Roll up, roll up: how the Roman mosaics at Fishbourne Palace were saved

Sixty years ago, the first evidence of Fishbourne Roman Palace was revealed under a field near Chichester. Excavations began to reveal some amazing mosaics, which had to be preserved in an unusual way from the imminent threat of construction works. We found out more from emeritus professor Sir Barry Cunliffe

Sir Barry Cunliffe and a team of archaeologist roll up a Roman mosaic at Fishbourne Roman palace

Sixty years ago this year, one of the most exciting discoveries in Romano-British archaeology was made. Workmen digging a ditch for a water main in 1960 in a field near Chichester hit upon some solid foundations in the earth, and the traces of a Roman mosaic. Work was stopped, and it wasn’t long before Barry Cunliffe (now Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford University) – then still an undergraduate archaeology student – was on site with a team of diggers.

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Excavations went on at Fishbourne through the 1960s as a remarkable site was uncovered. What was eventually unearthed was a very grand villa, constructed in the late first century AD, with four wings enclosing a central garden and some 100 rooms. Most famously, over 20 mosaics were revealed, and the mid-second century ‘Cupid on a Dolphi’n pavement is justly famous for its beauty and design.

However, the early stages of the dig were conducted as a rescue operation, as it wasn’t clear if the site was going to be developed. “In the summer of 1961, we had found one decent mosaic by that stage. And it was a time when we were not sure what was going to happen to the site at all. It had had a water main put through it. It was scheduled to have what was grandly called the ‘Folkestone to Honiton trunk road’ going right through it which would have gone over the mosaic. So it was very much under threat,” Cunliffe explains. “We decided that although we were going to try and get the road moved, there was no certainty. So at the end of that season, 1961, we decided the best thing to do was to lift the mosaic and take it away just in case we couldn’t stop the road.”

That is the context for the remarkable photograph, which shows Cunliffe (underneath the rolling mechanism) and his colleagues (including Margaret Rule, with her back to us at the front, who went on to work on the raising of the Mary Rose; and David Phillipson, now emeritus professor of African archaeology at Cambridge, standing with the plastic sandals), rolling a 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic onto a linen sheet, out of harm’s way.

“We didn’t quite know how to do it. I think [Mortimer] Wheeler had done it in Verulamium in the 1930s by sort of sticking brown paper on the surface and cutting underneath it in small slabs and taking the slabs up and putting them back down again. That’s fine and it’s a perfectly good system, but it does mean that there are lots of joins. The joins sometimes get a bit chipped and so on. So what we wanted to do was to take up the whole piece in one without any of the joins. So we used the same method, which was to stick (in this case, we used a new-fangled glue with an acetone base) and we used a fairly open weave linen I think rather than paper, and so it was easy enough to adhere the linen to the mosaic,” recalls Cunliffe.

“We did a few little tests and it really did adhere very, very well. So there was no problem there. And then the problem was: did we cut it into slabs and take up the slabs and try to protect the edges and then rearrange them and so on? Or did we take it up in one piece? So we developed this method, which was simply to roll it back over a roller. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the weight of the piece. And you can see that the plywood barrel, some sort of old reused thing, it’s buckling a bit. I had to get underneath to support the weight of it. The problem was simply the superstructure upon which we turned it. Had we had time and money, we would have built some sort of metal structure. But we thought we didn’t have time: the road might have come through in months. So it was just a matter of getting on with it and making do with what we had, which was a large sheet of hardboard and the wooden drum. And as much manpower as we could use around it. The lifting process probably took an hour at the most. So it was quite quick.”

The mosaic was then given a brush and vacuum, and put into store for several years until it could be replaced by a firm of mosaic specialists, laid down onto a new concrete surface and detached from the linen sheet. The year after the photo was taken, the site was secured because it was purchased by Ivan Margary for the Sussex Archaeological Trust, so this was the only time that a mosaic was lifted in this fashion.

Did Cunliffe learn much about mosaic construction by being so up-close and personal to one? “The question one asked about mosaics is: were they prefabricated in a workshop in sections, and then taken out in sections and laid, which probably is how some of the more elaborate panels were done. But I guess, you know, for these very elaborate mosaics with figures in the panels, the figures could well have been made in the workshop and taken out in the same way [as they rolled up this mosaic], so possibly made upside down or made in a sand tray or something like that, and then something stuck to the surface, and then the whole thing was taken to the site and laid where you wanted it in some mortar. Then the fabric was ripped off and you could make up the mosaic around it. So that’s how one suspects the more elaborate ones were made.”

The mosaics are now all splendidly displayed at Fishbourne Roman Palace under a large covered frame, with elevated walkways so you can get a good look at them from above. According to Dr Robert Symmons, current curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, “Cunliffe was a true pioneer, and he is in no small way responsible for the fact that visitors to the Palace today can see what is still the largest collections of in situ Roman mosaics displayed in Britain. Mosaics at Fishbourne continued to be lifted into the 1980s, for conservation. Today such a dramatic intervention tends to be avoided, with the preference being to focus on monitoring and control of the environmental conditions. However, it should be noted that the mosaic being lifted in the photograph remains among the most stable on view – a testament to the effectiveness of the technique Cunliffe used to lift it.”

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