Cissbury Ring – An early medieval ‘just-so story’?

Cissbury Ring

Photograph of the Iron Age ramparts of Cissbury Ring, near Worthing, West Sussex. The ramparts enclose a multitude of Neolithic flint mines and Bronze Age barrows can be found on the nearby downland. View is to the southeast. Photograph is a copyright English Heritage NMR.

The massive Iron Age hillfort at Cissbury was supposedly named for Cissa, one of the sons of the pseudo-mythological figure Ælle, who, accordingly to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle was purportedly the first king of Sussex and bretwalda of Germanic peoples south of the Humber. It has been argued that the town of Chichester (Roman Noviomagus Regnensium) was also named for Cissa and was the seat of his kingship after Ælle died, although there is apparently no evidence for sub- or post-Roman settlement within Chichester between the fifth and seventh centuries. Similarly, although there is evidence for occupation within the Cissbury earthworks from the neolithic until the end of the Roman period, excavations there have not found any evidence for early medieval settlement within the earthworks, nor indeed elsewhere on the surrounding downland.

It is clear from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Anglo-Saxons, even as late as the ninth century when those documents were compiled, were obsessed with genealogy, perhaps assuming that invoking potent ancestors, they promoted their own legitimacy. This has been argued as a reason for the placement of early medieval burials adjacent to, or within, earlier Bronze Age tumuli; in placing the bodies of their kin in association with earlier monuments, the social group attempted to exercise local territorial control. Local elites may have taken these famous `ancestors’ as real ones. A family of local importance may have fabricated descent from a figure known in stories which became the basis for the earliest entries in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, just as King Alfred traced his family back both to the pagan god Woden and, ultimately, the biblical Adam. A kin-group would then advertise this legitimacy. In West Sussex there were the Wlencingas, descendants of another son of  Ælle, which became Lancing; or dwellers on the coast of Selsey where Ælle’s last son was purported to have landed became known as Cimenshore.

Distribution map of the place-names purportedly connected to the sons of Aelle, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the first Germanic king of Sussex. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service

Distribution map of the place-names purportedly connected to the sons of Aelle, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the first Germanic king of Sussex. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service

By imbuing the landscape with the names of mythical heroes and other dramatis personae, the people of Sussex may have reinforced a common social identity, possibly in the face of some type of stress. Sussex was conquered by Cædwalla of Wessex in 684 or 685 and no longer had its independence, becoming a satellite to Mercia in the eighth century and later a shire of Wessex during the reigns of Æthelwulf and Alfred. They were mentioned as a distinct group as late as the A.D. 1000s: a wave of Viking raids in the eleventh century was recorded as taking place “in the land of the South Saxons” in the first decade of that century. Perhaps in order to reinforce the sense of social identity, a myth sprang up about South Saxon glory of ages past. The people might have spoken of the legendary warrior Cissa who fought battles in the very lands where they walked, and erected impressive fortifications, such as those that still survive at Cissbury, but are in fact over 1,000 years older than the first Germanic settlers in West Sussex.


Sonnet on Selsey Cathedral – Anonymous

The sea now rolls in triumph o’er the ground
Where once thy sacred edifice was rear’d;
No mark, no stone, to trace thy wall is found;
All, all is gone, as if thou ne’er appeared.
But yet ’tis said, at midnight’s fearful tide,
When wintry storms in angry surges sweep
The shore, complaining spirits from the deep
Pour forth their melancholy voices wide,
Speaking an awful tale of former days,
How holy men were torn from saintly graves
Their bones neglected-scatter’d by the waves.
Rest, troubled spirits; and to Him give praise
Whom storms and tides obey; direct thy care
To Heaven not earth, for alls’ recorded there. (101)

Heron-Allen, E. 1911. Selsey Bill: Historic and Prehistoric. London: Duckworth.

Case-Study Location: Westhampnett

The civil parish of Westhampnett, 2.5km northeast of Chichester, encompasses two modern settlements: the village of Westhampnett on the south boundary of the parish adjacent to the A27 and the hamlet of Westerton a kilometre to the northeast. A low, but ‘locally prominent’ hill on the border of Westhampnett and Oving parishes was the focus of ritual and burial activity from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the seventh century.

The early medieval cemetery was initially identified during archaeological mitigation work during the construction of the A27 Westhampnett bypass in 1992 (Fitzpatrick et al., 1997)⁠. Two Roman roads, from Chichester and heading northeast to London and east (presumably) to Brighton, cross through the parish. Pieces of Roman brick, box flue and hypocaust tile are built into the walls of the parish church (Hills, 1869, 41 & Fig. 3)⁠. These pieces may have been robbed from Chichester, or a yet unknown villa in the vicinity (Hills, 1869, 37-43; Russell, 2006, 291)⁠.

Excavations in advance of the A27 Westhampnett Bypass uncovered an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery and pushed the earliest Germanic acculturation of the westernmost coastal plain back to the sixth century (Fitzpatrick et al., 1997)⁠. Discovery of early medieval occupational evidence during rescue excavations in the year 2000 and 2001 is suggestive of a settlement contemporary to the cemetery (Chadwick, 2006)⁠. Two “apparently isolated” sunken-featured buildings were discovered, but it “cannot be excluded that some of the undated post-holes within the area of the Bronze Age settlement.. are Anglo-Saxon in date” (ibid. 24). A total of 176 sherds of pottery, identified as Early/Middle Saxon on account of their similarity to assemblages from the Apple Down cemetery and places it within the Sixth to Seventh Centuries. Early and Middle Saxon pottery is “notable on account of its scarcity” and the possibility of linking a contemporary settlement with another rarity, an early medieval cemetery on the coastal plain, could potentially be demonstrative of ‘everyday’ expressions of identity within a domestic context.

Chadwick, A. (2006). Bronze Age burials and settlement and an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Claypit Lane, Westhampnett, West Sussex. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 144, 7–50.

Fitzpatrick, A. P., Powell, A., James, S. E., McKinley, J., Mepham, L. N., & Montague, R. (1997). Archaeological Excavations on the Route of the A27 Westhampnett Bypass, West Sussex, 1992. (J. Gardiner, Ed.). Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology.

Hills, G. (1869). The Church of West-Hampnett. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 21, 33–43.

Russell, M. (2006). Roman Sussex. Stroud: Tempus.

A Great Step Forward

I received in the mail the other day the means by which this project can take a great step forward. I approached the Vicar of Burpham, the Rev. Roy Kilford a few weeks ago asking for permission to conduct a non-invasive geophysical survey surrounding the parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin of Burpham near Arundel, West Sussex.  He replied that not only was he keenly interested  and so were the churchwardens, but that I should organise through him a talk to the villagers considering the archaeological importance of their village. Having surveyed the Anglo-Saxon fort within which their village hall and cricket pitch lie, I am naturally very keen to communicate my results and gain their perspective on the heritage of the area in order to put those results into a local context.

The church site is important to me for a number of reasons: It is the subject of what seems to be an authentic land grant narrowly dated to 770-772AD. In this charter King Oswald of the South Saxons buys land at Piperinges from his follower (comes) Erra and grants it to a woman named Tidburh; presumably by the language to establish a Christian religous community there. Piperinges is interesting in that it survives to the modern day as Peppering Farm, not a kilometer from the modern village of Burpham. Place name Evidence itself suggests that when it enters history in the Burghal Hidage of King Alfred’s time, there was already a burh in existence, as it was referred in that document by this name. This could mean that there was some sort of defensive structure already in place and it simply means the “fort by the bend in the river”. Alternatively, OE burh can mean a walled monastic community. Perhaps, in fear of Viking raids that preyed upon minster sites which often had treasures undefended, the land was abandoned by the monks and as ownership then reverted to the Kings of Wessex, it was redistributed to a military follower and the still extant fortification was constructed.

There is a report from the 1930’s that state that while digging graves, there was encountered a “Roman pavement” on the East side of the North Transept of the church. Now this could mean there is a previously unknown Roman building on the site, but there is nothing to say that it is not a high status Anglo-Saxon building; perhaps a floor adorning a previous church or building in a minster complex.

Obviously, there are sensitivities to be acknowledged in dealing with this type of site. Firstly there is consideration of the existing burials and ensuring that no investigation will damage or offend. However, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is perfect as there is no need for anything to be inserted into the ground, nor any digging need be done. The nature of the method as well ensures that the burials and the burial monuments will not interfere with the survey. The GPR data can be presented as a series of “time slices” that reflect the travel of the radar signal into the ground. The resultant data shows a 2d plan of the results at varying depths, allowing interpretation of features to occur with quite a high level of confidence.

Needless to say, I am over the moon about the opportunity. I hope to update this site with more good news in the near future.