BIG READ: Celebrate the discovery of a Roman palace

Dr Rob Symmons holding up a mortarium in the Stores of the Collections Discovery Centre at Fishbourne Roman Palace.
Dr Rob Symmons holding up a mortarium in the Stores of the Collections Discovery Centre at Fishbourne Roman Palace.
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It would not be ridiculous to compare the wonder which surrounds the Roman Empire with that of our mighty solar system. 

While it is unreasonable to believe we will ever have the quirks of either truly sussed, what we know about these respective domains is always growing thanks to groundbreaking research. 

But sometimes, among both fields, the history books show, it is accidental discoveries which open our eyes to what would otherwise remain unseen. 

Nothing proves this notion more than the events which led to the discovery of the great Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, in West Sussex. 

Now home to a museum and reserves boasting more than 500,000 objects and artefacts, the residence – known to be the largest of its era north of The Alps – was found by an engineer from Portsmouth Water Company. 

Indeed, humble Aubrey Barrett was merely digging to lay a pipe across a field the day he unearthed a massive wall foundation and reported it to local archaeologists, in 1960. 

And it was his better judgment in doing so that prompted eight years of vital excavation from Northern Grammar School, Portsmouth graduate SIR Barry Cunliffe and his team, which revealed the largest collection of mosaics in situ in the United Kingdom. 

One of which, Cupid on a Dolphin, is a fully-intact wonder to behold. 

Mr Barrett's find gave academics and amateur historians an insight into how and why the Roman Empire lived in the south of England. 

From today this fountain of knowledge will be celebrated, as Fishbourne Roman Palace – which those extensive ruins and relics were later coined – stages informative and interactive events to mark 50 years since it was opened to the public. 

First up is a short course in Latin with expert George Sharpley, using original texts uncovering the stories of ancient British kings and queens.

Later, on May 28 – the palace's opening date half a century ago – visitors will get the chance to exchange their pounds for sixpences and denarii to spend at Roman stalls, and design their own birthday cards to mark the palace's 50th year. 

Sure to be part of both fixtures is Dr Rob Symmons, who has been the museum's curator for the past 12 years. 

Having completed projects in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Eastern Europe and London's Natural History Museum, his job now is to protect Fishbourne's vast collection and make it accessible to all corners of the community. 

'What's on display at the palace is our heritage and, although it costs to get in, it is so important to have access to that,' he says. 'It's a privilege to be involved with this site.' 

Having worked toe-to-toe with teams uniting to crack the mysteries of Fishbourne, Dr Symmons' 'best bet' for the site's origins lie in a grand gesture to a pro-Roman king and chieftain in Chichester, Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, around 75 AD. 

It was this juggernaut that a Roman army in Britain approached with a territorial proposition – let us stay here and we will build you a residence of palatial proportions. 

Giving them the green light, life in Roman Fishbourne became very grand indeed. 

Dr Symmons explains: 'There are almost no human remains here so we do not know how many people were at the palace – but it could certainly take a family and extended family. 

'What we do know is it was a really high-status existence.

'The people here were able to eat the finest food and they were the trendiest of the trendy. 

'Quite simply, they were the elite and everybody wanted to be them.' 

As celebrations at Fishbourne will highlight, an exploration of food and flavour was key to the extravagance Romans enjoyed at the palace.

Penny Horsfield is the site's museum guide and is taking a leading role in bringing together its Gardens in Time exhibition, on June 2 and 3. 

It will take visitors into the heart of Fishbourne Roman Palace's formal garden and its original planting trenches – thought to be the oldest in the country – and on a time-warping, hands-on tour through what was typically reaped and sown in a prized patch of its kind.         

'I think a lot of people would be very surprised with what they find out in the gardens,' Penny says. 

'Lots of fruit and vegetables we think of being typically English were actually brought to us by the Romans – including carrots, cabbages, apples and pears. 

'But what is even more interesting are the flavours they used to enjoy with them, many of which would seem bizarre now. 

'One which was particularly popular was the pairing of apricots and mint.

'While that does sound strange, it works really well and I've even taken to making my own jams with it at home.'      

Gardens in Time will also give visitors a chance to meet scores of beekeepers, horticulturalists and tool specialists.     

Though Dr Symmons and Penny hope to shed new light on Roman life for fresh-faced visitors for the palace's 50th birthday, the pair acknowledge the story they tell can never be quite complete –  but that's what makes it so exciting.     

Dr Symmons explains: 'There is much more to discover here and that's the best part of this job.

'Even in the pipeline now we have things that which will change the way we think about Roman Britain, and we can't wait to share them.'      

For more information, go to sussexpast.co.uk. 

EXCITING EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES AT THE ROMAN PALACE

There are events going on throughout the year at Fishbourne Roman Palace.

The award-winning education team brings the story of Roman Britain to life in purpose-built education rooms

June 6, 2.45pm-4pm – Living Well with Dementia: Mosaics (£5)

June 9, 10am-4pm – Marbling and Book Binding (£45)

July 4, 2.45pm-4pm – Living Well with Dementia: Roman Gardens (£5) 

August 2, 9, 16 and 23, 11am-3pm – Weekly summer activity days (entry fee) 

August 4 and 5, 10am-5pm  – Celts and Romans! (fee entry) 

August 8, 2.45pm-4pm – Living Well with Dementia: Marbling (£5) 

Book  on 01243 785859. Fishbourne Roman Palace is open daily from 10am-5pm until October,