The city of Chichester has a long and illustrious history, with the modern- day layout providing glimpses of a story that dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain. The grid pattern that can be seen today, with the main (now mostly pedestrianised) thoroughfares of North, South, East, and West Street forming a cross, results from the fact that the medieval city was fitted into the existing Roman city walls, with streets entering through the Roman gates.
The early Roman town was defined by a pomerium: a semi-religious boundary formed by perhaps no more than a small bank and ditch. This slight, non-defensive feature was then replaced by impressive, imperially sanctioned stone city walls in the late 3rd century AD, strengthened in the turbulent 4th century with bastions – semi-circular towers on which a ballista, a form of a giant crossbow, could be mounted. Just outside the early town was an amphitheatre, constructed of earthworks with timber seating for perhaps several thousand people. The equivalent of a cross between a modern sports stadium and a church, it was used for military displays, gladiatorial contests, and other public events.
Of course, the palimpsests of the past are visible in many contemporary towns and cities across the country, but what makes Chichester perhaps a little unusual is the extent and current visibility of these traces, from the public bathhouse on display in The Novium Museum to the significant stretches of the city’s Roman walls that still stand in situ. With such tantalising remnants of the city’s past, it should be no surprise that there have been many efforts over the years to uncover further evidence of Chichester’s rich heritage. From antiquarian ‘prospecting’ to more recent community archaeology projects, the urban landscape there has proven fertile hunting ground.
One particularly well-known discovery in the immediate area is the magnificent Fishbourne Roman Palace, excavated in the 1960s (see CA 6 and CA 340). Despite the passage of time and the enormous increase in archaeological excavation across Europe, this site remains virtually unparalleled, with no other domestic Roman building yet discovered north of the Alps able to compete with it in either scale or ambition. As for the occupant of this luxurious dwelling, archaeologists and historians have speculated that Cogidubnus (or Togidubnus), the ruler of an offshoot of the local Atrebates tribe, makes a good candidate, having apparently been installed by the Roman occupiers as a client king (while remaining under their watchful gaze, no doubt).
Evidence for his rule (though not, admittedly, his presence in the palace) is limited to a reference by the Roman historian Tacitus, and to a dedication inscribed on a marble plaque believed to have been originally associated with a Temple to Neptune and Minerva. This plaque can still be seen today, mounted behind glass on the wall of Chichester’s Assembly Rooms on North Street, and its text can be translated as: ‘To Neptune and Minerva, for the welfare of the Divine Temple, by the authority of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, great king of the Britons, the guild of smiths and those in it gave this temple at their own expense …ens, son of Pudentinus, presented the forecourt.’
Noviomagus Reginorum flourished, gaining carefully planned urban development and infrastructure, including not only large public buildings such as temples, a public bathhouse, and an amphitheatre, but also the rather more mundane streets, water supply, and sewers that may have developed in tandem with the expansion of the nearby palace. Such luxuries were not only the physical manifestation of Roman power writ large upon the urban landscape, but were also a convenient sweetener for any of the native population who were potentially disgruntled. This was panem et circenses – ‘bread and circuses’ – in action, giving the people what they wanted in order to placate them.
Back at Fishbourne, archaeological investigations have provided an early date for the wholesale adoption of Roman architecture and the trappings of a luxurious Roman lifestyle by the palace’s occupants. By c.AD 70, a proto-palace of substantial masonry buildings had replaced earlier, far more modest, structures of possibly military origin. In the later 1st century AD, we then see the development of a major planned palatial building, using materials and architecture never before seen in Britain – not least the extensive and hugely impressive mosaic floors for which the palace is justifiably feted.
The rediscovery of the palace resulted from much later development, in this case the installation of drainage for nearby houses in the 20th century. However, local people had previously reported digging up materials that we now know related to the palace. Such incidental discoveries undoubtedly provided the catalyst for more conscious investigation of the past through exploration, tours, and excavation, both here in the UK and in what had been the Classical world.
The first stirrings of curiosity about what lay beneath the feet of the city’s occupants can be seen in the ad hoc prospecting of antiquarians in the 18th and 19th centuries. These informal explorations gradually gave way to more systematic investigation by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the decades either side of the Second World War, public interest in local heritage began to expand, a period during which an impressive amateur organisation (Chichester Civic Society Excavation Committee, which became – under the auspices of the council – Chichester District Archaeological Unit) was formed. This group was dedicated both to full excavation in advance of development and to watching briefs on smaller groundworks, and it prided itself on prompt publication of results in a series of monographs – something that is still, admirably, aspired to by similar groups today.
Following local government reform, an Excavation Unit was formed in the 1970s which continued the work with a gradually more permanent core staff, supported and eventually funded by the local authority. Throughout this period, archaeology took place in full view of the general public, bringing the excitement, intrigue, and suspense associated with the gradual ‘reveal’ of a site to many more people than ever before. These sites were generally separated from the public only by a low chestnut paling and wire fence that, while charmingly rustic and accessible, would bring any modern- day health and safety officer out in a cold sweat. Most of the diggers were locals, either volunteers or funded by job creation schemes. With residents of the surrounding community digging through the soil to reach traces of what was potentially their own past, the public’s curiosity about local heritage could only grow.
The results of these excavations made a huge contribution to the district’s current archaeological collection, the highlights of which are displayed in Chichester’s The Novium Museum. This facility was purpose-built and – unusually, but to great effect – incorporates the excavated remains of the city’s substantial public bathhouse into its lower ground floor. This gives visitors an elevated view of the archaeology, while simultaneously presenting a range of the artefacts recovered during these and later excavations (first, in the 1970s, for a car park and then latterly, in 2012, for the construction of the museum). We can’t know whether the very personal items on display, such as toilet sets, amulets, and pieces of jewellery were lost, or more consciously given as an offering. Perhaps more pragmatic members of the Roman population had followed the tradition of making votive deposits into water, but had eschewed using a well, stream, or river in favour of this nearby and highly convenient (if potentially grimy and unhygienic) watery conduit to the deities.
With the advent of fully professional archaeology in the 1990s, commercial excavations gradually became less and less publicly accessible and opportunities for the involvement of volunteers in development-led digs virtually ceased. Fortunately, this has been countered to some extent by the formation of a local archaeology society and its involvement in projects sponsored by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the local authority. One high-profile project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund set out to investigate and conserve the city walls, and this undertaking enabled ample community involvement. Another was the recent Priory Park Archaeology Project – a collaboration between the District Council and Chichester & District Archaeology Society – which revealed the remains of high-status Roman structures between 2017 and 2019 (see CA 329).
Because these were research investigations in undeveloped areas of the city, they both resulted in the identification of highly significant Roman structures – something of a rarity in the more developed parts of Chichester, where Roman deposits are generally found to have been severely truncated by the hundreds of years of digging of wells, cesspits, and soakaways to provide drainage and sanitation for the expanding population. Priory Park was originally home to a monastery and is now a green public space in the city centre, meaning that it had been spared from urban development – as a result, the buildings buried just 50cm below the surface showed a remarkable degree of preservation.
Indeed, the excavations of Priory Park have produced some particularly tantalising stories of life during the Roman occupation. There, geophysics and excavation revealed the walls of a series of rooms most likely relating to a townhouse with an additional freestanding building in the corner.
‘Although at first it was difficult to say what this might have been – it might have been part of a bathhouse, or a cellar, or a winter dining room with under-floor heating – excavation has demonstrated beyond doubt that it represents the hot rooms of a private bath-suite attached to the adjacent, timber-framed house,’ Chichester District Council archaeologist James Kenny explains. ‘The building is dated by the use of hollow voussoir tiles, used to form arches, that are precisely paralleled in a 2nd-century bathhouse at Fishbourne Palace.’
James also points out that, while it is not unexpected to find a Roman house in a Roman town, this find is exceptional because its plan has survived virtually intact in a city where most of the archaeology has been interrupted by later house-building and associated activities. It is an unsavoury thought that the city had no sewers until the 1880s, but while the subsequent creation of countless cesspits and soakaways would have been a relief to the city’s inhabitants, it undoubtedly resulted in the loss of a significant amount of archaeology. This is apparent in the bathhouse housed in The Novium Museum, where a Victorian soakaway truncates the remains of what is thought to have been the caldarium or hot room.
The fact that the Priory Park remains were located beneath a green space was not just an advantage in terms of their preservation: as the excavations took place in a public space, it ensured that interested onlookers were once again able to witness archaeology as it took place – though, this time, from behind a risk-assessed, 21st-century Heras fence, of course! With such an abundance of visible archaeology, both curated and ongoing, a real appetite for more has developed within the local community– and, even before the Priory Park project, the team at The Novium Museum was keen to engage with this public demand further. The result, in 2016, was Chichester’s inaugural Roman Week, an annual celebration of the city’s abundant Roman heritage.
Claire Walton, the Learning and Community Engagement Officer for The Novium, explains: ‘As a museum, we are always thinking of ways to engage more people with the city’s rich heritage. We continue to strive to make museums and their collections more engaging and exciting for a wider and more diverse audience, and Chichester Roman Week really does offer that perfect opportunity to explore local heritage with a range of creative, engaging, and fun activities suitable for a wide range of ages and interests. In 2019, when we ran our last re-enactment before COVID-19, 100% of the respondents to our survey agreed or strongly agreed that it is important that Chichester celebrates its Roman heritage through an annual festival, so we know the public demand is there.’
After a two-year hiatus, the festival is now set to return on 28 May, with a packed programme including artist-led Roman art workshops, children’s craft activities, and story-telling sessions led by Brutus, the museum’s ‘resident’ centurion – as well as guided tours on foot and by bike, and the visual spectacle of gladiatorial combat brought to life by re-enactors. The culmination will see a full-scale performance by professional Roman re-enactment group ‘Legio Secunda Augusta’, and rather appropriately this will take place in Priory Park, where such tantalising Roman remains were excavated. Above all, Chichester Roman Week will both celebrate the city’s heritage and offer a wealth of opportunities to find out more about what lies beneath the city’s pavements.
Further information Chichester’s 2022 Roman Week will run from 28 May to 1 June. It is hosted by The Novium Museum (Tower Street, Chichester, PO19 1QH) and booking for events is now open. For further information and to book tickets for any aspect of the week, visit www.thenovium.org/romanweek; tickets can also be purchased through Chichester Box Office online (www.thenovium.org/boxoffice) or by calling 01243 816525. The Novium Museum is currently home to an exhibition exploring archaeological icons and ancient, modern, and natural wonders of the world through LEGO.
ALL photos: Chichester District Council.