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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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The Gardens at Fishbourne

Courtyard garden
Kitchen garden
Terraced garden

Model of Fishbourne Villa, photo by E. Giel, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Fishbourne gutter, photo by C. Drakew, Wikimedia CommonsThis 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 it away.

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.

Model of Fishbourne Villa, photo by E. Giel, Wikimedia CommonsIn 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.


A 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 grass.

The 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.  








Bedding 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.







Arbor at Fishbourne, photo by P. Mayes, at Wikimedia CommonsThe 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.

Roses from a fresco in the Villa Livia, photo by U. Mayring, Wikimedia Commons

What kinds of plants were grown in a villa garden like this? Judging from the roses seen in contemporary frescos, Romans were familiar with the at least two varieties, the 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 plants known to Roman gardeners, and also to those enjoyed by Romano-British, gardeners.

plants trained along a fenceIn 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 of espaliered trees or vines, trained along a trellis or  fence.

Kitchen garden
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.

Terraced garden
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:


  • Lens culinaris, Lentil

  • Vicia faba, Celtic bean

  • Vicia/Lathyrus sp., Vetch (some species were eaten

  • Vicia/Pisum sp., Bean/Pea


  • Avena ssp., Oats

  • Hordeum vulgare, Barley

  • Triticum spelta/ dicoccum, Spelt or Emmer wheat


  • Bellis perennis, Daisy

  • Corylus avellana, Hazelnut

  • Plantago, Plantain

  • Rumex ssp., Dock, sorrel


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



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