Experts’ bid to solve the mystery of skeleton 180 found in Lewes

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The mystery of a Lewes skeleton found by archaeologists under a building site at Spital Corner could soon be solved thanks to experts at the University of York.

The skeleton, known as 180, was one of 123 remains found in a medieval cemetery when Western Road School was demolished.

The site was revealed to have been the former home of the Hospital of St Nicholas, which was run in medieval times by monks from Lewes Priory.

Many of the skeletons show signs of their owners having died from a range of diseases common in that era, including leprosy.

But Skeleton 180 is different. He shows clear signs of having suffered a rain of sword blows to the head. He is also buried close to where the heaviest fighting took place during the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

Most of the victims of this battle were hastily buried in mass graves by local people only a few yards away. They were found by Victorian road builders creating the Brighton-Lewes turnpike 600 years later.

So did this man too die in the Battle of Lewes? And if so, why is he in the cemetery rather than the mass burial pits with the other victims?

Now Sussex Archaeological Society hopes to find the answer. It has sent Skeleton 180 to the University of York to be studied by battlefield archaeology experts Tim Sutherland and Malin Holst.

As well as undergoing detailed skeletal analysis, 180 will also have isotope and carbon 14 testing which will reveal where he lived and when, what sorts of foods he ate and how he died.

Microscopic analysis may also reveal whether he survived his initial injuries for a time, thus accounting for his being in the hospital.

“This is a very interesting skeleton,” said Tim. “The wounds on his skull are very deep, and if he’d ever had a helmet he wasn’t wearing it when he was attacked.

“He also had terrible tooth decay and abscessing, with several teeth missing. This is a man who would have been in more or less permanent pain.”

Battle of Lewes Officer Edwina Livesey, who took the skeleton to York, says she found it a truly moving experience watching 180 being removed from the box where he has been stored since the excavation. “This is a man who died in the prime of his life in a terrible way,” she said. “Through this study, we hope to show that he was a real person we can all relate to. Through learning more about him, we hope to give him back some of his humanity.”

Sussex Archaeological Society Research Officer Luke Barber, who was part of the team who initially excavated the skeleton, said: “However tempting, we can’t assume that someone attacked by sword blows died during the Battle of Lewes. Through this analysis, which will include comparing this skeleton to others found on or near battlefield sites, we are hopeful that we can all come much closer to understanding who this man really was.”