On the 10th October 1894, the Sussex Archaeological Society made a formal visit to Hastings Castle, where they were greeted by Charles Dawson and John Lewis. Both men had recently overseen the clearance and recording of an extensive tunnel underneath the castle, and Dawson was understandably keen to disseminate the results. The existence of tunnels beneath Hastings Castle had long been known, tours having formed a major part of any visit to the medieval fortifications, but their full extent and nature had, until Dawson and Lewis, never been ascertained.
Analysing the results of their explorations within the subterranean tunnels, Dawson and Lewis were critical of earlier interpretations that stressed a dungeon or prison interpretation, but one aspect of the dungeon theory appeared inexplicable to them, this being two areas of rock face discoloration on the southern wall of the main gallery in the north eastern tunnel. This discoloration or staining “resembled two shadows of human bodies on the wall, falling side by side between the so-called staple holes”. The sketch which accompanied the article published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1896 shows the peculiar human-like markings in some detail, suggesting that they were indeed caused by the placement of bodies against the side wall of the underground chamber. Dawson himself compiled this sketch as the report clearly notes that “this discoloration…was certainly plainly visible when Mr. Dawson first saw the cavern, in 1872, especially when a light was held in a particular position near the wall”. By the time of the 1894 work, however, the images had faded, Dawson and Lewis commenting that “strange to say, in our many recent visits to the dungeons, we have never yet again observed this phenomenon, and it now appears entirely lost”.
Although the 1894 exploration of the tunnels had not added a huge amount of detail to the history of Hastings Castle, the task of clearance had evidently not been easy, involving much hard work. The record produced was, however, totally new; John Lewis’ inked drawings adding significant detail to aid the understanding of the feature. Dawson’s own photographs of the subterranean workings have furthermore greatly aided tunnel interpretation, although the absence of a detailed finds report is of course regrettable. In short, there would appear to be nothing inherently untoward or devious about the work undertaken; in fact, given the time and conditions they were explored, the work appears exemplary.
One aspect of the survey which does, however, cause concern is the so-called ‘shadow-markings’ discovered on the walls of the main gallery. Dawson provided an informative (if not wholly objective) sketch of the stains, showing their clear human shape. Lewis comments that the images had been “plainly visible” in 1872, when Dawson, then aged 8, was taken on a guided tour of the tunnels by the then custodian. The problem is that that the shadow-markings themselves had completely vanished by the time that Lewis explored the tunnels in 1896. Presumably, therefore, Dawson’s drawing must have been compiled from memory.
This brings us to an interesting conundrum, for the published article plays down the significance of the shadow-markings, even going so far as to imply that they may have been crude forgeries (generated by “applying oily substances to the wall”), whilst the illustration which accompanies it conclusively favours their existence. We could infer some form of foul play: perhaps the markings were generated by Dawson and Lewis to support the prison hypothesis. This would seem plausible were it not for the fact that the published report so vigorously attacks any suggestion that the tunnels had been used for such a purpose.
The drawing could be viewed as a hoax perpetrated by Dawson upon the antiquarian community. Alternatively, and perhaps more favourably, the sketch may be viewed as the end product of Dawson’s highly subjective memory. Perhaps Dawson actually ‘remembered’ more detail than was initially present; a man who wanted others to see the outline of two poor unfortunates, manacled to the wall of the subterranean tunnel, when the reality was far more prosaic. Such an explanation could explain Lewis’ scepticism, and the final inconclusive nature of this part of the published report.