In my next two columns, I will explore the archaeology of West and East Sussex. These counties benefit from having one of the oldest county societies hard at work, the Sussex Archaeological Society, which was founded in 1846 and is an energetic force that operates six historic properties and museums, undertakes fieldwork, and provides wide-ranging opportunities for involvement.
Fabulous Fishbourne and beautiful Boxgrove
Two internationally famous sites dominate the narrative of both West Sussex’s archaeology and Current Archaeology’s reportage: for the prehistoric period, Boxgrove, and for the Roman period, Fishbourne. Both are near Chichester, the former to the city’s east and the latter to its west. Of the two, Fishbourne is arguably the more famous, due to the accessibility of the site, literally and figuratively. The Roman palace there is a superb visitor attraction that I urge all readers to visit. It is perhaps easy to take the existence of Fishbourne for granted – it is a name so familiar that it might be assumed to have been known since antiquity. But the editorial in CA 6 is a reminder of just how unexpected and remarkable a find this was:
It is sometimes tempting to believe that archaeology is practically finished: that all the really big, spectacular discoveries have already been made, and that all that remains is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The excavation of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne… gives fresh hope. For Fishbourne is just about the largest Roman villa yet to be discovered in this country, but until excavations began the site was virtually unknown, and was not even marked on the Ordnance Survey one-inch map. The circumstances of the excavation are also noteworthy. For it is frequently said that the day of the private dig is over, and that henceforth only the state will be able to finance large excavations… but Fishbourne was a private excavation, carried out by volunteers on behalf of the Sussex Archaeological Trust.
The site first starred on the cover of CA 6 (January 1968), and has featured many times since then, most recently in issue 340 (July 2018), when it again made the magazine’s cover in a celebration of 50 years of the site’s museum (although it should be noted that fieldwork there dates back even further, to its chance discovery during the laying of a waterpipe in 1960 and the initial excavations of a young Barry Cunliffe in the spring of 1961). Other highlights down the years include CA 152 (April 1997), when examinations were undertaken into the early Roman history of the site pre-palace; CA 187 (August 2003), when the ‘pre-Roman’/ Iron Age communities of the area were explored; and CA 217 (April 2008), which interviewed lead excavator David Rudkin about his 28 years of work there.
Moving backwards in time but forwards in the chronology of Current Archaeology, the prehistoric site of Boxgrove first featured in issue 113 (February 1989) as part of a review by John Wymer of the Palaeolithic archaeology of Britain. The intriguing mention of work there – a site that at the time was little known among even the wider archaeological community, let alone the general public – was followed up in CA 138 (April/May 1994), when the 500,000-year-old remains of Homo heidelbergensis were found here, the only post-cranial hominid bone (a shin bone, or tibia to be precise) discovered in northern Europe, a find hailed in the popular press at the time as that of ‘the oldest European’. CA 143 (June 1995) put some metaphorical meat on to this bone, and CA 153 (July 1997) told the full, extraordinary story of fieldwork at the site. This was initiated from 1982 onwards by lead excavator Mark Roberts on a flint-knapping site in Quarry 1 to the west (also the location of the human remains) and a horse-butchery site in Quarry 2 to the east. CA 153 also discussed the finds of two hominid teeth from the site, made right at the end of the 1995 fieldwork season. These were the two central front teeth of the lower jaw (the left and right lower incisors). They are quite large compared to those of modern humans but compare well with the mandible found in 1908 at Mauer in Germany, not far away from Heidelberg, which is the type specimen of Homo heidelbergensis.
The warp and weft of the Weald and Downs
Leaping forward in time, another West Sussex site known to many readers is that of the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Singleton, halfway between Chichester and Midhurst. Here, from 1970 onwards, an extraordinary collection of over 50 historic buildings dating from c.AD 950 to the 19th century have been amassed. All of them had at some point been threatened by destruction in their original locations, and so they were carefully moved to preserve them as examples of outstanding vernacular architecture. CA 21 (July 1970) first featured the site, when a replica sunken hut or Grubenhaus of the early medieval period was under construction, based on that excavated in 1964 at Old Erringham, near Shoreham-by-Sea. Meanwhile, CA 317 (August 2016) reported on a very different piece of experimental archaeology in East Dean, not far from the neighbouring village of West Dean. There, the National Park Authority’s ‘Secrets of the High Woods’ project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) undertook the high-resolution airborne scanning of over 300km2 of the area, changing and challenging perceptions of the human occupation of the Downs since prehistory.
To conclude my tour of West Sussex, I highlight two military sites nearer the coast that have featured over the years. The older one is an Iron Age warrior burial, including a distinctive dual-crested helmet of c.50 BC, that was discovered at North Bersted on the edge of Bognor Regis. Editor Carly Hilts (herself a resident of West Sussex) visited the exhibition of the find at the Novium museum in Chichester for CA 361 (April 2020), learning how the burial was discovered by Thames Valley Archaeological Services in advance of a new housing development – a stand-out find amid the illuminating but more everyday prehistoric and Roman settlements that the team had also identified in the area. Finally, CA 5 and 337 (November 1967 and April 2018) paid visits, 50 years apart, to medieval Bramber Castle, a motte-and bailey site on the River Adur north of Shoreham-by-Sea. Most recently, this site was part of the ‘Round Mounds’ project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, during which a team led by Jim Leary of Reading University examined the castle, among many similar sites, in order to better understand the history of the use of monumental mounds from prehistory to the Middle Ages.