The Saxon period
‘Victory helmet’ – ‘Sige helm‘ in Anglo-Saxon – is thought to be the origin of the name of Selmeston, which suggests Sige helm’s ‘tun‘, or settlement. There was obviously a thriving Anglo-Saxon community in this area, with the main centre of a village believed to have been in the fields behind Manor Cottages. The evidence for this is the nineteenth-century discovery of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery adjacent to the cottages.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates the exploits of a chieftain called Aelle, who landed at Selsey in AD 477. The stories appear to be based on a lost saga recalling a career of conquest that made Aelle the first Bretwalda (ruler of Britain) of the Anglo-Saxons.
Aelle’s Saxons settled around the area of Selsey Bill and were isolated by the Weald from the Romano-British territories that still operated to the north. A separate band, known as the Hæstingas, settled around what later became Hastings. These Saxons become known as the Suth Seaxe, giving the present county its name.
Early in the sixth century, Aelle’s son, Cissa, began the rebuilding of the Roman town of Noviomagus, which took the name of its new ruler, becoming Cisseceaster, or Chichester.
There is no one today who claims descent from any of Aelle’s sons and the line may have died out. However, his followers continued to live in what is now Sussex and the name or attribute of one of them has survived to the present day in the name of Selmeston.
In 1897, Saxon grave goods were found when Manor Cottages were being built. These objects were kept at Sherrington Manor until 1950, when they were donated to the Sussex Archaeological Society. In 1950, H. A. Davis, a builder and archaeologist living in Selmeston, found several weapons including an iron sword, when his workmen were digging a trench in the garden of the cottages.
Subsequent excavations in the field behind the cottages (known as Troy Field or Troy Town* or Twydown) uncovered one of the largest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the South of England, containing at least 200 graves and believed to date from the fifth to the seventh centuries AD. A wooden bucket with bronze fittings – the wood still in a perfect state of preservation- was discovered, together with swords decorated in gilt, eighteen spears, twenty-six daggers, bronze and enamel brooches and pottery of unusual design. A hexagonal-based shield boss, the first of its kind in the country, was also found.
The major archaeological work on the site was undertaken by the late Dr Martin Welch of University College London (UCL). Although stored at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and worked on by generations of conservation students since 1980, the archive from this potentially major Sussex Anglo-Saxon cemetery has yet to be brought fully into the public domain.
In July 2015 a further survey was undertaken by Scott Chaussee, a student of UCL, who surveyed the whole field, with positive results indicating there may be many more graves to the east of the original dig. Hopefully, UCL will progress with these results in the near future.
Various objects discovered on the site can be seen in the Barbican House Museum in Lewes. They include a necklace of nine amber beads (below left) and the more colourful one pictured below right.
M.G. Welch, ‘Late Romans and Saxons in Sussex’, Britannia 2 (1971), pp. 232-7
M.G Welch, ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex’, British Archaeological Reports, ser. 112 (Oxford 1983), pp. 150, 390, fig 60c
*Note: Troy Town is the name shown on the 1840 tithe map (OS GB 36 TQ 510 071 ). The field was also the course of an old droving Roman road. The ancient Roman equestrian event known as the ‘Troy Game’ involved riding in a maze-like pattern, and may have a connection.
Although stored at the Institute by the late Dr Martin Welch and worked on by generations of conservation students since 1980, the archive from this potentially major Sussex Anglo-Saxon cemetery has yet to be brought fully into the public domain.
With support from a Sussex Archaeological Society Margary grant and volunteer time from Institute of Archaeology postgraduate students, the material is gradually being readied for analysis and publication.
The specific issues for this site are the apparent absence of female graves and the relationship of this community to others along the scarp of the South Downs, for example the much larger group at Eastbourne St Ann’s Road (ASE forthcoming).