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Ipswich excavation: Insights into historic trading port revealed

image copyrightOxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct
image captionThe excavation at Ipswich's waterfront took place in 2012, ahead of blocks of flats being built

Research from an archaeological dig at "one of England's oldest trading ports" where hundreds of skeletons were found reveal insights into Anglo Saxon lives in a "poorer area", an expert said.

The excavation at Great Whip Street in Ipswich took place in 2012.

A 6th-8th Century barrow cemetery was unearthed, revealing finds linked to local industry and what could the "earliest evidence" of an autopsy.

The findings have been published in Excavations at Stoke Quay.

image copyrightOxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct
image captionThe unearthed cemetery contained more than 1,100 burials spanning the Late Saxon to Late medieval periods

Excavation of the 1.2ha (three acre)-site at Stoke Quay on the waterfront was carried out by Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology.

They said the excavations revealed burials associated with the Middle Saxon trading centre, extensive remains of the Middle- to Late-Saxon settlement, and the lost medieval church and cemetery of St Augustine's from a later period.

Richard Brown, co-author of the book and senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology, said the findings "very much exceeded expectations".

"We hope this volume goes some way to highlighting the rich resource of this internationally important town's archaeology," he added.

image copyrightOxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct
image captionA silver penny of King Beonna from the Middle Saxon settlement was uncovered

Researchers said a Middle Saxon settlement of 8th to 9th Century overlaid the cemetery and the remains showed the setting out of plots, streets, and buildings similar to other Anglo-Saxon trading centres at London, Southampton and York.

They said the unearthed cemetery contained more than 1,100 burials spanning the Late Saxon to Late medieval periods.

The discoveries offered insights into the lives of people in "one of Ipswich's poorer areas" and included:

  • antler combs and textile tools found in wells and cess pits
  • an exceptionally well-preserved ware kiln "of crucial importance since it indicates that production [of pottery] took place across a wider area of the town than was previously suspected"
  • the presence of reused boat timbers in graves indicates the population must have included a high proportion of sailors
  • one individual buried with a chalice and paten, indicating he was a priest
  • a skeleton with post-mortem knife cuts down the spine, which "if the explanation [of autopsy] is indeed the correct one, the skeleton represents the earliest physical evidence of anatomisation or dissection ever identified in the country"

Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist for Historic England, said: "The burials provide important new insights into the diverse and ever-changing population of one of England's oldest trading ports."

image copyrightOxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct
image captionAs was a buckle plate fashioned from a reused lead strip inscribed with runes, the meaning of which remained "uncertain"
image copyrightOxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct
image captionIpswich was originally known by its Anglo-Saxon name - variously spelt Gippeswyke, Gippeswic or Gipeswic
image captionThe site is now occupied by high rise flats

It was the first group of burials associated with a major English port to have been archaeologically excavated and analysed, according to the research team.

The cemetery was also the focus of Channel 4's The Bone Detectives: Britain's Buried Secrets.

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Related Topics

  • History
  • Archaeology
  • Ipswich

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