Ipswich is more important than you think

IPSWICH Archaeological Trust is 25 years old this month. Today feature writer JAMES MARSTON takes a look back at some of the discoveries which make our county town far more important than you might think.

IPSWICH Archaeological Trust is 25 years old this month. Today feature writer JAMES MARSTON takes a look back at some of the discoveries which make our county town far more important than you might think.

ARCHAEOLOGY has taught us much about the history of our town.

For the past 25 years the Ipswich Archaeological Trust has let residents know what has been found, what research has discovered and what history is under our feet.

The archaeological deposits which underlie Ipswich town centre are of international importance. For example, excavations carried out since 1974 have demonstrated that Ipswich is one of the earliest English towns and one of the first in north-west Europe.

The town was probably founded by the East Anglian Kings, buried at the famous Sutton Hoo cemetery, in the early 7th Century.

Chris Wilshire, chairman of the trust, said: “Ipswich was the first established Anglo-Saxon town. Ipswich has been on this site since the 7th century. 90 per cent of the modern street plan of central Ipswich has remained the same, it's an Anglo-Saxon town.”

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Chris, a retired doctor, said Ipswich is historically far more important than people realise.

The trust has organised a conference to celebrate 25 years of the trust, to bring together the research undertaken in our town. It will provide an overview of what we know about Ipswich for the first time.

Chris said: “It brings together the experts who have been involved in the research here and consolidates all that work in a public arena.”

Back in the 1980s Chris was working as an oncologist at Ipswich Hospital, and also a member of the Ipswich society. He said: “The trust was formed in October 1982. We aimed to get information and research uncovered by Suffolk County Council's archaeology team into the public domain.

“We also identified building of historical importance that were at risk of being pulled down and demolished.

“We were involved in saving Merchant House which was in Waterworks Street. It was a timber framed building that was dismantled and moved to a new site in Silent Street.”

Not just an academic body the trust also was a campaigning force in the town.

Chris said: “In the mid 1980s we began to promote the idea of an Anglo Saxon centre in Ipswich. It would have been a major tourist attraction as well as academic centre.”

The idea never really got off the ground. Chris added: “Our plans proved unsuccessful but we still bring it up every now and again. It's not gone away.”

In 1999 the trust was again back on the campaign trail arguing that proposed funding cuts and changes to the town's museum service. Chris said: “We found the curatorship of Ipswich museum would be handed over to a leisure manager. We saw it as a dumbing down and started to mount a judicial review to the policy.

“We knew we probably wouldn't win as we didn't really have a case but in the end Ipswich Borough Council appointed a new director of the museum service. We had managed to change their minds.”

Aside from its campaigning role the Ipswich Archaeological Trust was formed to inform the people of Ipswich about, and involve them in, the archaeological work undertaken in the town by Suffolk County Council's Archaeological Unit.

Chris said the trust reports on research done in the town through a newsletter.

But during the last 25 years there have been a number of large and significant digs that have told us much about our town and particularly its Anglo-Saxon history.


Digs in Ipswich included areas in school street which showed the Blackfriars church. Chris said: “The Viking defences of the town were also found and a number of skeletons in the ditches that possibly were remains of people who had died at the time of the Viking raids in 991AD.”

There was also an excavation in Smart Street which uncovered a middle Saxon well.


Foundation Street - excavations uncovered an Anglo-Saxon street. the excavations were made before a multi-storey car park was built on the site.


Greyfriars Road (Novotel development)

Chris said: “This was a very interesting site and showed us the earliest part of the town. Most of Ipswich dates from 800-900 AD but this went back to the 600s at the time of the earliest settlements by the Anglo-Saxons.

“We know this because we unearthed a pagan cemetery.”


Boss hall industrial estate

Chris said: “Here was found some fantastic treasure. Grave good of what must have been a high ranking woman included a beautiful gold brooch inlaid with garnets and necklaces.

“It is unusual to find such high value goods in a grave, she would have been a wealthy woman.”

Buttermarket development

Chris said: “This was one of the largest urban digs in the UK that has ever been carried out. An intact kiln was found which we suspect was used to make pottery in the town known as Ipswich ware.

“It was the first Post-Roman kiln to be found in England and further evidence that Ipswich is England's first Anglo-Saxon town.”

The dig also unearthed a number of grave goods - indicative of pagan burials - as well as Christian burials showing a piecemeal conversion to Christianity.

Early 1990s

Recession hit the UK and development in Ipswich came to an abrupt halt.

Chris said: “We had a crisis of confidence and asked our members if they wanted the society to continue, they said they did but there were no digs for a number of years.”

Late 1990s

Building development in the town began again.

Chris said: “The next big thing was the Ipswich waterfront which, after ten years, is still ongoing. We have found the Anglo-Saxon and medieval waterfronts but a lot was destroyed by Victorians who often built cellars which destroyed the evidence.”


Artefacts dating back 200,000 years were found in Ipswich in a dig in Stoke railway tunnel.

Chris said: “A dig was undertaken while some work was being done to the tunnel. There was a geological layer of mammal bones of tigers and mammoths. Most of the bones are still there where they had been deposited by a water flow thousands of years ago.”


Cranfields Mill

Found here included the foundations of medieval merchant houses with warehouses attached.

Chris said: “Most merchant's homes were attached to warehouses and they again show the prosperity of Ipswich as a centre of trade.”

The future

There are still large areas of the town that have yet to be explored.

Chris said: “The Cox lane/Mint quarter area which is currently a car park hasn't been dug. It is a huge area of the town and there could be clues to the industrial part of the Anglo-Saxon and medieval town.”

Chris added: “Ipswich has always looked to the future but we have a fascinating past. Ipswich people have a heritage to be proud of.”

Are you interested in our town's history? Have you made any unusual discoveries? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Most of Ipswich's Anglo-Saxon archaeology is buried two metres under current street level. The original waterfront is roughly where Key Street is today.

The conference Ipswich Unearthed runs on October 27 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Ipswich Archaeological Trust.

It will be held from 10am to 5.30pm and supported by CBA East Anglia.

This one-day conference will feature the archaeological work undertaken in Ipswich since the Trust was formed. It will bring together leading experts on Anglo-Saxon Ipswich who will present the results of their more recent research.

Conference includes refreshments and an optional sandwich lunch available for £5 extra per person. Please send SAE and make cheques for £15 payable to 'Ipswich Archaeological Society'.

Contact Mrs Eileen Ward, Springcroft Cottage, Whights Corner, Washbrook, Ipswich IP8 3LB.

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