Excavating the CA archive: East Sussex

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 5 August. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI378, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Last month I explored the archaeology of West Sussex, and I will now head into the eastern county.


Four prehistoric sites located around Lewes tell an intriguing story of East Sussex’s Neolithic and Bronze Age communities. The oldest of these is Offham Hill, just to the north of the town. CA 58 (September 1977) reported on fieldwork undertaken in 1976 on the Neolithic causewayed enclosure here by Peter Drewett, doyen of Sussex archaeology and founder of the Sussex Archaeological Field Unit (now Archaeology South-East, part of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, where Drewett taught for many years). Sections of the site had already been removed by quarrying, and as the remainder was farmland under threat from further development it was totally excavated by Drewett’s team, revealing Neolithic pottery and the articulated skeleton of a single young adult.

Slightly more recent in age are two middle/late Bronze Age settlements located on the South Downs: one at Itford Hill and the other at Black Patch. CA 32 (May 1972) reported on the former and CA 67 (June 1979) on the latter, which featured on the magazine’s cover. Itford’s settlement had first been excavated in the 1940s-1950s, but in the early 1970s, when ploughing threatened the site, fieldwork resumed, this time at its cemetery. There was a total of 16 cremations in all on the site, representing a maximum of 19 individuals. Meanwhile, at Black Patch ploughing was again threatening to damage the site, so in 1978 one hut group was totally excavated. The site consisted of five terraces cut into the hill, each of which proved to contain a single hut, which was interpreted as the settlement of an extended family group.

Most recently in CA’s chronology, issue 174 (June 2001) examined the most famous prehistoric site in the area, that of Mount Caburn, again near Lewes. Caburn’s occupation was long-running, commencing in the Neolithic/late Bronze Age, but its main occupation period dates to c.400 BC when a deep, V-shaped ditch and bank enclosed it. The site’s fame stems from two sources: first, it is a particularly distinctive outlier of the South Downs, separated from the main range and thus functioning as a notable local landmark; and, second, it has seen successive excavations by Pitt Rivers (1877-1878), the Curwens (1925-1926 and 1937-1938), and finally by the Sussex Archaeological Society (1996-1998). There has also been much post-excavation analysis of the finds, including by Barry Cunliffe in the 1960s and Sue Hamilton in the 1980s. The sum of these works is an impressive patchwork of 170 separate trenches, and nearly as many hypotheses as to its purpose. Was it a defended settlement in the traditional model of hillfort usage? A more modest fortified farmstead or, rather, a more strategic (albeit apparently unfinished) military site? Or was it perhaps religious in nature? Evidence for the latter is implied through the unusual composition and contents of more than 140 burial pits, which included a stunning array of tools, coins, weapons, pottery, and disarticulated animal and human bones.


Moving forward in time, I turn next to East Sussex’s Roman archaeology. Again, four different sites tell the story of the county’s settlement in this period. Of these, Garden Hill in the Ashdown Forest is chronologically the oldest. CA 41 (November 1973) reported on fieldwork there from 1972 onwards, which identified a small settlement (including a well-preserved bath complex) of late 1st- and early 2nd-century AD date in which local iron-workers lived. Next in date, and similar in origin and location, comes Hartfield, also in the Ashdown Forest. CA 98 (October 1985) reported on fieldwork undertaken here in 1982-1983 that uncovered a Roman tile kiln dating to the late 1st/early 2nd century AD, which was again associated with the extensive iron-working industry of the area.

Further afield, CA 77 (May 1981) told the story of Beauport Park near Battle, the site of a fine bathhouse which is one of the best surviving Roman buildings in southern England but one, alas, to which there is currently no public access. Fieldwork from 1969 onwards revealed a building originally of the early 2nd century AD that was expanded later in the century. Part of a monumental inscription found near the entrance refers to a rebuilding that seems likely to have taken place when Septimius Severus restored Britain to the Empire in AD 200. Most recent in date then comes Barcombe, back near Lewes. CA 179 (May 2002) reported on fieldwork that revealed intriguing evidence for the transition from a Romano-British timber roundhouse to a masonry villa, at a site spanning the late 1st to the end of the 3rd century, situated in a dramatic location looking out across the Ouse valley to the South Downs.


To conclude my tour of East Sussex, I turn finally to four different medieval sites. Of these, the oldest is Rookery Hill in Bishopstone, just outside Newhaven. Fieldwork began here in 1967 in advance of a housing development and continued into the mid-1970s. The earliest occupation of the site dates back to the Neolithic, and it has good Iron Age and Roman evidence, but the real stars of the show are its exceptional early medieval (5th- to 7th-century) remains, including a substantial settlement of over 20 buildings. CA 53 and 196 (July 1976 and March 2005) visited this site 30 years apart, the former at the end of its main phase of excavation and the latter examining the site’s 7th-century abandonment, when a project to re-examine it revealed the residence of a late Anglo-Saxon thegn (a minor lord).

Perhaps Sussex’s most famous ‘site’ of all featured in CA 286 (January 2014), when the Time Team examined rival theories of the location of the AD 1066 Battle of Hastings. A particularly fascinating find from this period was then reported in CA 293 (August 2014), when a human skeleton first excavated in 1994 by Archaeology South-East at the hospital of St Nicholas, Lewes, was re-examined and radiocarbon dating placed the man’s death in 1064±28 years. As Edwina Livesey of Sussex Archaeological Society explained: ‘There are no surviving written sources that describe fighting in the Lewes area after the Battle of Hastings, but it seems likely that there would have been some skirmishes or resistance in England between the Norman victory and William I’s coronation a couple of months later’. CA 255 (June 2011) had previously examined the medieval archaeology and architecture of Lewes, so this new evidence put an additional spin on the town’s history.

CA 196 explored excavations at Bishopstone, just outside Newhaven, which examined the site’s 7th-century abandonment and in the process revealed the residence of a late Anglo-Saxon thegn.

Finally, by way of comparison, readers might be interested in an earlier architectural survey of nearby Hastings, undertaken in the mid-1970s when the town was undergoing large-scale redevelopment, and reported in CA 60 (February 1978).  

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About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently –central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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