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The Gardens at Fishbourne
The formal garden at
Fishbourne, located within a courtyard villa that surrounded it
on all four sides, was the first of its kind to be excavated in Britain.
Over time, two more gardens at Fishbourne would be explored, a kitchen
garden and a terraced garden between the villa and the seashore to the
south. Most of the archaeobotanical work at Fishbourne
to date has focused on the northern half of the
garden, for a large part of the southern half of the villa site lies beneath
modern buildings and roads.
Formal courtyard garden
The formal gardens
of Fishbourne were surrounded on all four sides by buildings. As was true with many villas,
the building site at Fishbourne had been carefully leveled before the
four-winged structure was constructed. The leveling process removed
nearly all topsoil, leaving an area of poorly drained clay. However, the
topsoil had been reserved and was later returned to the site of the
gardens. Where necessary, deeper trenches and planting holes were also
dug and filled with fertile soil.
courtyard garden was
surrounded by a columned portico. Because of this, during a storm rainwater
would pour into the garden from the roofs on all four sides.
Care was taken
to provide adequate drainage, using ground-level stone gutters to catch
the run-off from
the porticos. Water flowed through these gutters to culverts that carried
A 36-foot wide graveled
path led from the eastern entrance to an audience chamber on the west,
creating the bilateral symmetry beloved of Roman garden designers.
In the northwest quadrant a planting pit was found that
probably accommodated a tall tree of some sort. It is likely that
a similar tree was planted in the southwest quadrant, allowing
again for symmetry.
narrower path bordered the garden on all four sides, running parallel to
the porticos. All of the paths, central and peripheral, were edged with
planting beds. The remainder of this courtyard garden was planted to
bedding trenches on either side of the central, broad pathway were quite elaborate.
having been dug in a pattern of alternating, semi-circular alcoves and
rectangles. It is very possible that these trenches were planted with a
hedge, perhaps of Buxus sempervivens, European box -- and that is
what is planted there now. The alcoves may have
held benches, fountains, or other garden art; or they may have been interplanted
with other ornamentals. This stately
approach was designed to impress, and
must have been quite elegant.
trenches on the north, south, west, and the north half of the
east side of the courtyard followed a simpler, scalloped
pattern in which the bed nearest the building ran in a
straight line, while the bed nearer the path was
semi-circular. The planting trench in the background was deeper,
suggesting that larger plants or shrubs may have been planted
there, creating a green backdrop for lower growing
ornamentals planted in the curving forward beds.
south half of the courtyard's east side had two straight,
parallel beds which were deeply dug and filled with a
well-composted mix rich in household waste. It may be that
this was a rose bed, for Pliny tells us that roses prefer
deeply dug soils to which compost has been added. Associated
postholes may indicate a trellis or an arbor.
What kinds of plants were grown in a villa garden like this?
from the roses seen in contemporary frescos, Romans were familiar with the at least two
Rosa gallica or Apothecary
rose, and also perhaps the
cabbage rose, Rosa centifolia.
Thanks to archaeology,
and also to Classical art and literature, we can make an
informed guess about
to Roman gardeners, and
also to those enjoyed by
In the north east corner of the courtyard, positioned some
35' out from the portico, was an L-shaped line of planting
holes alternating with postholes. This may have been a row
espaliered trees or vines, trained along a trellis or fence.
A kitchen garden was
located outside courtyard villa, tucked into a sheltered
niche beside the northwest
corner. This garden was square, measuring some 70' on each
side. Rich soil here contained well-abraded pottery shards,
suggesting that the garden had been enriched with compost
and that the soil was frequently turned over.
This garden was
irrigated with water carried by wooden pipes from large
water tank nearby.
The owner of Fishbourne probably lived in the south wing of
the great villa. Between that wing and the shoreline to the
south was a large, sloping, terraced garden. Perhaps
this was a natural garden, with its graveled walks and irregularly
spaced planting pits for trees and shrubs. A stream flowed
from the northeast diagonally
across the area to fill a pool about halfway between the
villa and the sea. This garden extended some 300 feet to a
stone quay along the inlet beyond.
The search for pollen or other plant materials at Fishbourne
was not very fruitful, but archaeologists did find evidence of some
plants, several in the form of seeds that probably arrived as
foodstuffs; others that may have grown wild, or have been cultivated at the site.
These plant remains included:
sp., Vetch (some species were eaten
Pollen analysis of the garden soil, by JRA Grieg, in
Excavations at Fishbourne
1961–1969, vol. 2: The Finds, by
B.Cunliffe. Report of the Research Committee of the Society of
Antiquaries of London 27,
1971, vol. 2, 372–7.
More Buildings Facing The Palace at Fishbourne,
J. Manley & D. Rudkin. Sussex
Archaeological Collections 144 (2006), 69-113