mop.

The Nine Squared Mosaic

The Hypocaust

Next on the left, is the ‘Nine Squared Mosaic and Hypocaust’. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD, around the year 270AD, this hypocaust was constructed but never used. The floor level was going to be raised and in all probability a new mosaic floor would have been laid. This is indicated by the discovery, in the room opposite, of two heaps of gritty mortar already mixed and ready for use. Upturned roof tiles were used for the floors and the side walls were built of greensand blocks with bonding courses of tile set in clay. To the far right, part of the original mosaic floor can be seen. This is a complex mosaic floor consisting of a geometric pattern of squares within squares. There are black lines on a white background and a limited use of red and blue/grey colours. The white tesserae are chalk, the black is possibly shale, the red is a baked clay and the grey is lias limestone.

Square and Diamond Pattern Mosaic

If we progress down the North Wing, the next room to our right is the ‘Square and Diamond Pattern’ mosaic. The floor is basically white with a design of evenly spaced boxes linked by a square and diamond pattern. The boxes contain one of three designs, based on squares. A black square, a white square within a larger black one and a third is a motif containing five white squares. In part, the floor has subsided over an earlier ditch and the resulting rising damp would have made the room perhaps unsuitable for everyday living. Consequently, the room could well have been used as a store or workshop. This could explain why the mosaic was left undisturbed and not refurbished as other rooms had been during later developments. The tesserae would have been made of a hard white chalk and a grey/black hard silty shale.

Chequerboard Mosaic

 Remains of the original mosaic

   The next room on the right hand side carries the heading ‘Chequerboard’ mosaic.  Some of the original mosaic laid down between AD73-80 can be seen in the south west and north east corners. The mosaic consists of a repetitive design of black squares of two different sizes, on a white ground. These boxes are contained within a triple black border. This room, like the previous room, probably became a workshop of some design.  The tesserae are made out of white chalk and a grey/black silty shale.

Shell Mosaic

If we cast our eyes to the left, we see a room known as the ‘Shell Mosaic’. This mosaic is dated by the shards of broken samian pottery used as tesserae, therefore it is believed to have been constructed in the middle of the 2nd century AD. Materials used for the construction of the 2nd century mosaic include samian pottery, red tile for the border, a hard white chalk and a yellow siltstone, in all probability from Dorset. Some of the red tesserae could have been made from red brick. The design of this mosaic, because of its missing centre piece, is difficult to interpret. The semicircles of ray panels, on the north and south side, could be scallop shells. Alternatively, the long narrow pieces of mosaic protruding from the bottom of the missing centre, could be interpreted as the legs, feet and spurs of a peacock. The ‘shells’ could then be interpreted as the opened tail of a peacock. In the late 1960’s when this mosaic was being consolidated by two Italian craftsmen, they referred to this floor as the ’Peacock Mosaic’. The symbolism of the peacock can be open to a number of interpretations.  The Ancient Greeks likened the peacock tail to stars, or to eyes, and dedicated this bird to Juno the Goddess of sky and the Goddess of stars, and souls through the peacock were raised to the bosom of Juno, a place where souls migrated therefore symbolising immortality. The Christians in antiquity used the symbolism of the peacock as resurrection. The circular shape of the peacock tail gives the interpretation of immortality and eternity. On reflection, and in all probability, one could see this as a scallop shell with two dangling tails of dolphins. A marine scene on this floor would not have been out of place, for the palace itself is very close to the sea. In all probability, the centre of this mosaic was destroyed by the roots of a tree.
Cupid on a Dolphin

To our left we can now view the mosaic named ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’. This is the most famous and the most colourful of the Fishbourne mosaics and has been seen on a number of television documentaries. The tesserae used to construct this piece of work include yellow and orange limestone, ceramic fragments, including shards of samian pottery, which are recognisable by their bright reddish/orange colour. Chalk and grey shale were also used in its construction. This mosaic is believed to have been crafted between AD150-160. The evidence for this was found when the mosaic was lifted for conservation in 1979, the samian pottery used for the tesserae were dated to that period by the patterned design on the reverse side. The mosaic is 13 feet square and contains several images that relate to Greek/Roman mythology. A discussion on this mosaic can be viewed on a later article  under the heading ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’. Interestingly, a small black bird is to be seen perched on the third leaf west from the central vase in the northern border. Is this the signature of the mosaicist?
The Knot Mosaic

Next on the left, past ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’, is a room which carries the heading ‘The Knot Mosaic’. The mosaic panel of this room is 7’4’’ by 5’6’’ and the floor probably dates to the early 3rd century. For, during excavation nearby, underneath the tessellated floor, a silver coin of Septimius Severus, minted in 197AD, was found. The material used for the tesserae in this room included chalk, shale, black pot, red brick, a yellow siltstone and a little samian. On the outside of the guilloche, on the white background, four pairs of dolphins can be seen, each pair facing a central vase. At this point I would like to give the reader a personal interpretation of this mosaic. The centre motif of this mosaic, the Solomon knot, has no visible beginning or end and could be read as immortality and eternity intertwined. Beliefs in that period of time, about what happened to the human spirit after death, would recognise this. In Roman literature, art and statuary the dolphin carries souls to the ‘Island of the Blest’. Images of dolphins have been found in the hands of the dead to ensure safe passage to the afterlife. Dolphins were seen to be the travellers between the two worlds. They shared the human world by breathing air and showed intelligence and friendship towards humans.  Then they could simply disappear to the unknown world beneath the waves, becoming a symbol of the renewal and preservation of life. The central motif is surrounded by never ending braided guilloche which could act as the demon trap to protect this motif from contamination (refer to ‘The Cupid on a Dolphin’ article). The four vases between the dolphins could represent water, and the scallop shells, in the four corners of the mosaic, could represent food from the sea, as food and water are required for human existence. Alternatively, the Solomon knot could represent the coming together of the Celtic culture with the Roman culture. A keen eye will notice that in the center part of the knot the black line has been laid inside the white tesserae, is this an error? The Roman culture would have been spreading through the country since AD43 and by the 3rd century AD the two cultures would have become more integrated.

The next room to view is called the ‘Doormat Mosaic and Burial’. Only a small part of the original mosaic survives which is in the south east corner. It shows a black chequer pattern on a white background, enclosed by a thin black line. This piece of mosaic could be a part of what is called a ‘mat’, this being the first part of the floor before leading on to the main mosaic. Again we have chalk used for the white tesserae and shale for the thin black line.

Rosette and Tessellated Mosaic

Rosette and Tessellated Floor

If we now continue down the North Wing we can view the ‘Rosette and Tessellated Floor’. Fortunately, the mosaic, over a long period of time, has subsided into an underlying gully, thus saving it from complete destruction by the plough. It has been difficult to date this mosaic for although some of the tesserae are of samian pot, it has been impossible to date them. Therefore, all that can be said is that this floor would have been crafted after the beginning of the 2nd century. The mosaic panel is 6’9’’ square and the multi-coloured piece of work rests in the centre of a red tessellated floor. The rose was unknown to the inhabitants of Italy until the 3rd century BC, and the Latin name for the plant derives from its Greek name. The rose in its everyday and symbolic use in all probability was the result of a cultural contact with the Greeks, therefore we could read this rosette, by the time this mosaic was crafted, as the coming together as the Greek/Roman and Celtic cultures. The border design surrounding the whole mosaic could possibly be small rose leaves connected together by a continuous undulating pattern between the leaves.

The Fortress Mosaic
The Fortress Mosaic

Opposite this room we can view the ‘Fortress’ mosaic. This Flavian mosaic was found in 1987 when the ‘Dolphin Mosaic’ above it was lifted for restoration. This mosaic can also be viewed at ground level from the lower concourse. The outer border of this mosaic depicts a castellated city wall, an entry to within it is protected by gates in the middle of each wall and  viewing towers in the four corners. There are two double portal in the middle of north and south walls and two single portal in the middle of the east and west walls. The gates and the towers are enlivened with the use of grey and red tesserae. The central panel of this mosaic would have contained sixteen equal squares, although sadly only nine survive, and some of these only contain fragments. They seem to be based on an intricate geometric design containing squares and triangles. The material used for the construction include red ceramics, pale grey limestone, chalk and cement stone. If, in our minds eye, we transport this mosaic back to the room where the Cupid on a Dolphin Mosaic is, we can then see this as a possible dining room with the colonnaded courtyard to the south of it. Perhaps the symbolism of this room is that the great wealth of the proprietor and his family protected them from the reality and complications  of everyday life. With the dining couches positioned around the city walls, the diners could observe and discuss the sixteen inner squares, splendidly laid out with their complicated and visually interesting designs. The craftsman/men who laid this mosaic would have been highly skilled and possibly well paid. They would also be aware that the design of this floor would cling in the visitors visual memories, and in this way perhaps, be relayed back to Rome as one of the more splendid rooms at that huge villa on the outskirts of Noviomagus Regnensium.
Alteratively, this mosaic could be viewed as an early street layout of Chichester. The locals, in all probability, would have known this place as Noviomagus Reginorum, meaning 'the new town - or market, of the proud people. The mosaic depicts a north, east, south and west gate. Four roads radiate from Noviomagus. Outside the north gate a road goes to Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), the capital of the Northern Atrebates. The road issuing from the east gate is Stane Street and goes to Londinium (London). From the south gate the road would have run to Selsey, on the coast. The road from the west gate went to Clausentum (Bitterne, Southampton). 

Large Cross and Box Mosaic showing the dividing wall

Large Cross and Box Mosaic

Now we backtrack to the room which is called the ‘Large Cross and Box’ mosaic. In the Flavian period the wall plaster in this room was very elaborately painted, with large areas of simulated marble veneering of different types, perhaps indicating that this was a dining room. This mosaic was only 18 inches below the surface when found, and the only damage to it seems to be just ordinary wear and tear, as small areas in the north and south panels have been patched. The crosses and boxes are linked with a square-and-diamond background, cleverly designed to tantalise and tease our eyes as we search to seek and make visual sense of the design. Sometimes when I view this mosaic floor I feel that I am drowning in my own shadow, as I constantly feel, that the watchful eyes of the past laid this mosaic with some meaning. This floor certainly stimulates my imagination and in my mind’s eye I can see this mosaic being utilised as a chequer board game, the players, relaxing on their couches, sipping wine and getting the slaves to move their counters around the floor.   Chalk and shale are the components of this floor. At a later date this floor was divided by a timber wall and, sadly, this partly destroys the whole visual perspective.
Found under the Greek Key and Medusa Mosaic

Greek Key and Medusa Mosaic

Greek Key and Medusa Mosaic

The next floor we come to is the ’Greek Key and Medusa’ mosaic. This colourful mosaic and the original floor underneath it were both lifted and relayed for conservation purposes in 1981. A piece of the original black and white geometric mosaic can be seen in the south east corner of the floor. This fragment shows a meander pattern which would have surrounded squares containing geometric designs. Large areas of the original mosaic have been used to supplement the material used for the later floor. The material used in the later floor contains a wide tapestry of colour. Reds can be seen in siltstone, brick and samian. A yellow siltstone and its purple tones can also be noticed. Purple is also present in the form of Purbeck marble within the Medusa head and guilloche. The black/grey colours are of shale, although some of the grey is lias limestone with the occasional use of flint.  The pieces of samian date this floor as being laid at the beginning of the 2nd century. The decorated panel measures 13’ square and contains much for the eye to feast upon. It’s colourful, lively design includes a Medusa head surrounded by four pairs of octagonal panels some containing a stylised leaf, flower and a Solomon’s knot. The overall design of this floor shows a lively, imaginative and artistic mind. The craftsmanship required for the laying out of this mosaic is disappointing as, in numerous places, the design is squeezed into a limited area. One example of this is that the north east chequer board is too large, so the framework of the adjacent panel is squeezed in and one line of its border has had to be omitted to take the design.

Small Cross and Box Mosaic

If we now look to the right we can see the ‘Small Cross and Box’ mosaic. This floor, in all probability, was crafted in the late 2nd century.  The excavations in the 1960s detected some white tesserae on the southern side of the room underneath this later floor. The implications of this floor are interesting, suggesting that even in the late 2nd century the black and white geometric mosaics were still popular. The motifs on this floor are different to those in the ‘Large Cross and Box Mosaic’, in as much as some of the patterns are based on circles and are more varied. The white chalk tesserae are untidily laid compared to the neatness  in this other room, which is a shame as this takes ones eye away from the imagination used for the crafting of the motifs.

Mosaics from the West Wing

Mosaics from the West Wing

Opposite the ‘Greek Key and Medusa’ mosaic are the remains of three black and white geometric mosaics rescued in 1987 from the back garden of a house which stands on the southern side of the West Wing. The third piece of mosaic to the right gives an insight into its design. The outer border consists of two lines of black tesserae, one line being 5 tesserae deep and the second line being 2 tesserae deep set in a white background. These lead the eye into the central design which is a combination of small and large black boxes contained in a white background. To the east, a small part of a black floral design can be seen. Also to be noticed are patches of blue/grey scorch marks, - are these from the fire that destroyed the North Wing of the Palace around 270 AD?
The Rectangles Mosaic

The Rectangles Mosaic

If we now go east across the Lower Concourse to the next walkway we can view the ’Rectangles’ mosaic. This floor could be seen as rather dull and boring, for as we view it, out of the corner of our eye we begin to notice the colourful creation in the room next door. Whether this room was a single room or part of a hall, I feel that the proprietor would not have paid money to have something created that had no impact. Perhaps, nearly two thousand years ago, this floor bore a symbolic message which would have been understood by all those ancient people who viewed or walked upon it. The overlapping rectangles, as we view them together, become more impacting to the eye and could symbolically stand for the coming together of cultures, ideas and/or beliefs. Thus, joined together, they become more vibrant, stronger and more noticed.
Floral Mosaic

Floral Mosaic

Just a few feet to the right is a room which contains the ‘Floral’ mosaic and the scar of the Palace discovery trench. The trench seems to have been cut for some distance before the digger driver stopped to see what was causing the mouth of the digger to work so hard. This was in April 1960 and roman masonry, mosaic flooring and grey ware pottery had been brought to the surface. Consequently, in the Easter of 1961, trial trenches were dug in that same field for further investigation. This floral mosaic is vivid to the eyes with its variation of colours, coupled with a circular band showing rosettes alternating with leaves. In the north west corner dolphins can be seen facing towards a central vase. In the south east corner the dolphins are replaced by fish. In the remaining two corners the central vases have square-topped handles and the tendrils from the vases are longer and more exuberant than those in the south east and north west corners. It is a huge frustration that the central panel has been lost. The stone used for the tesserae were most colourful and the petals of the flowers and the leaves between them contain white chalk, red brick, yellow siltstone and a purple-toned Purbeck marble. Within the circular guilloche, red brick, blue Purbeck marble, grey limestone and a brownish/red sandstone can be seen. All of these colours are noticed in the spandrel designs. In my mind, I wonder why this polychrome mosaic is here when all around it the rooms contain geometric designs. Could it be that this floor is of a later date? Unfortunately, it contains no samian which would have helped to date it. This mosaic was lifted in 1961 and stored in a workroom for nearly six years before it was relaid exactly as it was found. The other thought that comes into my mind is that this mosaic was laid in homage to the mother Goddess deity. The clues are there, with the fish (feminine symbol of fertility) and the fish lived in water, a life giving element. The flowers live, grow and then die – although life is regenerated through their seeds. This mosaic is of unique quality and the skill requires to construct this floor would be indistinguishable from those laid in Italy. For the Divine Mother a black and white mosaic would just not do!
Reverse Mosaic and Postholes

Samian tesserae

The next room to review is named the ’Reverse Mosaic and Postholes’, the smallest room in the North Wing. It is called the ‘Reverse Mosaic’ because the prominent colour is black with white pattern detail. This floor has escaped damage from the plough, although parts of it have sunk dramatically into the postholes of an earlier timber building, giving the mosaic a very distorted appearance. The design layout consists of alternate squares of red or blue framed within interlocking white lines. If we look to the south east corner, in the border of the dark grey, a white diamond can be seen. Is this the signature of the mosaicist? Interestingly, a single bright coloured tesserae of samian can be noticed in the red central panel. Is this just a repair or was it laid deliberately so the viewer would search for more samian and therefore view the floor for longer, and consequently digest and appreciate the work more? It seems that the red tesserae are a fine-grained fired clay and the blue a variety of Purbeck marble.

Next is Room 22. It seems that this floor has been a victim of the plough only leaving a few patches of black and white which can be viewed today. What survives shows that there was a mosaic floor with a black design on a white ground, similar to the ‘Rectangles’ mosaic. The white tesserae being of chalk and the black/grey a silty shale.
Room 22

The next room to view is Room 23. The floor in this room appears to have had a solid enough foundation to receive a mosaic. Although, perhaps over the course of time, the function of this room changed and the mosaic materials were lifted and perhaps stored and used elsewhere.

Chequer and Stars Mosaic

Chequer and Stars Mosaic

If we now make our way back towards the model of the Palace, using the walkway nearest to the north wall, just before the hypocaust we can view the ‘Chequer and Stars’ mosaic. The tesserae used in the construction of this floor are a hard, white chalk and a black silty shale. Part of this mosaic, the chequer pattern of alternating squares of black and white, can be viewed through the glass panel in the walkway. If we look to the south-east of this later floor we can see a white background with random stars of black tesserae. It could be that when the original floor in this room was removed, much of the original tesserae were re-used for this later mosaic.

Black and white mosaic floors have been known since the 2nd century BC and seem to have been the height of fashion in the 1st century AD. The North Wing of the Palace and the excavated parts of the West Wing are predominately black and white geometric designs. The only knowledge that we have regarding the mosaics in the South Wing was first recorded in 1805 when, workmen digging the foundation of a house, found a tessellated pavement about 13’6’’ in width and in the middle of this part of a base of a column was noted.  The floor was composed of black and white tesserae. Unfortunately, the South Wing is buried underneath the A259 road and a number of houses. As for the East Wing, although tesserae were noted during the 1960s excavations, no mosaic or part of a mosaic was found in situ. It seems that the Palace would have been built by Mediterranean craftsmen, no doubt in a contemporary, Italian style. Some of the architecture within the Palace is similar to that found in the Domus Flavia, Domitian’s Palace on the Palatine. The architect for the Domus Flavia was a man by the name of Rabirius, perhaps it is a possibility that Rabirius was the architect responsible for Fishbourne Roman Palace.

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