Fishbourne Roman Palace under threat - Historian and councillors have their say as archaeological society appeals for funds

“It is an integral part of the community and it is really important to preserve our Roman history.”

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Property Manager Melanie Marsh. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204603001
Fishbourne Roman Palace. Property Manager Melanie Marsh. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204603001

Those were the thoughts of Fishbourne resident and councillor Adrian Moss after news broke that Fishbourne Roman Palace is under threat of permanent closure.

Mr Moss, Chichester district councillor for Harbour Villages ward, said: “Fishbourne is very proud of the Roman Palace and the village has always welcomed visitors to the palace. I have personally visited the site many times including as a young boy on a school visit.

“I am sure the village and the local community will rally round to support the Sussex Archaeological Society.

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Property Manager Melanie Marsh. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204211001

“As our communities recover from the Covid-19 Pandemic we will be welcoming visitors back to our district and our cultural offering is very important.

“This area has a number of cultural offerings that attract visitors and I will be working through the district council to see how we can support the Roman Palace.

“I will personally be speaking to the team at the Roman Palace to see how we can support them.”

Historian and author Tom Holland, who was named patron of the fundraising appeal, said now is the ‘perfect opportunity’ to help The Sussex Archaeological Society ‘flourish for at least another 175 years’.

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204359001

He added: “How wonderful it is that, in a county as rich in history as Sussex, even the archaeological society - an absolute model of how to preserve and cherish the legacy of the past – should be 175 years old next June.”

Roy Briscoe, district council cabinet member for community services and culture, said it is thanks to the society that Fishbourne Roman Palace has ‘remained one of the outstanding visitor attractions’ of the Chichester District.

He continued: “In the fifty or so years since it opened it has delighted generations of schoolchildren, both local and from further afield.

“But this is not just a tourist site, it is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the country.

“It also houses the archaeological collections for both the Fishbourne area and the whole of Chichester district, including the City of Chichester. It has become a hub for academic research and the education of both children and adults in the archaeology of our region.”

'Roman Palace has a unique aspect and a unique story to tell'

Thought of in the Roman times as ‘exotic animals’, artefacts from the site, found in 2019, proved that rabbits were introduced by the Romans and not by the Normans ‘as everyone thought’, according to the Roman Palace property manager.

Melanie Marsh said: “There are so many artefacts that we have yet to explore to see what they actually mean. All that wonderful history side of things.

“It’s the largest residential building from the Roman times. It has a unique aspect and a unique story to tell.”

Ms Marsh said the society has had to put an appeal out for voluntary redundancies.

She added: “This was heartbreaking to have to do as a society which cares so much and has such a dedicated, wonderful workforce.

“There’s not as many shifts available so we are trying to put them out as fairly as we can. We couldn’t do without our volunteers and we don’t know how this will affect them. We consider them just as much part of our staff [but] a lot of them might not want to risk coming back."

Ms Marsh said that being able to open in some capacity in July, following government guidelines, is a ‘lifeline which we are hopeful for’.

However, she said some of the other museums owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society won't be able to open in July 'because we can't do the safe distancing'.

The Roman Palace property manager continued: "It makes us very cautious for the future.

"We want to reassure our visitors that they can start returning to us so we can start raising enough income.

“The pandemic has brought a lot of thoughts that you would never even think about or consider beforehand.

“I couldn’t bear to think what the worst case scenario would be. I don’t know what happens to a site like us.

“We are a self-funding charity which hugely relies on the community. Come, visit and support us. It’s not just financially, it’s also about volunteering, engaging and encouraging our local schools to come back and have visits.

“Sussex Heritage is so unique as a whole and has such a rich heritage. We are such a huge part of that.”

A digital campaign to kick off the countdown to the 175th anniversary will be launched tomorrow (Thursday, June 18).

Observer readers have their say

A number of Observer readers have expressed their sadness on social media, with many commenting that the closure of Fishbourne Roman Palace would be ‘huge loss’.

Christine Fisher wrote: “It would be sad to see this close. Both of my children had holiday/weekend jobs here. They now have children of their own.

"I took my granddaughter one half term. There were lots of tasks to interest her, and she loved it. Not just educational, but fun.”

Moira Stemp agreed. She said: "I still remember visiting when I was in primary school 40 years ago."

Mike Simmonds shared a similar sentiment. He wrote: "I went here as a kid at school has to much information and history be a shame to see it permanently closed."

Paula Samways said she would 'hate to see it go', adding: "It would be a great loss, all my kids went there in primary school. Chichester has a lot of Roman history."

Fran Bradley also shared her memories at the historical building. She wrote: "I took my grandson here. We stayed six hours and he still didn't want to go home.

"He went back many times [and] joined in with the dig in the summer and found a piece of terracotta floor. He was thrilled."

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