What was Ipswich like in the Iron Age?
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
For hundreds of years, Ipswich has been occupied throughout various periods of history.
Most famously the town was home to the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th and 8th centuries, and prior to that, the Romans between the mid 1st and early 5th centuries.
But Ipswich’s history of settlements goes back even further than that.
Over the years, swathes of evidence of human occupation during the Bronze and Iron Ages has been uncovered by the team at Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.
The ‘later prehistoric’ era - which includes the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods - spans from 4,500 BC until the Roman Conquest in 43 AD.
Life during this time was ruled by tools – people in the Bronze and Iron Ages began experimenting with using bronze and iron respectively. These developments made everyday life easier, especially when it came to farming.
Core jobs during these eras would mostly have been agriculture, pottery, carpentry and metalwork-based.
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“In a nutshell, there is a background scattering of prehistoric remains across the borough,” explains Dr Abby Antrobus, archaeological planning services manager at Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.
“But there is a tendency for prehistoric settlement sites to be located on the edges of the slightly higher ground that forms an arc in the eastern half of the borough area, and in the similarly higher area in the Stoke area of the south-west. This is similar to locations of such settlements elsewhere in Suffolk.”
So, what exactly has been found in Ipswich and the surrounding area?
According to Suffolk Heritage Explorer, this part of England is home to sites that contain timber buildings which leave ephemeral archaeological traces in the form of post-holes and gullies.
In addition, a number of stone and metal artefacts have been excavated, including flint axes and bronze blade fragments.
While Neolithic and Iron Age burials are rare in this county, Bronze Age burials are more common. These tend to be associated with burial mounds, and are often found as cremations in large pottery urns.
Some of the most prolific ancient finds uncovered in Ipswich are the gold torcs which were buried on high ground overlooking Belstead Brook, and found in the mid-20th century.
A torc – sometimes spelt as torq or torque – is an ornate, twisted metal ring worn around the neck. They were especially common during the Iron Age and Celtic period.
They were stumbled upon by digger driver Malcolm Tricker in 1968, while he was bulldozing a sandy soil bank for new houses. He first pulled out two of the torcs, followed by three more.
"I used to work in a scrap metal yard, and I realised these things were too heavy to be brass. They gave out quite a different sound from brass when I tapped them together, and they were quite untarnished. It occurred to me then that they might be gold,” he said in the Evening Star at the time.
About 8ins in diameter each, Malcolm took his finds to Ipswich Museum, where archaeologist Elizabeth Owles called them ‘the most exciting find I have ever seen’.
“When I saw the torcs I couldn't really believe it was true,” she remarked.
The gold torcs, following further investigation, date back to the 1st century BC and weigh between 27 and 33 ounces. Undamaged, they are speculated to be part of a goldsmith’s hoard.
And just two years later, a sixth torc was found nearby in Holcombe Crescent – completing the set which now resides in the British Museum.
“These suggest a place of exceptional status, perhaps a religious enclosure comparable to Snettisham in north-east Norfolk,” adds Abby.
Additional finds from the later prehistoric era have what Suffolk Heritage Explorer dub ‘a fairly even distribution over the borough’, suggesting Ipswich was evenly populated by settlers throughout.
Elsewhere in the town, a number of axes from the later prehistoric eras have been found, including a hoard of four bronze socketed axes found on the north side of Felixstowe Road in the 1920s. And a century later, two Bronze Age axeheads were uncovered in Chantry Park.
Found by members of the Ipswich Metal Detector Club in 2020 during the restoration of Chantry Park Wilderness Pond, the axeheads are thought to be more than 3,000 years old.
“The importance of this find is that we know exactly where they were,” explained Ipswich and Colchester Museums’ Dr Frank Hargrave at the time.
“Occasional finds of Late Iron Age coins also indicate high-status activity and confirm that Ipswich fell within the territory of the Trinovantes tribe, although close to the boundary with the Iceni to the north,” adds Abby.
On a larger scale, four Bronze Age graves were uncovered in October 2000 during an excavation at the site of the Morrison’s supermarket on Boss Hall Road.
The dig uncovered a large double ring-ditch, and within the centre of that was a series of four graves – the earliest of which was a coffin burial furnished with three beaker-style pots. The latest grave contained the skeletal remains of a child estimated to be around nine-years-old.
And just three years later, the remains of a Bronze Age settlement were uncovered beneath Martlesham in 2003 when work was being carried out for the Martlesham Park and Ride scheme.
Excavations found pottery and flint dating back 4,000 years ago, and a series of pits that were thought to have been dug to dispose of rubbish.
Mark Sommer, from Suffolk County Council's archaeological service, said at the time: “We have evidence that people were living in the area during the Bronze Age, but we didn't know where until now so this find is very important.
"It's rare to find such large amounts of pottery and it's quite exciting because it's so well preserved for its age. Suffolk and East Anglia is fairly heavily farmed and most fields are ploughed, which damages the land, but this is rare because it's been left alone.”
To find out more about the history of Ipswich throughout the ages and see what else has been found throughout the years, visit heritage.suffolk.gov.uk
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