The Lewes Mounds
If you lived in a small town in East Sussex and there were three large Silbury-like mounds within close proximity of the town centre would you not be curious as to why? Well this is the case for Lewes, the county town of East Sussex.
The most prominent mound is the one currently occupied by Lewes Castle and is designated as a Norman Motte dating from 1069 and built by William de Warenne, brother-in-Law of William the Conqueror. This stands broadly in the town centre overlooking all of its surroundings and the motte itself must stand at about 50 feet in height.
The second, known as Brack Mount, is also designated as a Norman Motte and was contained originally within the curtain wall of Lewes Castle and Lewes Castle is one of only Two Norman castles in the UK to have two mottes, the other being Lincoln. It is believed that Brack Mount was the original castle with a wooden barbican and that the superior stone barbican that we see today at Lewes Castle took some 300 years to complete. Brack Mount is about 40-50 feet high depending on where you're viewing it from and is built on a slope slightly North East of the castle and is now completely surrounded by houses and a pub, the Lewes Arms, that back onto it. There have been 2 partial excavations of this site, the first being in 1838 when workmen discovered an inhumation and boars head in the north side of the mound and the second, more recently, found a chalk lined well in the top of the mound believed to be Norman in origin. Despite the fact that the garden of the Lewes Arms cuts into the mound there seems to be no evidence of any finds on that occasion or at least no report of anything of interest, though there have been recent assertions that the mound is pre-Roman in origin.
Now we come to the third mound, or the 'Tump' as it's known locally, whose history is far from clear. It stands almost in isolation just South of the railway line that skirts the South of the town and is adjacent to the ruins of Lewes Priory. It too is about 45 feet high and takes the form of a ziggerat. Various explanations have been put forward to try and explain its origins. One is that it's a Calvary built by the priory monks and was part of a punishment whereby misbehaving monks were made to carry a cross to it's summit (there was until recently a socket still visible there for a cross erecting ceremony carried out by local Christians at Easter). Another theory is that it's simply a large pile of earth left over from either the building of the Priory on it's western side or from the 'Dripping Pan', a large salt pan (though the salt pan too is doubtful) on it's eastern side now occupied by Lewes Football Club. As far as I know there has never been anything like a proper excavation of this site. The only nearby find was of a ground Neolithic hand axe which was discovered when railway abutments were created in 1911 just to the north.
So three large mounds and little archaeological evidence to work out just how old they are. But is it just three? Evidence suggests that there were at least another five tumuli within the vicinity. A Historic Character Assessment Report for Lewes carried out in 2005 reveals that there were another four tumuli in almost a linear arrangement running north east from Brack Mount. The report lists them as follows:
• Churchyard of St John-sub-Castro – two mounds, possibly representing Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon, or earlier, barrows. That destroyed by the building of present church in 1839 contained secondary inhumations, cremated human bone, boar and other animal bones, and an urn and spearhead. The second mound was in the south-east corner of the churchyard, and was destroyed in 1779 with no record of any finds. Several Roman coins were also found in the churchyard in the 19th century [HER reference: ES7176].
• Abinger House (Abinger Place) – mound, possibly representing Romano-British or Anglo- Saxon, or earlier, barrow. Destroyed in the early 19th century without record, though apparently contained internments and pottery.
• Elephant and Castle (Whitehill) – mound, possibly representing Romano-British or Anglo- Saxon, or earlier (e.g. Bronze Age) barrow, and possibly used as a medieval and later gallows mound. Destroyed when Elephant and Castle public house was built in 1838.
A further barrow seems to have been destroyed in 1834 during the creation of a reservoir near St. Anne's Church where a Bronze Age inhumation and other cremation burials were discovered. This too lies within the town centre.
So are we looking at a large Bronze Age barrow cemetery, a sacred site of monumental mounds in the vein of Silbury (particularly in the light of the recent dating of the Marlborough Mound) or merely a disparate collection of barrows of different ages and usages? Because most of these barrows were destroyed in the gradual expansion of the town it's very difficult to know which era they actually belonged to but I'm of the opinion that all these tumuli were of roughly the same period, probably Bronze Age, and the Normans merely utilized two of them in the highest positions, in the construction of their castle. Nearby Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age sites on the South Downs would also suggest that Lewes's mounds were of a pre-Roman era.