Chichester Roman remains at heart of The Novium museum

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The remains of a Roman bath house that lay under a car park in Chichester for decades have been uncovered and now form the centrepiece of a £6m museum. 

The first clues that Roman baths were buried underneath Chichester came in the 1960s with the discovery of part of a mosaic [Credit: BBC]

Building work on The Novium has been completed in the West Sussex city centre and staff are waiting for the humidity and temperature to settle before they can move in next year. 

The baths were excavated in the 1970s, but the site later became a temporary car park. 

Tracey Clark, museum manager, said it was “always a hope” that the remains would one day form part of a new museum building. 

The first clues that the Roman baths existed came in the 1960s with the discovery of part of a geometric, patterned mosaic. Excavation started in 1974. 

At the time, a report by the Chichester Excavations Committee said Chichester was seeing the “greatest expansion of archaeological work the city has ever known – and on a scale that can never be repeated”. 

Archaeologists worked for more than a year to beat a development for a multi-storey car park on the site and unearth what was described as one of Chichester’s largest Roman public buildings. 

‘Preserved for future’ 

Museum officer Anooshka Rawden said: “They [the remains] would have been destroyed otherwise. 

“These are the best-preserved remains in Chichester because Chichester is built so much on itself.” 

She said there was so much emotional support that campaigners and volunteers stepped forward to help with the dig, which took more than 400 days. 

Once the site was fully revealed, experts found the remains of the baths, evidence of their decline, and remnants of Saxon pottery production, medieval housing, and a pub and a school. 

A car park was built, but it was a temporary structure. The council boxed over the remains and put sand over them to preserve them for the future. 

Building work on The Novium started in April 2010 and was completed this autumn. 

Keith William Architects set out to make the remains a “permanent and intrinsic” part of the 21st Century building. 

Visitors enter through the museum’s glass doors and their first sight is of the Roman baths which are below ground level and uncovered. 

Cathedral spire smash 

But museum staff are keen to stress the baths are one of many “wow factors” – another is the view of the cathedral towering over city rooftops on the top floor. 

Information on the second floor landing will include an account of how the cathedral spire plummeted to the ground in the 1860s. 

Visitors will be able to “touch the view” with chimney pots and cathedral stone placed to one side, Ms Clark said. 

The entire collection is being displayed according to themes instead of chronology, although information on chronology is available. 

The first floor is devoted to Chichester’s development based on trade, its harbour and its links to London. 

The second floor includes Roman weapons and bones from Apple Down Anglo-Saxon cemetery – but they are divided into themes such as “bravery”, “beauty”, and “creativity”. 

Museum interpretation consultant Steve Slack said: “The museum world in the past 10 to 15 years has found how people learn in museums. 

“This museum has taken that to heart. People arrive and are presented with a big hole in the ground, but the museum is going to great lengths to make sure people understand it. 

“Museums used to tell a [chronological] story which was interesting but not particularly dynamic. This is stories about people and emotions. 

“We know that’s really useful in making a personal connection with the museum and having emotional and inspirational outcomes.” 

Display cases are still being made and exhibits are being restored ahead of the museum’s move from an 18th Century corn store in Little London to the new building. 

Half a million objects will be moved to the site in 2012. The museum is set to open in late spring. 

Author: Tanya Gupta | Source: BBC News Website [November 22, 2011]

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