BELOW Overlooking Lewes Castle, which the Sussex Archaeological Society acquired in 1922 after renting the site for over 70 years.

Sussex: tracing the origins of a 175-year-old archaeology society

Founded in 1846, Sussex Archaeological Society is one of the UK’s oldest county-based archaeology societies – but how did it begin? Carly Hilts spoke to Emma O’Connor to learn more about the birth of the organisation, as well as an exhibition marking its 175th birthday.


‘Sussex Archaeological Society starts with the railways – it’s a very Victorian story.’ So began Emma O’Connor, the Society’s Museums Officer, as we met in the 16th-century Barbican House, a stone’s throw from Lewes Castle, to discuss the origins of one of the UK’s oldest county-based archaeology societies. This year marks the Sussex Archaeological Society’s 175th birthday, and Barbican House – today home to both the Society’s library and the Museum of Sussex Archaeology – is hosting a special exhibition to mark the occasion.

BELOW Overlooking Lewes Castle, which the Sussex Archaeological Society acquired in 1922 after renting the site for over 70 years.
Overlooking Lewes Castle, which the Sussex Archaeological Society acquired in 1922 after renting the site for over 70 years.

It all started in October 1845, when workmen were digging through the ruins of Lewes Priory in order to construct a new railway line to Brighton. Their efforts came to an abrupt halt when the labourers discovered two lead caskets containing human bones and bearing the words ‘Willem’ and ‘Gundrada’. These were the names of the 11th-century founders of Lewes Priory: William de Warenne was a Norman baron known to have fought at the Battle of Hastings, and the builder of Lewes Castle; Gundrada was his Flemish-born wife. The discovery of their remains caused a sensation. Relics of this find – two teeth, a fragment of wood, and a nail all said to come from Gundrada’s burial – are included in the present exhibition, and although their provenance is doubtful (not least because the wood shows no sign of having been buried, and Gundrada was interred in a lead cist), their survival in the Society’s collections testifies to the enduring interest that this episode held for the Lewes community and beyond.

LEFT The discovery, in 1845, of these lead cists containing the remains of the founders of Lewes Priory inspired the foundation of Sussex Archaeological Society. This sketch by R H Nibbs was drawn the day after they were found.
The discovery, in 1845, of these lead cists containing the remains of the founders of Lewes Priory inspired the foundation of Sussex Archaeological Society. This sketch by R H Nibbs was drawn the day after they were found.

For three local men – William Figg, William Blaauw, and Mark Anthony Lower – these events provided the inspiration to create an organisation dedicated to exploring the county’s history in more detail. The following summer, the trio were key drivers behind a public meeting where a unanimous vote was passed to found Sussex Archaeological Society. It was an immediate success, gaining influential members and swiftly establishing a busy programme of meetings, outings, and talks. Research formed a key component from the outset; in 1847, a resolution passed to ‘prepare and print occasional papers for distribution among the members’, and editions of the Sussex Archaeological Collections are still being published today – now in their 158th volume.

The Society also fostered early ambitions to ‘establish a small museum for the reception of objects of antiquity which had been, or which might be brought to light at Sussex’. In 1850, that ambition was realised when the Society began to rent Lewes Castle and arranged their first displays within its walls. A curator and librarian was appointed in 1864, and two years later the first museum catalogue was published. Most of these artefacts remain in the Society’s collections today, and echoes of those early days are reflected in the exhibition: displays include the Society’s glossy wooden 19th-century ballot box, used for voting at meetings, as well as the gavel that helped to keep such gatherings in order, and an array of beautifully handwritten artefact labels.

Anne of Cleves House

Donated by its owner, Frank Verrall, in 1923, this 15th- century hall house with 16th-century additions is named after Henry VIII’s fourth queen, as it formed part of their marriage annulment settlement. Located in Lewes, today its displays include Sussex furniture and a nationally significant collection of domestic ironwork. The gardens are planted with herbs, shrubs, and trees known in the Tudor period.

Cutting-edge research

Fieldwork followed as the Society moved into the 20th century: members first excavated at Lewes Priory in 1900, and more recent investigations have taken place at sites including Fishbourne Roman Palace (of which, more later), and Bishopstone Tidemills, a Victorian mill complex and associated village near Newhaven which was abandoned in the 1930s, and which the Society has been exploring since 2006. Today, Sussex Archaeological Society takes part in research collaborations with other institutions, too: one project at Fishbourne Roman Palace, carried out in partnership with Historic England and the Universities of Exeter, Oxford, and Leicester, identified a bone thought to represent Britain’s earliest-known rabbit – a Roman find that took everyone by surprise, as rabbits were previously thought to have been introduced to these shores by the Normans (see CA 352).

Another fruitful recent collaboration, reflected in the exhibition, was with Southampton University. It focused on a 17th-century chest (known as a ‘Malines casket’ or ‘Mechelen casket’) from the Society’s collections. Finely crafted from ebonised wood and alabaster in Belgium, this kind of box was used to store personal items like jewellery or papers, and commonly had secret compartments. It was already known that the Sussex example had two such hidden drawers, but photogrammetry carried out by the Southampton team has now revealed the presence of a third.

Photogrammetry is also helping to shed new light on rather older objects: a Bronze Age hoard discovered by a metal-detectorist near Lewes in 2011, and acquired by the Society in 2014. Some 79 whole and fragmentary items (of which a few are on display) were found inside a large ceramic vessel; they date to the middle Bronze Age, c.1400-1240 BC, and include both local items and artefacts from the Continent. Among its contents are palstaves (axe-heads) and a distinctive form of bronze bracelet known as a ‘Sussex loop’. These latter objects are known from a narrow area around Brighton and Lewes, and are typically found in pairs – the discovery of five within this hoard is unprecedented. Brighton University has been scanning the objects to create digital models; 3D printing and experimental bronze-casting have produced detailed replicas as well.

LEFT A recent collaboration with Southampton University revealed the presence of a previously unknown secret drawer in this 17th-century casket held by the Society.
A recent collaboration with Southampton University revealed the presence of a previously unknown secret drawer in this 17th-century casket held by the Society.

Marlipins Museum

Marlipins, in Shoreham-by-Sea, was acquired by the Society in 1923, opening as a museum three years later. Timber analysis places its construction in the 12th century, and it is believed to be the oldest secular building in Sussex. It is thought that it may have been a wine and ale warehouse, with its name derived from ancient words associated with taxes. Its displays focus on Shoreham’s maritime history.

PHOTO: John Armagh.

Hoaxes and a new home

Just as advances in technology such as those described above are assisting archaeological research today, members of the Sussex Archaeological Society were eager adopters of new equipment in their early days too. In the 1850s, co-founder Mark Anthony Lower commissioned a series of images of Lewes using the exciting new art of photography, and in 1904 the Society established a wide-ranging photographic survey of the county, producing new images and collecting existing prints and negatives. Photographs were prized as a very scientific and accurate recording method, though just over a decade later the Cottingley Fairies hoax caused a scandal. One Sussex Archaeological Society member was convinced by the fakes, however: Arthur Conan Doyle, who was so passionate about the Sussex landscape that he described his most famous creation, the detective Sherlock Holmes, spending his retirement at a small farm in the South Downs.

Today the Society cares for six historic properties (Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens, Lewes Castle and Museum, Michelham Priory House and Gardens, The Priest House and Gardens, Anne of Cleves House, and Marlipins Museum – all bar the last two have reopened to the public, though it is hoped that they will also open in the near future) as well as the Long Man of Wilmington hill figure, which was donated by the Duke of Devonshire in 1925 (see p.47). These were acquired mainly in the 1920s to 1960s, the first being Lewes Castle, which the Society rented for over seven decades until its chairman, Charles Thomas-Stanford, purchased and donated the freehold in 1922. Almost two decades earlier, the Society had hit something of a setback while searching for a permanent home. Their flourishing library was outgrowing the Castle, and so they were also renting the adjacent Castle Lodge. When this came up for sale, local secretary Charles Dawson was charged with negotiating its purchase, which he duly did – for himself! The Society was given short notice to quit the property, and they moved instead to Barbican House, which remains the only building that the Society has bought for itself. The ensuing upset marked the end of the Society’s association with Charles Dawson, but this ultimately proved to be for the best, Emma O’Connor said, as it meant that it was not drawn into the notorious Piltdown Man debacle. In 1912, Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered the ‘missing link’ between early man and modern humans after ‘finding’ part of a curious skull, bones, and artefacts in an East Sussex gravel pit. It was not until 1953 that Eoanthropus dawsoni, as the ‘fossil’ was dubbed, was revealed to be a hoax made up of modern human and modified orangutan bones.

Most of the Society’s historic buildings are medieval or Tudor, but their most recent acquisition is the oldest in date: Fishbourne Roman Palace, which was only discovered in 1960. Excavations headed by Barry Cunliffe followed in 1961, and it was thanks to the generosity of the Society’s chairman Ivan Margary that the site was able to be investigated and preserved to the present day. Margary purchased the land containing the palace in 1962, presenting it to the Society’s care, and since then fieldwork has revealed a huge complex of buildings furnished with elaborate mosaics. A museum on the site opened to the public in 1968 (CA 340), and in the 1990s further Society excavations were directed by John Manley and David Rudkin.

The Priest House

Set in a traditional cottage garden, this building was originally constructed by Lewes Priory as an estate office to manage its local manor lands in the 1420s. It entered private ownership as a hall house in the 1560s, and in 1905 the near- ruin was bought, restored, and subsequently run as a museum by John Godwin King. He presented the house and its contents to the Society in 1935, and today it holds a collection of 17th- to 19th-century domestic items and furniture.

Michelham Priory

The Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity was founded at Michelham in 1229, and after it was disbanded in 1537 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries its lands entered private hands. It remained a working estate for four centuries. During the Second World War, it hosted evacuees and then Canadian troops. In 1959, its owner, Stella Hotblack, gave the Priory to the Society to safeguard its future. Set on an island, its grounds include a great barn, gatehouse, watermill, forge, and kitchen, as well as herb gardens and a moat.

Bull House

Timber-framed Bull House on Lewes High Street takes its name from an inn that once occupied the site; today it is the Sussex Archaeological Society’s headquarters, but its main association is with the radical thinker Thomas Paine, who lived there between 1768 and 1774. Though he would go on to be a key influence on the American and French revolutions, here he lived a strikingly ordinary life, working as an excise officer and shopkeeper, debating at the local Headstrong Club, and marrying his landlord’s daughter. He also wrote his first political pamphlet at Bull House, in 1772, calling for better pay and working conditions for excise men. The house was donated to the Society in 1936.

Eclectic objects

The current exhibition aims to give a cross-section of the Society’s history and holdings, as well as exploring why different items are kept by people. Some of the objects on display were probably retained as curios – these include a set of tiny Victorian glass bulbs containing smelling salts, which were already very old when they were brought to the museum as part of the contents of a local chemist’s shop that was closing down. For the fragile objects to have survived from the 19th century, it is thought they may have been stashed away for safekeeping. Other objects have more superstitious associations, such as a bulbous stoneware Bellarmine vessel thought to be a ‘witch bottle’. Dating to the mid-17th century, it contained pins, metal fragments, traces of fabric, and residue from what is thought to have been a wax effigy. This enigmatic artefact was found at Michelham Priory in 1973, buried upright beneath a doorway.

ABOVE The Lewes rat and spoon represent a possibly apocryphal story about a wronged Lewes serving girl.
The Lewes rat and spoon represent a possibly apocryphal story about a wronged Lewes serving girl.

There were probably sentimental motivations behind another series of objects included in the displays, particularly a mid-19th-century bracelet woven from human hair as a poignant memento mori. There is also a little set of carved wooden objects – a book, a tiny boat, a box – crafted from timbers recovered from the wreck of the Eurydice. This was a training ship whose wreck off the Isle of Man in 1878 saw the loss of all but two of the 364 people on board. The tragedy provoked an outpouring of public emotion, as well as inspiring poems (including one by Arthur Conan Doyle) – might it also have inspired the creation of objects like these for sale to support the sailors’ families? Or could they represent someone aiming to profit from the intense interest surrounding the wreck? Finally, a 19th-century paperweight reflects another kind of emotional connection: it was cut from a block of solidified paint that had formed in the bottom of a sink at a boatyard in Shoreham-by-Sea. Layers of colour, built up over decades, have produced a rainbow marbling effect, and the paperweight would have provided a tangible connection to the boatyard long after work there had ceased.

Known as ‘cups of sorrow’, these enamelled vessels are from the collections of the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham-by-Sea, but have their origins in Imperial Russia.

Some of the objects on display are rather more esoteric – none more so than a mummified rat preserved in a wooden box with a 17th-century silver spoon. This strange assemblage entered the Society’s collections as a memorial to a possibly apocryphal Lewes serving girl who was wrongly accused of stealing the spoon and cast out of her employment – her fate is not known, but long after her dismissal the spoon is said to have been discovered in a rat’s nest. The presence of two colourful cups adorned with Russian lettering might also seem surprising, but they represent Sussex’s far-reaching commercial connections, as well as tragic events that took place 125 years ago. The enamelled cups were produced to mark the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II; they are decorated with the initials (in the Cyrillic alphabet) of Nicholas and his Tsarina Alexandra, and the imperial symbols of crown and eagles. When crowds gathered to celebrate the coronation in Moscow in May 1896, rumours circulated that 10,000 cups, each containing a rouble, would be given out as gifts. As some 500,000 people were present, however, demand far outstripped supply, and in the ensuing crush 1,000 people are thought to have died, with thousands more injured. Tsarina Alexandra is said to have renamed the vessels ‘cups of sorrow’ after the tragedy, and it was an inauspicious start to a reign that ultimately ended with the Romanov family’s murder during the Bolshevik revolution. The cups on display are normally held by the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham-by-Sea, and when speaking to the local volunteers, Emma O’Connor learned that two of them also had an example in their possession (‘One was using theirs as a toothbrush holder,’ she said). The presence of four relatively rare cups in a small town seems disproportionate, but it is thought that they might be linked to the bustling ice trade known to have operated through the Baltic Wharf in Shoreham port in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The exhibits represent only a snapshot of the Society’s collections, and, behind the scenes, cataloguing and research continues – sometimes a seemingly never-ending task, Emma O’Connor joked. Working among the eclectic holdings, she said, she is put in mind of Charlotte Brontë’s remark when visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851: ‘Whatever human industry has created, you find there.’

ALL IMAGES: Sussex Archaeological Society, unless otherwise stated.