30th September 2020:

A new book about the investigations at Stoke Quay in Ipswich provides crucial new evidence about one of England's oldest urban centres in the Saxon and medieval periods.

Ipswich is one of England’s oldest towns. Its archaeology is of international significance but sadly remains little known due to previous lack of publication. In recent years, new evidence has come to light from archaeological excavations as a result of planning conditions for development. Excavation of the 1.2ha site at Stoke Quay on Great Whip Street, immediately south of the River Orwell and adjacent to one of the ancient arterial routes leading into the town, was carried out by Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology in 2012. The work was procured by Ramboll on behalf of ISG who developed the site for Notting Hill Genesis, formerly Genesis Housing Association.


The site during excavation, looking south


Ipswich rapidly emerged in the 7th and 8th centuries as one of the first post-Roman settlements which could truly be described as a town. It was a specialised trading place within the eastern kingdom with royal input into trade and with commercial and diplomatic relations with the Frankish empire on the continent. The Stoke Quay excavations revealed burials associated with the Middle Saxon trading centre, extensive remains of the Middle to Late Saxon settlement, as well as the later site of the lost medieval church and cemetery of St Augustine’s.

An entirely unexpected discovery was the late 6th to early 8th-century barrow cemetery. This consisted of burials interred beneath round mounds of earth that stretched along a high steep bank facing towards the river, reminiscent of prehistoric and Scandinavian influences. Among the grave goods was a complete glass bowl-shaped 'palm' cup. Two burials outside the barrow cemetery were buried with iron blades.


A complete greenish-blue bowl-shaped 'palm' cup


A Middle Saxon settlement of 8th to 9th century date overlay the cemetery. The remains showed the setting out of plots, streets, and buildings similar to other Saxon trading centres, known as wics, at London, Southampton and York. The associated pits, wells and cess pits contained a substantial number of finds. These included antler combs, textile tools and dress pins. Among the buckles was a unique example in which the buckle plate has been made with a reused lead strip that carried an Old English runic inscription on both sides. The meaning of the inscription remains uncertain.


A buckle plate fashioned from a reused lead strip inscribed with runes


The town’s industries, such as pottery production, led to substantial trade links with the continent and it produced the first kiln-fired pottery made in Britain since the Romans on a quasi-industrial scale. The discovery of an exceptionally well-preserved Ipswich ware kiln at the Stoke Quay site is of crucial importance since it indicates that production took place across a wider area of the town than was previously suspected (the other known sites, including the Buttermarket, lying on the northern side of the river).

During the Late Saxon and medieval periods, the site was dominated by the church and cemetery of St Augustine’s, the precise location of which had been lost for 500 years. The history of this parish and its little church have now been traced from the 10th century until their demise at the end of the 15th century (when the parish united with St Peter’s). Sited in one of Ipswich’s poorer areas, the population must have included a high proportion of sailors as is suggested by the presence of reused boat timbers in many of the graves. Despite the poverty of its parishioners, the chancel of the church was rebuilt and a possible priest’s house was later added.

The cemetery contained over 1,100 burials spanning the Late Saxon to Late medieval periods. This is the first group of burials associated with a major English port to have been archaeologically excavated and analysed. The cemetery was the focus of the first episode of the second series of the flagship Channel 4 television series, ‘The Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets’.

As highlighted in the televisision programme, scientific analysis suggests a population that was highly mobile and comprised local and non-local individuals of mixed ancestry, unlike populations in other non-port towns. Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England, said “The burials that have been recovered in these excavations provide important new insights into the diverse and ever-changing population of one of England’s oldest trading ports.”

Of particular note was a skeleton of an older male, at least 60 years old, buried in the nave of the church, who had post-mortem knife cut marks which had opened up the spine all the way down from the neck down to the base. Autopsy is a plausible explanation for this perplexing discovery, but such procedures were not common during the Medieval period as it was believed that bodily integrity should be maintained after death. If the explanation is indeed the correct one, the skeleton represents the earliest physical evidence of anatomisation or dissection ever identified in the country.

Louise Loe, Head of Burials at Oxford Archaeology, presented this groundbreaking discovery in the Bone Detectives programme. She said “spanning almost a thousand years, from its origin in the early Anglo-Saxon period up to the Dissolution, the Stoke Quay assemblage is not only the largest UK medieval port population to be archaeologically excavated in the UK, but it also comprises practically the entire cemetery population, allowing rare and very valuable insights into the lives (and deaths) of individuals from one of Ipswich's poorest suburbs. The opportunity to do this work has been an absolute privilege and a high point in my career.”

OA's Head of Burials, Louise Loe (left) on Channel 4's Bone Detectives

Once the church had fallen from use, the building appears to have survived by being reused as part of a cooperage making barrels during the 17th century. By the 18th century, this was replaced with a shipyard on the northern edge of the site and orchards to the south. These remained in place until a maltings was established at the beginning of the 20th century.

This extraordinary story featuring new research on nearly 1300 years of Ipswich’s history has now been published by East Anglian Archaeology in a new book, ‘Excavations at Stoke Quay, Ipswich’ by Richard Brown, Steven Teague, Louise Loe, Berni Sudds and Elizabeth Popescu. The book is available to buy from Oxbow Books (www.oxbowbooks.com).

The Bone Detectives television episode featuring the discoveries at Stoke Quay is still available to view online on demand for the next four weeks (https://www.channel4.com/programmes/bone-detectives-britains-buried-secrets).

One of the authors of the book, Richard Brown, Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology said “we knew the site at Stoke Quay would be really informative about the historic development of Ipswich, but the results we got very much exceeded expectations. Both Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology are proud to have produced the first comprehensive archaeological and osteoarchaeological publication of the history of Ipswich. We hope that this volume goes some way to highlighting and disseminating the rich resource of this internationally important town's archaeology”.