A brief history of The Sussex Archaeological Society

Founded in 1846, The Sussex Archaeological Society is one of the UK’s oldest archaeological and historical societies.

A membership society dedicated to researching and preserving the history and archaeology of Sussex, it is custodian to several historic properties including Lewes Castle and Fishbourne Roman Palace.

To support research and share insights into Sussex’s rich and significant history, the Society has six museums with extensive collections spanning from pre-history to the modern era.

It also has a dedicated research library – run by equally dedicated volunteers – and has published the Sussex Archaeological Collections since 1847.

Timeline

  • 1845 – Discovery of founders of Lewes Priory sparks interest in the area
  • 1846 – First meeting of The Sussex Archaeological Society
  • 1864 – First curator and librarian appointed
  • 1866 – First museum catalogue compiled
  • 1907 – Society purchases Barbican House as a museum and library
  • 1908 – Barbican House opens to the public

An unexpected discovery in 1845

‘The Sussex Archaeological Society starts with the railways – it’s a very Victorian story’
Emma O’Connor, Museums Officer, The Sussex Archaeological Society

 

Although it seems unimaginable now, in 1845 the new railway line connecting Brighton to Lewes was being dug through the ruins of Lewes Priory. 

As workmen dug through the grounds, their shovels hit something solid. When they investigated, they made an unexpected discovery: two lead caskets marked ‘Willem’ and ‘Gundrada’.

In the pursuit of progress and the future of transport, the workers had uncovered human remains from over 700 years ago. 

Willem and Gundrada were the 11th-century founders of Lewes Priory: William de Warenne, a Norman baron who had shown loyal support to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, and his Flemish wife. 

The discovery of the remains generated enormous local interest in Lewes and became the catalyst for the foundation of The Sussex Archaeological Society.

 

A gathering of antiquarians in 1846

‘To promote, encourage and foster the study of archaeology and history in all its branches with special reference to the counties of East and West Sussex’.

The discovery of the remains of Willem and Gundrada was the impetus for a group of well-respected Lewes antiquarians to propose the formation of an archaeological society. 

Mark Antony Lower, William Figg and William Blaauw advertised a meeting for ‘interested persons’ to be held on 18th June 1846 at the County Hall, Lewes. 

At this first meeting it was proposed and carried unanimously that ‘a Society be formed entitled the Sussex Archaeological Society’.

The mid-19th century saw a popular growth in the formation of architectural, archaeological, historical or antiquarian associations. Whilst many were short lived, The Sussex Archaeological Society thrived. 

Such was the enthusiasm and commitment of the Society’s early members that an active calendar of events and regular publication of articles and research was established. 

Their generosity for future generations saw donations to a library and museum. Later, the endowment of historic properties not only allowed for the preservation of Sussex’s material past, but also became a way to generate income.

Along with membership fees, this income was invested to further the aims of The Society ‘to promote, encourage and foster the study of archaeology and history in all its branches with special reference to the counties of East and West Sussex’.

 

The Society’s collections, library and museum

From the beginning, the Society has been dedicated to research had steadily acquired museum objects. In 1864, it became necessary to appoint its first Curator and Librarian. 

Earlier museum objects were often loaned. But gradually items were donated outright and the permanent collections became increasingly important. The first museum catalogue was compiled and published in the Society’s annual volume in 1866.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the Society’s collections had outgrown the castle and further space had been acquired by renting nearby Castle Lodge. However, in 1903 the Society was given sudden notice to quit the Lodge and the collections were moved to temporary premises. 

In 1907 The Society had the opportunity to purchase Barbican House – a fine 16th century town house with a medieval cellar and 18th century remodelling. 

With well-proportioned rooms, it was perfect for museum galleries and a dedicated library space and considered a ‘dignified and worthy headquarters for the Society’.

The Society purchased the building for £2,300 and in June 1908 the new premises – the first the Society owned outright – were officially opened. 

 

Made by its members

From its foundation in 1846 to the present day, members have been the lifeblood of The Society. 

Sussex history and archaeology would be significantly poorer without the legacy of The Society’s members. Their loyalty and commitment to its aims have ensured its longevity, sustainability and impact. 

When the Society celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1946, the then editor of the Sussex Archaeological Collections, Louis Salzman, commented: 

‘And what of the future? There are no signs of any shortage of materials, and if the Society is given the active support of its members there is no reason why its activities as a centre of research, with spade or pen, of preservation, in its museums, and of record in its volumes, should not be increased.’ 

The same is true today, and the Society always welcomes new members to engage with our aims and ensure its future. 

 

Read more about the history of The Sussex Archaeological Society and its work.