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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Roman Dover -- The Painted Rooms.
by Professor Toynbee.

The part played by Dover in our knowledge of Romano-British life was relatively small until 1970, when two forts of the second and third centuries AD were identified. But the greatest surprise was last year's discovery nearby of two rooms of a house of the second century AD, one complete, the other destroyed by the third-century fort on its west side. The walls of the house are painted all round with a scheme of design so far unique in Roman Britain. The complete Room 2 (shown here), 18 by 16 feet, has a door on the east side and another corresponding to it on the west, leading into Room 1. The structure still stands 4-5 feet high, so that much of the painting has been extremely well preserved.

Round the bottom of the walls of Room 2 runs a deep dado of rectangular panels, imitating marble veneering. Above the dado there is a narrower white zone, again running ail round the room, intended to suggest a kind of projecting stage, the front of which is flush with the surface of the dado, while at the back the main portion of the painted walls rose up to a height that cannot now be determined. This portion consists of a series of short cross-walls running out into the 'stage' slantwise from the back and each terminating in a fluted half-column carried out in white. Between each pair of cross-walls is a sort of niche enclosing a white rectangular panel framed by a broad coloured border. In Room 2, 18 of these panels can be identified with borders of yellow, pink, or dark red. Under all the cross-walls and their terminating columns and under all the panels runs a narrow podium or platform, which is continued like the rest of the design all round the room, except where the doors cut through the walls.

Resting partly against the panels and partly on the 'stage' in front of them are painted objects that look like ritual motifs -- two reversed flaming torches done in orange, a tree, a thyrsus or Bacchic wand with a ribbon tied round it in a bow, two bowls, two green leaf-sprays, also reversed, two calyces of leaves, and two, possibly three, trees.

PHOTO: Classis Britannica Fort.

The south-east corner of the Classis Britanica Fort at Dover during excavations in 1971.

Room 1, which measures 30 by 6 feet as it survives, has walls standing to the height of 4 feet and painted with the same design as are the walls of Room H. Here are preserved 11 more panels with pink or yellow borders, while of the objects spread across them or resting on the 'stage' an orange torch, a tree, a pair of leaf-sprays, and a calyx of leaves can be identified. It is to the 'Second-Style' Roman and Pompeian houses that we have to turn for the Closest parallels to this type of illusionistic architectural painting, which, by means of the receding 'stage' and slanting cross-walls, serves to push back, as it were, the room's confining walls and to suggest that its area is larger than is actually the case. The paintings from the walls of the cubicolum (bedroom) of the House of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale near Pompeii present the same architectural system.

How the upper portion of the Dover walls was painted can only be guessed, but on the analogy of other 'Second-Style' paintings it may be that a cornice or perhaps a frieze and a cornice, ran along above the now vanished column capitals; while at the very top there could have been a zone painted blue to represent the sky and so to give the room an effect of openness to the world beyond it.

The south-east corner of the Classis Britannica Fort at Dover during excavations in 1971

The two painted rooms were moderately heated and were doubtless used as ordinary living rooms. All the same, the somewhat cryptic objects that are splashed across the panels and the 'stage' might suggest that the paintings were intended to represent the inside of a shrine. They do, in fact, recall the structural features -- continuous podium and projecting half- columns with niches between -- of the inner walls of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek.

The Dover painted house provides exciting new evidence that the cultureof Roman Britain far from being that of a remote provincial backwater, was closely linked with the culture of Mediterranean lands; and that foreign artists from the south were probably imported to decorate the homes of this country's wealthier inhabitants in Roman times. If these two rooms can be preserved and their paintings made accessible in situ, they will undoubtedly become a goal of pilgrimage for students of Roman life and art.

(Reprinted from "The Observer")

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