I had a very pleasant day last Saturday on the site of one of the lost villages of East Sussex.
Exceat (pronounced Ex-seat) is now lost under the rolling downland fields between Friston and Seaford. It was possibly once a small village, surrounding a church perched on a blustery hill overlooking Cuckmere Haven. Rectors for the church date from 1255 when a pipe-roll mentions “Richard, the Parson at Excete” (A pipe-roll is a record of the annual audit by the Exchequer).
But the village was short lived and within a hundred years, it had been sacked and destroyed by the French. The Black Death of 1348-50 probably put paid to most of the surviving inhabitants.
In 1460, the last two parishioners, Richard Raye and John Algar, petitioned the Bishop of Chichester to come under the jurisdiction of the nearby parish of West Dean (today cosily tucked away inside Friston Forest).
The Bishop agreed, however the parish remained in name until 1528 when it was formally merged with West Dean. At this time the village was described as being “destroyed and razed to the ground and the site of the church profaned”. Slowly nature covered the site of the village and in time it was forgotten.
That is until a hundred years ago, when Maurice Lawrance, the 15-year-old son of the Rector of West Dean was wandering across the fields.
It had been a hot summer and indentations showed in the ground which indicated the site of a building. His father, George and a Mr Verrall who lived at the Exceat Farm House made some preliminary investigations and enough was found for the church commissioners to consent for an excavation by the Sussex Archaeological Society.
The excavations revealed a tiny church, probably the smallest in Sussex with a nave only 31 feet (9.5 meters) long. The building had a small porch (which would have been needed as the church was on a very exposed spot) and a horseshoe shaped chancel.
The walls were very thick, almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) in places and at least one inner wall had traces of plaster on it. The church was tiled, as fragments of roof-tiles were recovered and traces of broken coloured glass fragments showed that there were also stained glass windows. In the centre of the nave was a single burial. (Probably the grave of a former rector).
Nearby, oyster shells and sherds of medieval pottery indicated that there may have been a small settlement around the church, although no trace of the foundations of these buildings were found. The foundation stones of the church were Caen stone and Eastbourne greensand, similar to those at Seaford Church which was built in 1090. Exceat Church was probably built at a similar time – maybe even a few years earlier. A memorial stone was placed on the site and remains in-situ today. The methods used by the Archaeological Society in 1913 were crude by todays standards.
A photograph of the dig shows piles of earth and not the carefully cleared site that we are used to seeing today on television programmes such as Time Team. On Time Team a non-invasive ‘geophysical survey’ is often conducted to expose hidden features before any excavations commence.
And that is what I was doing last weekend. I joined other members of Cuckmere Archaeology to conduct a geophysical survey of the fields around the stone church marker. First the ground is marked out with 20 metre grids. A frame consisting of a ground penetrating radar and control box is carefully, steadily and methodically moved across the grid to get an indication of what may lie underneath. At the same time other members were conducting a GPS survey to accurately map the lie of the land. This was all done under the watchful eye of Greg Chuter the County Archaeologist. I enjoyed the team work and the knowledge that this exercise could produce even more information about this lost village.
Further work will be done on the site, during this, the centenary year of its re-discovery. Unfortunately, young Maurice Lawrance who started the investigations, joined the Royal Sussex Regiment at the beginning of the Great War and was killed in action in September 1916 aged just 18.
Cuckmere Archaeology was recently formed to investigate the archaeology of the Cuckmere Valley. They are a mix of experienced archaeologists and amateurs (like me) who can provide basic ‘hands on’ fieldwork opportunities on small local investigations such at those at Exceat.
Membership includes insurance cover for field work and is open to all over the age of 17 years. If you would like to join the Cuckmere Archaeology Group go to www.cuckmerearchaeology.org or send a SAE to the Membership Co-ordinator, David Worsell, 19, College Road, Seaford, BN25 1JD.