Chris Fautley joins pupils on a visit to a palace with the country's largest collection of mosaics
It is the 2nd century ad, and in Fishbourne Palace near Chichester a careless slave drops a valuable pot. As it shatters into 100 pieces, the local maker of tessarae (mosaic tiles) rubs his hands gleefully. For, whenever such mishaps occur, the pieces are sent to him to be shaped as highly prized mosaic pieces. Yes, the Romans were into recycling.
Fishbourne Roman Palace is Britain's largest domestic Roman building, and the fate of those shattered pots is just one thing you discover there. Pot smashing, sadly, is not an option in its activity workshops; however, if you aspire to mosaic making, spinning or a host of other Roman activities, then Fishbourne will not disappoint - as Year 4 at Stoke Park Junior School in Bishopstoke, near Eastleigh, will happily testify.
Senior education officer Suzanne Evans starts the hour-long session with an overview of life in the palace (about one-quarter of it has been excavated). "You really need to use your imagination. That will help you understand the palace," she explains.
There are several activities to try. Name writing with a stylus on wax tablets is extremely popular, but reed pens and paper are a little easier.
Those feeling more creative try mosaic making, and spinning with a drop spindle. Others attempt to build wooden arches, or solve Archimedes' square - a geometry puzzle. Alternatively, there are replica Roman roof tiles; but how do they fit together to make a roof? Everybody wants to try the Roman kitchen: a quern (a stone hand mill for grinding corn) stands in one corner; a cauldron of stew on the stone hearth; ingredients await preparation.
Having sampled Roman life, we deliver our verdicts: if you make a mistake, rubbing out is rather tricky on a wax tablet, and making a full size mosaic would be really hard work, we agree.
The session concludes with the chance for some pupils to dress in Roman costume. Enter Claudius, the king's son. "You can tell he's important. He's got stripes on his clothes," Suzanne explains. "It's a bit itchy," Claudius protests as he is enveloped in a toga. He is joined by a princess dressed in pale blue, a brown palla pinned to her shoulder with a brooch. Pearls and earrings complete the outfit. Finally, a volunteer kitchen slave steps forward. He would not have had a name. "We'll call you No 6," says Suzanne.
No 6 dutifully sweeps the floor. Prince and princess contemplate lunch.
Elsewhere on site, the museum displays finds from the palace, while outside Roman gardens have been re-created. However, Fishbourne's principal attraction is Britain's largest collection of in situ mosaics. They date from two periods: the 1st and 2nd centuries ad. The former are predominantly black and white; those from the 2nd century are coloured.
Remarkably, excavations have revealed where, in some places, 2nd century mosaics were laid on top of those from the 1st. In other places, a hypocaust heating system was built on top of the original mosaics.
Fishbourne's star mosaic is undoubtedly Cupid on a Dolphin, an exquisite masterpiece comprising more than 300,000 tessarae. The quality of other mosaics, however, varies. Some are geometric perfection, their tiles immaculately shaped; others appear to have been laid almost freehand, their tiles rough-hewn and irregular, perhaps the work of apprentices. We shall probably never know for sure; as Suzanne tells us at the outset: "There are lots of unsolved mysteries about the palace."
* Admission pound;2.60 per child. Activity workshops, pound;50 per session, advance booking required, max 35 children.
ON THE MAP
Fishbourne Roman Palace
Salthill Road Fishbourne
Chichester, West Sussex PO19 3QS
Tel: 01243 785859