Design of new visitor buildings at Fishbourne Roman Palace is as much concerned with not disturbing what is in the ground as with updating what is above. Jackie Whitelaw reports.
Aficionados of the adventures of Marcus Didius Falco, the irreverent Roman detective created by Lindsey Davis, will know all about Fishbourne Palace on the south coast of England, near Chichester.
Back in AD 75 Falco struggled with a series of murders, egotistical architects, and old-as-thehills contracting scams in his undercover stint as project manager for construction of the palace in the novel A Body in the Bath House.
Now 1927 years later a new construction team is in place determined not to mirror the ancient shenanigans imagined by Davis and with the intention of revitalising interest, excitement and visitor numbers at what is one the country's top ten Roman sites. The brief is to transform the 1960s timber building that acts as a protection to the most vulnerable remains on the site into a modern home for part of Britain's heritage.
Fishbourne is an amazing place. An aerial view with the palace outline superimposed demonstrates graphically that this was no small country retreat but something on the scale and magnificence of Blenheim Palace for its time. The theory is that Fishbourne was a gift from the Emperor Vespasian to client king Togidubnus who kept his people from joining the Boudiccan revolt in AD 60 that so nearly threw the Romans out of Britain. Built between AD 75 and 80, the palace replaced an earlier, smaller building, and had four 100m long wings surrounding a formal garden.
'We have the largest collection of insitu mosaics in Britain, ' says Fishbourne Roman Palace director David Rudkin; 'at the largest Roman domestic building yet discovered north of the Alps. Historically the site is mind shatteringly important.'
He adds: 'We want to change the focus of the palace from an archaeological site where excavation has stopped in time to somewhere where we are constantly discovering more about the people who actually lived here, to make it a place people come back to again and again.'
Constant discovery is one of the biggest risks associated with the £3.6M heritage lottery funded project. Fishbourne is only 25% exposed, 'Wherever you go and whatever you think about doing, you have to remember the archaeology is right below you, ' says project manager Steve Prowse of Weeks Consulting.
Apart from refurbishing the existing building covering the north side of the original palace where the finest mosaics are, the team has also to create a new entrance to the exhibition to give each visit a sense of occasion;
to update the museum display;
and to build a new collections discovery centre (CDC) for education and research, not just for Fishbourne but for the whole Chichester area.
This is difficult to do without putting a spade in the ground. A trial trench through the site of the CDC showed that area clear of archaeology apart from some 19th century drains. So all that is needed for this 834m 2scheme to start is some match funding from philanthropic local businesses, says cultural services arts and heritage manager for Chichester District Council Anne Bone.
'It is the first time David (Rudkin) has conducted a dig in the hope of not finding anything, ' she smiles.
But the refurbishment project and the new entrance are different issues.
'We did think about rebuilding the original 1960s timber structure, ' says architect David Aplin of Miller Hughes Associates.
'But it's built on the original Roman foundations and English Heritage would not allow us to repeat that now. We would have to build new foundations which would mean archaeological excavation adding to time and cost, so we've opted for refurb.'
The main problem with the 60s building is the amount of solar gain generated by the full height windows on the southern elevation. The heat is causing the mosaics inside to blister and collapse. To protect them, the plan is to construct a colonnade walkway, mirroring the original Roman version, to shield the mosaics at the lower level.
Installing infill panels above will cut out the sunlight, with the bonus of hiding nearby houses from view and focusing the visitor's eye on the Roman garden.
'The colonnade will not be a pastiche but we will try to get close to the original pitch of the roof and rhythm of the columns so visitors get an impression of what was once there, ' says Aplin.
'It will sit on pad foundations so we don't dig into the archaeology, ' adds Prowse. 'And we will cantilever part of the load off the existing structure.'
Another major job is to replace the rusting wrought iron shoes on the existing timber columns that support the single span, multi pitch timber and aluminium roof. 'We can temporarily support the columns and we can break out the concrete at their bases, but we need a scheduled monument consent to allow us to dig out the shoes, ' explains Prowse.
The aluminium roof also needs to be replaced, with a modern standing seam construction. Designs for the new entrance are waiting on some trial pits to establish just how much archaeology could be disturbed by any expansion plans.
'We'll know then if we need to think in terms of raft foundations and cantilevering the structure off existing walls, ' says Prowse. If all the funding is in place and the relevant consents are given the scheme is scheduled to start at the end of summer 2003.
INFOPLUS www. lindseydavis.co.uk www. sussexpast.co.uk
Project team Client team: Chichester County Council, Sussex Archaeological Society and Weeks Consulting Architect: Miller Hughes Associates Engineer: Archibald Shaw Museum consultant: Haley Sharpe QS: Trinnick Warr Fundraiser: Sandcliffe Services: ITD