Sussex Archaeological Society was close to closing the doors on its historic buildings forever during the pandemic

Sussex came close to losing some of its most treasured heritage at the height of the pandemic, as major historic buildings were almost forced to shut their doors for good.

Tuesday, 12th October 2021, 10:58 am
Lewes Castle

Thousands of years of stories are entwined in the collections and historic buildings owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society, but last year they were almost lost forever.

We spoke to the society’s new chief executive, Andrew Edwards, about celebrating the organisation’s 175th anniversary and overcoming the biggest challenge it has ever faced.

Even in its 175-year history, the Sussex Archaeological Society – which cares for a huge collection of artefacts and ten heritage sites across the county – has arguably faced no greater challenge than Covid-19.

Andrew Edwards, chief executive of Sussex Archaeological Society

Andrew Edwards, who joined the society as chief executive in April, believes the county narrowly avoided a major loss. Not only would the public no longer have access to incredible buildings such as Lewes Castle – one of the earliest Norman castles – but more importantly, Sussex would have lost part of its identity.

He said: “What the Sussex Archaeological Society represents is a collective history of this county. To see it go would have been a tragedy for the region. It’s intrinsically linked to local identity and a sense of belonging.

“It has remained focused on its core purpose, which is to share the history and archaeology of Sussex with as wide a range of people as possible.

“For me it’s about education and story-telling. I’ve always described it as a cabinet of curiosities as it’s full of wonderful things.”

Long Man of Wilmington

From the mysterious Long Man of Wilmington – Europe’s largest portrayal of the human form and the guardian of the South Downs, to Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens - once the grandest Roman Palace in western Europe - the society, which is a registered charity, looks after a diverse range of sites under its Sussex Past trading name, as well as more than one million artefacts.

Founded in 1846, it is the oldest organisation of its kind in the country, and this year marks its 175th anniversary. But in 2020, with ongoing maintenance costs for its sites and no income stream during lockdown, urgent action was needed to ensure its survival. The Celebrating 175 Campaign was launched to raise £1 million.

Andrew said: “We were in difficult times, and we didn’t exactly come in on a financial high either. The society had been experiencing significant financial challenges for many years.

“It’s important to recognise the shared effort of our trustees in ensuring our immediate survival, who steered us through the challenges of the pandemic. And, through much-welcomed Government support we were able to stabilise ourselves financially. We have also received donations from members, visitors, and supporters from near and far, for which we are hugely grateful.

Lewes rat and spoon

“We’re now well over halfway towards our £1 million target. But there is still some way to go to ensure we can protect these precious places for future generations. We will continue to fundraise.”

At the Barbican House Museum in Lewes, visitors can currently enjoy diverse objects on display as part of the Society’s 175 Years of Collecting exhibition. Items include a fossilised iguanodon dinosaur footprint and a 16th century witch’s bottle and wax effigy, found in Michelham Priory House and Gardens near Hailsham.

Andrew said: “Our collections give a feel for real people of this county.

“One of my favourite items is a painting of the Lewes avalanche, which happened in December 1836. There was a build-up of snow which collapsed onto buildings below the chalk cliff. I don’t think many people know about it, but it remains the deadliest avalanche on record in the UK. It’s also a wonderful painting.

“Then there are the mosaics at Fishbourne – how could anyone fail to be impressed?”

Looking to the future, Andrew is keen to expand the Society’s focus on learning and engagement.

He said: “There’s no point having marvellous buildings and wonderful collections if we’re not sharing them as much as we can. Some believe we’re a very learned organisation and that’s absolutely true, but we are also about engaging with families and community groups as well as academia. If the community is not engaging, then we’ve lost something.

“There’s a danger of always focusing on the past but now it’s how we forge a new vision for the future. We want to be exploring modern themes in our exhibitions.”

Neil Redfern, executive director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), said: “To congratulate the Society on reaching 175 to me seems a gross underestimation of just what an important milestone this is for archaeology in the UK.

“The Sussex Archaeological Society was pioneering when it was first founded in 1846 and that pioneering spirit lives on.

“Our thirst for new knowledge and the chance to explore the places we live is stronger now, post-Covid than it has ever been.

“I am only too aware of the challenges it has faced over the last 18 months and the huge efforts made to steady the ship. The society is needed now more than ever. I wish it well on the next 175 years.”

Historian and author Tom Holland said: “There is no more precious archaeological society in the country than Sussex’s. It’s not just that the properties and treasures for which it has responsibility are of national and international significance. It’s also the fact that the Society itself is a part of Britain’s history.”

The Sussex Archaeological Society: 175 Years of Collecting will run until February 28, 2022, at the Lewes Castle and Museum.

For more information, please visit: https://sussexpast.co.uk.

If you’d like to support the Celebrating 175 Campaign, you can do so by visiting https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/appeal/Celebrating175