Ipswich’s medieval population investigated

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The Stoke Quay site under excavation, looking towards the south. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology/Pre-Construct Archaeology

In 2012, an extensive excavation was carried out in the Stoke Quay area of Ipswich by Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology. Covering an area of 1.2ha, the project was a major undertaking and made finds spanning the early medieval period through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The results have now been published, unveiling exciting new details of the city’s early history as one of Britain’s first port towns.

The team’s findings have revealed the layout of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, uncovering the footprints of streets, buildings, and cesspits, as well as the foundations of the 10th-century St Augustine’s church and its churchyard – the precise location of which had been forgotten until now. The most-informative discovery, though, was more than 1,100 burials associated with St Augustine’s.

Analysis of the human remains has provided vivid details about the people who lived and worked in this area of Ipswich during this period. In particular, attesting to the vibrancy of this port town, isotopic analysis has revealed that the population buried there was highly mobile and a rich mix of those who were born and raised in Ipswich and those who migrated there from further afield.

One of the burials found within the church was particularly intriguing: the remains of a man, older than 60 and dating to the later medieval period, with incision marks running the entire length of his spine, as well as along his sternum and some of his ribs. Based on the characteristics of the marks, they appear to have been made shortly after the man’s death. The reason for these cuts is not immediately apparent, but they bear a striking resemblance to autopsy modifications frequently found on individuals buried during the 18th and 19th centuries. Dissection during the medieval period was unheard of, as it was believed at the time that the integrity of the body should be maintained after death. If this is indeed an example of a body that was autopsied, it would be the earliest known evidence of this procedure ever identified in Britain.

Along with the recent publication (Brown et al., Excavations at Stoke Quay, Ipswich, published this year by East Anglian Archaeology), the project was featured in a recent episode of Bone Detectives on Channel 4 (available on All 4).

This news article appears in issue 369 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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