PUBLISHED: 11:20 19 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:13 05 April 2013
Pulborough has a Roman past every bit as fascinating as its famously Roman neighbour Chichester. You just have to dig a little, says Alex Oxborough
Navigating the winding country lanes of the Pulborough-Hardham-Wiggonholt triangle, it is easy to imagine it is so-called for the number of travellers lost, never to be seen again. Thankfully, for hapless motorists using terrible maps, it actually refers to the scattered collection of Roman sites in the area around Pulborough.
Lesser known than the Roman town of Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and the palace at Fishbourne, the Pulborough triangle is a treasure trove of Roman history. Dissected by the mighty Stane Street, a major Roman thoroughfare that linked Chichester to London, and the starting point of the east to west Greensand Way, Pulborough lies at the ancient crossing point of the River Arun, itself an important means of transportation.
The road and river brought prosperity to the countryside, and a variety of domestic, military and industrial sites have been found in the area. There is a tantalising level of mystery about the number of sites and their uses, but a circular temple has been partially excavated on a hill just outside of Pulborough, and a military posting station has been found at Hardham.
At Wiggonholt extensive pottery and metal works have been uncovered on the banks of the Stor tributary of the River Arun, as well as a substantial early villa at Borough Farm dating from the 1st century that shows similarities in design to the palace at Fishbourne. Among the many objects uncovered at Wiggonholt is a large lead cistern, or water tank, found during ditch clearance in the 1943 and now on display at Parham House. Important because of its Christian markings, it is the only evidence of Christianity in Roman Sussex and was likely used as a baptismal font in the 4th century.
It can be difficult to visualise archaeological sites from the ground, but from the vantage point at the top of nearby Bignor Hill it is easy to see exactly what the Romans did for us. Discounting the mobile phone masts on top of Glatting Beacon, not that much about the view from Bignor Hill has changed. To the south can be seen the spire of Chichester Cathedral, the likely site of a Roman Basilica, and stretching to the north Stane Street, or the A29 as much of it is more prosaically known these days.
Whereas once there were farming villas dotting the countryside, now there are farmsteads. Bignor Roman Villa, around five miles from Pulborough, was once the country estate of a wealthy farming family, who it is thought might have been Romanised Britons from the local Atribates tribe. Today the well-preserved villa remains include exquisitely detailed mosaics, among them the longest exposed corridor mosaic in Europe at 24 metres in length.
Discovered in 1811 by farmer George Tupper when he struck a large stone while ploughing, the site is to this day owned and run by the Tupper family, who still farm the surrounding land. George Tuppers great-great-great-great-grandson Tom Tupper, 61, the current Manager, said, Two years ago we celebrated our 200th anniversary of the discovery, and 200 years of the family being responsible for the site. It is a responsibility, but one which we have enjoyed. If we can get to 400 years, we will have been responsible for the site longer than the Romans.
Although remains have been found on the site that date from not long after the AD 43 Roman conquest of Britain, the earliest structural remains found date from around AD 180. For the next 150 years the owners successively expanded the villa until it covered an area of almost two hectares, making it one of the largest in Britain.
The final stages of the villa in particular were built to impress. In its glory days, around the beginning of the 3rd century, the villa included an elaborate summer dining room with a central piscina, or water pool, encircled by mosaics of dancing maenads, who according to Roman beliefs were handmaidens of Bacchus, the god of wine.
Charmingly, many of the mosaics on site would have been ordered from a catalogue with the aim of showing guests that the owners were familiar with current trends of the time. Whether or not the owners believed in the Roman gods is unknown, but in each mosaic a mistake has been deliberately included to follow the Roman belief that nothing could be perfect but the gods.
Aside from depictions of gods and goddesses there are also scenes from fashionable life, such as sparring cupid gladiators complete with gushing blood a mosaic Tom Tupper grew up thinking of as a gory classical cartoon strip.
To this day, the level of luxury displayed at the villa is mind-boggling. There was gold gilt on the walls and a bathing suite worthy of a modern spa.
Lisa Tupper, 31, Toms daughter-in-law and the Museum Manager and Education Co-ordinator said, Roman history feels more real and immediate up here. A lot of people comment that, because the ruins are in the shape in which there were built, you can really get a feel for the size of the rooms and the scope of the building, as the coverings were built in the Georgian times directly onto the Roman foundations.
Though the villa site is a rare survivor, as a lot of sites have been lost over the years due to sub-standard covering buildings collapsing on top of them, preserving the remains is a never-ending task for the Tupper family. The geometric mosaic, Lisa Tuppers favourite because of the intricate pattern work and bright colours, is under threat due to site subsidence damaging the Roman hypocaust, or under floor heating system, which runs beneath.
Whereas as a child Tom Tupper can remember playing marbles on the mosaic because it was so flat, now the mosaic is slowly breaking up and algae is attacking the tiles.
Bignor Roman Villa is the most evocative example of the Roman history around Pulborough, but the fertile farmland and proximity of Chichester would have made the area a thriving concentration of Romano-British civilisation, and there is no doubt still much to be discovered. As long-term local resident Jane Laws puts it over lunch at the White Horse in nearby Sutton, Bignor Roman Villa is just one little patch, but it makes you wonder what is under all the fields and houses around here.
Bignor Roman Villa, Bignor, Pulborough, West Sussex, RH20 1PH, (01798) 869259 www.bignorromanvilla.co.uk
Open 1 March to 31 October.
For those wishing to get involved in archaeology in Sussex,
the Sussex School of Archaeology runs practical archaeology dayschool courses for both beginners and professionals. (01323) 811785, http://www.sussexarchaeology.co.uk
For more information about Roman Sussex go to www.romansinsussex.co.uk
With thanks to David Rudling, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Sussex University, for his invaluable expert input.