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Facing the Palace



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by John Manley & David Rudkin

facingpalace.jpg

ISSN 0143-8204 (Sussex Archaeological Collections vol. 141)
Sussex Archaeological Society, 2005
160pp, illustrated paperback
Retail price 14.99

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

I should have completed this review a long time ago, but I kept putting it to one side. This may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t want to be accused of pushing a book that has my picture in it.

To be honest, you can’t actually tell it’s me, unless you know me well. I am wearing my archaeological volunteer’s disguise of knee-length shorts, tee-shirt, heavy boots and a peaked cap, and am carrying a board under one arm. I have my back to the camera, which is about twenty yards away. Co-author John Manley took this photograph while standing on the roof of a portakabin, and I remember the day very well. The photo captures one of those very few exciting moments that occur during the average archaeological excavation (if there is such a thing) – the moment when an important discovery has been made and everyone crowds around to have a look.

There are many other photographs in the book, most of them taken by Mr Manley in the course of the five-year research excavation that took place at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex between 1995 and 1999. Some of them give more of an insight into the day-to-day activities of the diggers, such as bending over a trench with a trowel in your hand and your bottom in the air. That the supervisors were not immune to these discomforts is illustrated by a picture of a cheerful David Rudkin sitting in a waterlogged trench wearing a hooded mac and looking suitably wet. You can tell that everyone is having fun. There are also photographs and drawings of artefacts and other findings, all of them of a very high standard (as one would expect from professional archaeologists).

The significance of the Fishbourne excavations of the nineties can hardly be over-stated. They continued in 2002, and after that English Heritage put a stop to it on the grounds that the site needed to be preserved for posterity. "When is posterity?" asked John Manley, Chief Executive of the Sussex Archaeological Society, with some justification. John Manley, along with David Rudkin, the Director of Fishbourne, his co-author, led the huge logistical undertaking as well as the technical aspects of the excavation. When you have literally hundreds of part-time volunteers working on a dig, there is a lot of organizing to be done. When and where are they going to have their tea-breaks, and where is the nearest toilet? What arrangements will be made for public access to the site, and how can you keep everyone informed of the latest developments? And "latest developments" during an excavation have the habit of going out of date within days, as was the case with the feature we were looking at in the photograph I referred to. At the time, John assured us that it was a well. It turned out to be (probably) the floor of a strongroom, and its dating demonstrated what everyone had previously thought to be impossible – that the military buildings of the first century were still standing after the palace was completed.

The Sussex Archaeological Society is the biggest organisation of its kind in the UK. It controls several sites of historic interest in Sussex, and it also publishes its own magazine and an annual volume called Sussex Archaeological Collections. Facing the Palace has been published within this series, and its purpose is to supplement the rather dry and formal reports of the excavation’s findings which have to be produced. This means that all members of the society will have received it free of charge. It certainly contains all the relevant technical data, but an attempt has been made to present the material in a form that will interest the average reader. The way Mr Manley and Mr Rudkin tackled this goal is explained in the introduction. Someone who has participated in the dig is always going to feel more engaged than someone who has not – but there are already hundreds of such potential readers available to the authors, who deserve the colourful document that SAS have made available. This is a valiant bid to attract a wider audience.

Just because a book is given away free, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. When the production is of this standard, almost the opposite is true. Sometimes the publishers of research material have no alternative but to produce a volume that is either prohibitively expensive to purchase, or is of limited availability. In this case, you are lucky, as the book can be bought direct from SAS at the very reasonable price of 14.99.

Price: 14.99 (plus 3 postage and packing)

Available from: www.sussexpastshop.co.uk, or from Fishbourne Roman Palace, Salthill Road, Fishbourne, Chichester, PO19 3QR.

tel: 01243-785859; email: tradingfish@sussexpast.co.uk