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winchelsea archaeological society

Who we are and what we do

WAS was set up in 1999 by residents, with the encouragement of the East Sussex County Archaeologist, to undertake a comprehensive geophysical survey of the buried remains of medieval Winchelsea. Surprisingly, given the international archaeological importance of Winchelsea, very little of the town had been geophysically surveyed or excavated prior to 1999 (in fact, there had been seven excavations and five resistivity surveys, all of limited areas). The principal objective of WAS is therefore to provide the physical evidence needed by archaeologists to reconstruct a detailed layout of the 13th century town and test current hypotheses about the medieval town.

WAS undertakes other research. Since 2005, it been assisting the National Trust in a project to sort and interpret the mass of broken pottery dug out of the cellar under Blackfriars Barn, possibly the largest assemblage of domestic pottery in the country outside of pottery sites. Between May 2007 and March 2010, 50 dustbins full of pottery sherds were sorted and classified by WAS volunteers. The next stage of the project has just begun.

volunteers clearing the cellars of Blackfriars Barn

Volunteers clearing Blackfriars Barn

WAS is working to improve public access to the archaeological and historical literature on Winchelsea. It is currently assembling a local archive of documents, including archaeological evaluations, surveys and excavations. We have started by compiling a summary and interactive maps of all the archaeology that has been done in Winchelsea to date.

In order to foster public support for the conservation of Winchelsea's archaeology, WAS tries to ensure that the importance of the local heritage is more widely recognised. The Society organises lectures and other events focused on local history and archaeology, and has been involved in a number of visitor information projects, such as the Winchelsea E-Guide. Members of WAS conduct guided tours of Winchelsea's archaeology, notably of the medieval wine vaults --- Winchelsea has more than any other place in the country, with the possible exceptions of Norwich and Southamption --- between May and October for the public and for private groups such as other archaeological societies. In May 2010, WAS hosted a very successful two-day conference, Revisiting New Towns of the Middle Ages, which brought together some of the leading experts on medieval urbansim in Winchelsea.

WAS is delighted to assist visiting archaeologists. In 2003, it helped a team of archaeologists and geographers from Queens University Belfast in their pilot study of the planning of the new towns established by Edward I in England and Wales. More recently, it hosted a group of students from Sheffield University. WAS also co-operates with other local archaeological societies, including the Romney Marsh Research Trust, the Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group and the Lenham Archaeological Society.

Since 2007, WAS has conducted non-commercial archaeological watching briefs on small development sites in Winchelsea. It also acts as a collection point for small archaeological finds made in the village (eg pottery sherds) and has become the depository for archives from local excavations.

The Society has increasingly become involved in planning issues, where there are threats to local archaeology or a failure by the local planning authority to protect that archaeology. WAS was invited by the local planning authority to comment on the draft Winchelsea Conservation Area Appraisal and submitted a response in January 2008.

In August 2011, WAS became a registered charity (1143524).

WAS surveys

WAS conducts geophysical surveys using its own resistance meter. This was purchased in 2002 with a lottery grant from Awards for All. The meter detects underground features by measuring the resistance to an electrical current flowing between fixed and movable electrodes. The movable electrodes are carried on a frame which looks not unlike a Zimmer Frame!

A survey team at work with a resitance meter A team at work in Truncheons Field

Dry features such as stone foundations resist the flow of current; wet features such as filled-in ditches and cellars facilitate the flow. By placing the movable electrodes on the ground at a succession of points in a 20x20 grid, with each point one metre apart, a pattern of electrical readings is recorded. The readings are then processed on special software to produce a matrix of different shades showing the outline of what is under the ground. An example is shown below.

The results of a  resistivity survey Resistivity plot of the northern half of Truncheons Field

In 2006, WAS started to commission surveys with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) of areas that have had resistivity surveys. The first GPR survey was of the claustral area of Greyfriars monastery. The results were very exciting and have revealed a quite different layout to the one extracted from documentary sources and surveys of scorch marks (see the right-hand panel). WAS uses the services of Arrow Geophysics of East Dean, who have been pioneering more rapid and affordable GPR technology specifically for archaeology.

To date, WAS has completed geophysical surveys of:

  • Pipewell Field (the site of the Blackfriars Monastery)
  • field by the New Gate (the site of Bartholomew's Hospital)
  • proposed site of a public tennis court behind the New Hall
  • Truncheons Field (Quarters 24 and 29 of the medieval town)
  • garden of Eastwoods on Tanyard Lane (the site of the port) --- surveyed by auger.
  • Greyfriars garden (monastery site) --- resistivity and GPR. 
  • St Giles Close (site of St Giles Church).
  • A private garden in Mill Road.
  • St Leonards Marsh.
  • Topological and resistivity surveys of the Cricket Field.
  • Resistivity survey of the Cricket Field.

In 2007, WAS undertook its first excavation in the form of an exploratory trench across what was hoped to have been a foundation wall of St Giles Church.

How you can help

Why not help with surveys? Survey work tends to take place between March and November, but precise dates are dependent on the weather. In the period leading up to a survey, there must have been neither too much nor too little rain. Survey dates are advertised in advance on local noticeboards.

If you prefer a more sedentary involvement, we need volunteers for the Blackfriars Barn project and to undertake documentary research.

You can also support our work by joining WAS. Membership is open to anyone, whether or not they wish to take part in survey work. Membership costs just £5. Download a subscription form, or call us on 01797 224446 and we will send you one. Read our constitution and check our latest accounts. Members are kept in touch with regular newsletters, which include articles of local interest.

WAS can be contacted on 01797 224446 or at was@winchelsea.net.

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Registered charity 1143524

Keep in touch on Twitter

WAS is now on Twitter as @WinArchSoc. Follow us to get updates on our activities.

What's On

  • 28 May 2014 --- What the Bexhill Link Road has told us about the archaeology of Winchelsea by Casper Johnson (County Archaeologist). Now a talk in the Church at 7:00pm. All welcome. 
  • 14 June 2014 --- The naval role of the Cinque Ports by Dr Craig Lambert in St Thomas's Church, Winchelsea, at 3:00pm. All welcome.
  • 19 July 2014 --- To be a pilgrim: the medieval pilgrimage traffic from the Ancient Towns by Dr Gillian Draper of the British Association for Local History in St Thomas's Church, Winchelsea, at 3;00pm. All welcome.
  • 22 November 2014 --- Medieval Pirates by Jill Eddison at 3:00pm. All welcome.

Cellar and other history tours

The Winchelsea Archaeological Society conducts guided tours of the cellars under Winchelsea and historical walks around the village. Why not come along to one of the public tours?

If you are a member of a group, we can arrange a special tour at any time of the year. For more information or to book, contact us by e-mail or on 01797 224446. See what some visitors thought in 2010.

 A medieval wine cellar in Winchelsea

Books on Winchelsea archaeology

Download the two more authoritative publications on Winchelsea's archaeology:

Please note: these books are still copyright and are made available for personal and educational use only.

Winchelsea Historic Graffiti Survey

To most people, the word ‘graffiti’ is associated with vandalism and disaffected youth. They would be shocked to hear that the ancient buildings of Winchelsea, including St Thomas’s Church, are covered in graffiti!
However, Winchelsea’s graffiti is medieval. It has been scratched onto stonework since the 14th century. Most is now so faint that it is hard to see and therefore tends not to be noticed. But there is now growing archaeological interest. And the more that archaeologists look, the less certain they are that these graffiti were just random acts of vandalism. Some, particularly in churches, may have had an accepted role in medieval society.
Interest in historic graffiti in Winchelsea has been spurred by the discovery of a veritable fleet of ship graffiti in one of the cellars under the ruins of Blackfriars Barn.
In June 2012, a project called the Winchelsea Historic Graffiti Survey was launched to discover, survey and record historic graffiti in and around Winchelsea. If you would like to help, you do not have to a member of WAS. Just contact us.

Archaeological archive

WAS is working to compile a complete online archive of archaeological investigations in Winchelsea. Our thanks to everyone who allowed us to upload their reports, including Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG), Chris Butler and Chris Greatorex.

Society news

Grant from Police Property Fund
WAS is delighted to announce that it has received a grant of £300 for the purchase of a portable display stand for its programme of talk and exhibitions. The stand is also available to other community groups. Our thanks also go to the Rye Neighbourhood Police Team for securing the grant on our behalf.

Grant from Big Lottery Fund
WAS is delighted to announce that it has received a grant of £678 for the purchase of a projector for its programme of talk and for workshops. The projector is also available to other community groups.

Logo of the Big Lottery Fund: grant-giver to WAS

Grant from Sussex Community Foundation
WAS is delighted to announce that it has received a Grassroots grant of £250 towards the cost of surveying equipment and a grant of £280 towards a metal detector.

Logo of the Sussex Community Foundation: grant-giver to WAS

If you find something in your garden

If you come across an object that looks of archaeological interest, you are welcome to deposit it with us. Call us on 01797 224446. We will ensure that it gets to a professional archaeologist and will report back to you. Please try to record where you found the object.

Exhibition of medieval coin

Gros tournois of St Louis

The coin was a gros tournois of Louis IX and was found in an allotment in Winchelsea in 2010. It dates from the 1260s and was in such good condition that it seems likely it was lost around that time, before the building of New Winchelsea. The coin was found on land owned by the National Trust. WAS helped retrieve the coin. The exhibition was held in the Court Hall Museum in Winchelsea on 3 March. The displays were mounted by WAS.

Photo gallery

View photographs of the society's work, which are now on Flickr.