by Hanna Prince
Archaeological evidence suggests that area around Lewes was a centre for human activity from Palaeolithic times. Hanna Prince looks into the county town’s ancient origins.
Around twelve thousand years ago, a flint knapper probably sat near the spot now occupied by Lewes Fire Station and looked out over a prehistoric landscape. From his position in North Street, he would have seen a wooded, v-shaped river valley with no sign of the town that would one day come to stand above the Ouse. As the flint knapper worked, debris from the weapons or tools he was making fell to the ground and remained to connect him to later generations – this small scatter of flint is one of the earliest pieces of archaeological evidence for human activity in the Lewes area.
We know that humans were already beginning to shape the landscape around Lewes during the Neolithic period. Stand at the top of School Hill, close to the War Memorial, and you’ll see a distinctive twin set of humps at the top of Cliff e Hill. Known colloquially as the ‘Camel’s Humps’, this oval burial barrow is now used rather prosaically as a feature of the town’s golf course. There is also evidence for a row of mounds, possibly barrows, running along the north-west of the promontory. These include the Castle Mount, Brack Mount and The Mount, with other possible sites at the churchyard of St John sub-Castro, Abinger Place and near St Anne’s Church.
So could the settlement of Lewes itself date back to pre-history? “It’s quite plausible that there’s been human settlement on the promontory across the millennia but evidence for the prehistoric and early historic periods is sketchy to say the least,” says John.
Although it’s impossible to know whether there was a Neolithic encampment at Lewes, evidence suggests that the town was an important strategic site from early in human history. The town centre was probably founded as a burh in the times of Alfred the Great and many Ango-Saxon cemeteries have been discovered in the area. With the basic street layout probably unchanged since late Saxon times, Lewes remains one of the most historic towns in Sussex.