Preserving Sussex Past
by Hanna Prince
Sussex Archaeological Society plays a key role in preserving and showcasing local sites of historic interest. Hanna Prince profiles the country’s oldest county archaeological society.
In October 1845, a construction team working on the new Brighton to Lewes railway made an extraordinary discovery. Buried beneath the ruins of Lewes Priory were two lead caskets containing the 800-year-old remains of William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, and his wife Gundrada. Fascinated by this and other discoveries made during the railway excavations, local historians decided to form a Sussex archaeological society. Its aim? “To embrace whatever relates to the civil or ecclesiastical history, topography, ancient buildings or works of art within the county.”
Today, Sussex Archaeological Society helps to conserve sites of major historical interest across the county. The charity opens several sites to the public, alongside offering archaeological grants, and providing an itinerary of events and activities to its members. Its headquarters are based at Bull House – once the home of philosopher and revolutionary Thomas Paine.
“We are the oldest county archaeological society in the country,” explains marketing officer Debbie Matthews, when we meet on the atmospheric first floor of Bull House. “Over the years we’ve gradually grown, and now we open six properties to visitors and an active membership scheme.”
Since it first took on the tenancy of Lewes Castle in 1850, the Society has worked to engage the public with Sussex history. Barbican House was acquired in 1908 and quickly became a fascinating museum. Anne of Cleves House, the Priest House, Bull House and Michelham Priory followed. A more recent acquisition is Fishbourne Roman Palace, which is currently celebrating fifty years since opening its doors to visitors.
Spread across these historic sites are finds of international importance. The Roman mosaics at Fishbourne are among the largest and best preserved in the world. Debbie also points with pride to the Near Lewes Middle Bronze Age Hoard – a treasure trove of jewellery dating to between 1250 and 1500BC.
“Our aim is to keep history alive, and Sussex is a wealth of history,” she says.
On top of caring for some of the county’s most important historic sites, the Society works to support continued archaeological research. New discoveries and theories are published annually in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. A finds liaison officer helps members of the public to identify and record chance archaeological discoveries, while research officer heads up excavations.
With no government funding, the Society is heavily reliant on visitors, members and fundraising. In return, it runs a packed programme of members- only events, talks and visits to key historic properties around the country. To find out more about becoming a member and how to support the Society more generally, visit sussexpast.co.uk.
Photos: Sussex Archaeological Society