About Me

My photo
Bristol , United Kingdom
I'm co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Friday 31 March 2017

The South Country II : Apotropaios and the Fishbourne Sea-Horses

To set Bryony's stripped back landscapes in context, I'd wanted to explore something their historical setting. Before I started researching, all I knew of the Romans' presence in Chichester was the city's name, but within two minutes, I'd come across Fishbourne Roman Palace, and it was clear I needed to go there ...  

... for the synchronicity of squares of fired earth, earth coloured, if nothing else. 

Fishbourne was discovered by chance in 1960 when a water main was being laid. Excavatations began the following year, and what the archaeologists uncovered was extraordinary - a 'palace' of around 100 rooms, built c75-80AD. 
Around a quarter of the mosaic floors survive, and they are amazing. 

Some have subsided and look a bit mad in a sumptuous sort of way. Here you can see the fence post holes from a Roman granary that previously occupied the spot. 

Others have been laid over the top of less elaborate mosiacs, which seems a bit profligate when you consider that the Palace was only inhabited for a couple of hundred years, having been destroyed by fire c270AD. 

I mean, getting a new one of these is probably a lot pricier than popping down to Allied Carpets. 

Here is Bryony's exhibition plan foreshadowed in the central heating system of the palace.

And there were other, unlooked for - though perhaps not unexpected - echoes, this time of apotropaios. In addition to the deliberate mistakes inserted by the craftsmen to appease the gods - 24, it is believed, in the mosaic of the Boy with the Dolphin alone - this seems to be another hexafoil or daisy wheel

And here, in the museum - imprints of shoes and feet - and paws! - that maybe correlate to the outlines of shoes associated with churches. If so, it seems to be a pretty early example of a symbol replacing the symbolic concealing of well-worn shoes in buildings as magic charms to ward off evil spirits. And in a secular context. 

Of course, I'm not an archaeologist or historian - just a poet with an interest in magic and a tendency to make wild connections ... 

... but doesn't this paw print in particular look to you like it has been deliberately placed? And next to some possibly apotropaic concentric circles?

But look here, there's a poem to write.

I'd already decided that I needed to study the aforementioned Boy on a Dolphin moasic and it didn't disappoint - especially not the Fishbourne seahorses, which I already knew would feature in whatever I ended up writing. 

The other thing which was occupying a big space in my magpie brain were the unmissable skeletons, one in a glass case in the museum, the other lying presumably where it was exhumed. 

These are believed to be the bodies of Romano-British squatters who settled into the ruins of the palace after the catastrophic fire. 

But my brain was making connections with the bones of much deader people than them; namely, those of Paleolithic people from all over the world, which have been discovered stained with red ochre as part of their burial rites. 

It was time to stop fossicking through layers of history, however; we were off for a bit of psychogeography. 


  1. We had artifacts at the museum in Bristol (RI USA) from the "Red Paint People" of Maine. We still don't know much about them, but at least know they were present thousands of years ago, before the Algonquian people who greeted the settlers from Europe. Red and yellow ochre were also important to people living on the shores of the Bering Sea and on the Kobuk River about 10,000 years ago. I'll have to look into similar paleolithic people from other continents

  2. This European burial was much earlier.

  3. Yes, I think the current date for the Paviland burial is about 33,000 years ago.

    I find it amazing that such burials have been found in western Europe, Russia, the Americas, Russia, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

    By 'deader', I meant 'longer dead'. I think as I wrote it, I was still arguing with Yossarian in the back of my mind, when he says 'Well, he died. You don't get any older than that.'