Fishbourne Roman Palace houses the largest collection of in-situ mosaic floors in Britain. Many of these were laid at the time of the construction of the Palace, around AD75-80, which makes them some of the oldest mosaics in the country.
The original Palace had approximately one hundred rooms most of which had mosaic floors. Of these, just over a quarter survive to some degree, ranging from small, isolated patches to almost complete floors.
Mosaic survival has been far better in the remains of the north wing of the Palace. Here over twenty mosaics and fragments of mosaics can be seen, inside the modern, cover building. In addition, substantial fragments of five mosaics were discovered in the west wing of the palace during the 1960s excavations, but as there was no plan to erect a cover building to protect them, they were re-buried for their own protection. Three further fragments were discovered in the southern half of the west wing during excavations in 1987-88. As they were beyond the boundary of the Roman Palace site and potentially at risk, they were lifted, conserved and put on display in the north wing cover building.
The earliest mosaics at Fishbourne tend to be black geometric patterns on a white background, something that was popular in Italy at the time. The designs may have arrived in pattern books and were adapted to suit local requirements. The mosaicists probably also came from Italy, as there would have been no one in Britain with the necessary expertise. The materials, however, were local. The white tesserae, or stone cubes, are of lower chalk and the dark grey of limestone.
The designs vary in complexity, from a simple black and white chequer enclosed by black border lines, to the extremely complicated design on the mosaic in room N12. This, superficially, appears to be a perspective design but closer inspection reveals disruptive elements which add to its appeal.
One of the most unusual mosaics is the Fortress mosaic, which was discovered beneath the Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic in 1980, when the latter was lifted for conservation. This has a central panel divided up into sixteen squares each containing a geometric design. The remains of nine different patterns survive. Around the central panel is a remarkable border representing a fortified town wall, with three courses of masonry, ‘T’ shaped castellations, square corner-towers and gateways, double to the north and single to the east and west. Such borders are not common and where they do occur they frequently surround a labyrinth and sometimes a Minotaur, a reference to the Theseus myth. This is the only example known where such a border surrounds geometric panels.
A few of the geometric mosaics contain small elements of colour, such as red and grey in the Fortress mosaic and red in the mosaic fragments beneath the later hypocaust.
However one first century floor is totally polychrome, quite remarkable for such an early date. Although the central circular panel no longer survives, part of a surrounding band does. This contains alternating rosettes and leaves in red, yellow and white, outlined in black. Beyond this is another band bearing a multicoloured twisted guilloche, or ropework, design. In the corners of the floor are wine-vases flanked by either vine tendrils, dolphins or fish.
In the early second century one of the existing geometric mosaics was directly overlain by a new polychrome, featuring the head of Medusa in a braided guilloche border. Beyond that are pairs of octagons containing knots, flowers and leaves, flanked by square panels of black and white chequer. All this is enclosed in a variety of borders and the whole mosaic panel is set in a surrounding of coarse red tesserae. Although this is a lively and colourful design, basic errors in planning and laying are evident and the tesserae used are not as regular as those used on the earlier floors. The implication is that the mosaic represents the attempt of local craftsmen who had not yet gained competence.
Competence was not lacking in the team who laid the ‘Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic’ in c.AD160. At the centre, cupid sits astride a dolphin with a trident in his hand. They are surrounded by a border of braided guilloche flanked by semi-circles containing sea horses and sea panthers, wine vases and scallop shells. This square panel is enclosed by a series of borders the outer of which is made up of spiral vine tendrils springing from the handles of wine vases. A small black bird sitting on one of these tendrils is probably the trademark of the mosaicist. The whole of this panel is surrounded by a black and white chequer design, interrupter to the south by a ‘doormat of more complex design. The dating of the floor’s construction was based on both the design and also the date of the squares of red, samian pottery that had been used as tesserae.
Another second century mosaic comprises two large scallop shells in red, black, orange and white, flanking a rectangular panel containing fish or dolphins and lozenges. Unfortunately it has been partially destroyed by a later tree pit.
In the early third century, a furnace room in the north wing was re-floored with a small panel of mosaic. This comprises a Solomon’s knot enclosed by a circular band of twisted guilloche surrounded by dolphins and wine vases and flanked at both ends by panels of lozenges.
Fishbourne Roman Palace displays a remarkable sequence of mosaics that cannot be seen elsewhere in the country.