Just west of Chichester on the West Sussex coast, Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest residential building from Roman times to be found in Britain. It was stumbled upon by accident in 1960 when the excavation equipment of a Portsmouth Water Company workman, digging a trench in a local field, hit some rubble. But this was not any old rubble; the rocks ultimately turned out to be part of the boundary wall of a huge Roman structure.
The site from Roman Britain drew archaeologists from across the world to assist with the dig for the next decade. But as impressive as the scale of the palace was, the real revelation was the brilliance and proliferation of the site’s mosaics. Two hundred separate examples were unearthed, many of which had been perfectly preserved for nearly two millennia.
An intact Roman mosaic at the Fishbourne Roman Palace, UK. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
The mosaics adorning the palace floors were originally black and white, not dissimilar to those found at Pompeii. As the decades passed and tastes changed, coloured patterns were added, as well as more elaborate pictures, the most most famous being a striking depiction of Cupid riding on a dolphin. These were the work of master craftsmen brought in from Rome, charged with both creating them and training locals in their art.
By the late 1960s, a museum was built over the palace’s north wing, allowing the public to study the numerous mosaics in situ but at close quarters. The palace garden has also been recreated and planted with plants authentic to the Roman period. More than half a century on, it remains a very popular tourist destination. But where else can you see fascinating examples of Roman mosaics?
Brading, Isle of Wight
Overlooking Sandown Bay on the Isle of Wight, Brading Roman Villa was excavated in the early 1880s and is now protected by a fine cover building with museum and café. The snake-haired Medusa features heavily in the beautiful mid-fourth century mosaics here, as do more unusual images such as the famous ‘cockerel-headed man’. The meaning of this unique figure is unknown, but it could be a misunderstood representation of a gladiator.
Bignor Villa, West Sussex
Nestling at the foot of the South Downs, Bignor Roman Villa is one of the finest examples of a well-to-do villa in Britain. The sequence of house development – from third century cottage to three-winged villa – is marked out on the ground, while the best fourth century mosaics, depicting Venus, Medusa, cupid Roman gladiators and Ganymede being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle, are covered by a series of atmospheric flint-walled thatched cottages, first erected to protect the villa in the early 1800s.
A floor mosaic of gladiators from the Roman villa at Bignor. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Chedworth Villa, Gloucestershire
Set at the head of a picturesque valley in the Cotswolds, Chedworth Roman Villa is a beautiful example of a later Roman rural estate. Brand-new cover buildings let visitors get close to the fourth century ‘four seasons’ mosaic of the dining room and the bath house, one of the best preserved of any in Britain, with the changing room, warm room, hot room and cold room with plunge bath, all visible. On-going excavations are revealing more areas of mosaic floor.
Chedworth Roman Villa is a beautiful example of a later Roman rural estate. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Lullingstone Villa, Kent
The importance of Lullingstone Roman Villa, constructed in the Darent Valley in Kent, lies not just with its fine mid fourth century mosaic, showing Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of a bull, but the religious symbolism on the walls, late fourth century paintings showing a variety of Christian motifs. A new cover building features excellent displays and an interpretative light show.
Bellerophon slaying the Chimera riding on the winged Pegasus, a floor mosaic from Lullingstone Roman Villa. (Image by Getty Images)
Hull and East Riding Museum
A lively series of fourth century floors, all recovered from villas in the area, can be viewed in the Hull and East Riding Museum, including the so-called ‘Tyche Mosaic’ from Brantingham, and an exuberant chariot-racing mosaic from Rudston. Also from Rudston is the Venus mosaic, depicting a gloriously wild Venus as well as a series of shaggy hunters and bizarrely-shaped animals.
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. He is author of Bloodline: the Celtic Kings of Roman Britain (Amberley, 2010)