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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Reflections on the Fishbourne Mosaics.
by J M Dennis-Purves.

When the palace was built, circa AD 75, the majority of its rooms contained mosaic floors. At this time masonry buildings were virtually unknown in Britain so all the artisans had to be brought from Italy, and we have here the earliest example of the mosaicists art in this country.

A notable floor is shown in room eleven, now divided by a wall, and partially damaged, but in a fine state of preservation. Executed in black and white, it is of a Geometrical design, in typically Mediterranean style and in studying it one is reminded of those three-dimensional drawings that appear feasible at first glance. but are utterly impossible to construct in the solid state.

At about the turn of the 1st century the Medusa Mosaic was laid. By this time of course, the original experts were no longer available, thus the Medusa here is but an apology of the real thing. inaccurately and poorly laid.

By mid-second century a new class had come into being: "the Romano-British Villa owner" leaning towards Rome, its customs and standard of living, although their houses did not yet boast mosaic floors. Artisans were appearing, skilled in the building trades, but once again the great house at Fishbourne led the way in the British fashion. Skilled mosaic workers were obtained and the Shell and Dolphin mosaic was laid in Room three, now the principal room in the reconstructed north wing. First class workmanship and its true Italianate design make up this most beautiful floor, showing a winged boy, nude, seated astride a dolphin, carrying a trident in his left hand. He is surrounded by four fabulous beasts, two sea-horses and two sea-panthers, all within a three-tiered framework of guilloche "arrowhead" device and heartshaped leaves. Set in each corner of the border is a large open shell. The various colourings are still superb.

Unfortunately, by the third century, mediocrity had again set in. Rome itself was approaching a period of anarchy which was to last half a century; trouble was brewing in Europe and the empire was at the beginning of a decline, reflecting in the lowered standards of living. So, about the middle of the third century, flanking the superbness of the Dolphin, we find the Knot and the Rosette floor very ordinary, unimaginative and not very skilfully laid.

We can see, then, the importance of this unique collection of mosaics, all under one roof -- through a range of styles and qualities as yet unparalleled in Britain.

From truly Roman to Romano-British; all of them laid before the end of the third century, at a time when villa mosaics were almost unknown in these islands.

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