Excavating Suffolk

It is impossible to hear the name Suffolk without thinking of the stunning early medieval archaeology of the county. Sutton Hoo was internationally famous within the archaeological community long before the movie The Dig introduced it to a new global audience – see the review in CA 373 (April 2021). I have visited this site twice before, in CA 339 (June 2018) and CA 355 (October 2019), though, so I will focus in this month’s column on exploring other, lesser-known sites, finds, and communities across Suffolk.

CA 136 reported on the Hoxne Hoard.

Perfectly preserved Pakefield

To begin at the beginning, I turn first to the Suffolk coast and the array of prehistoric, especially Palaeolithic, sites and finds made over the years around Pakefield and Happisburgh on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. I covered some of this ground in my previous columns on Norfolk (see CA 363 and CA 364, June and July 2020), and, for those of you keen to explore the magazine’s coverage further, there are great surveys of some of the most important Palaeolithic sites in the whole of north-west Europe in CA 201 (January/February 2001), CA 232 (July 2009), and CA 288 (March 2014). These tell the tale of the very earliest people to settle in what in time became the British Isles, back when the land- and seascape was different: the vast plains of Doggerland, which once linked Britain to continental Europe, having since been lost to the North Sea.

Torc of the town

Moving on in time and place, I shift from Palaeolithic Pakefield to Iron Age Ipswich. CA 17 (November 1969) reported on the discovery of five torcs in the area, dating to the 1st century BC, discovered by a sharp-eyed bulldozer driver who spotted them when working on a housing estate on the edge of the town in September 1968 and responsibly reported them to Ipswich Museum. The torcs were passed to the British Museum, and the finder was rewarded with their estimated value: £45,000 in 1969, equivalent to around £665,000 today – at that time the largest such ‘treasure’ payment ever made.

CA 288 told the story of the earliest people to settle in the British Isles.

On this theme of high-status Iron Age/Roman finds, CA 136 (October/November 1993) then reported on the stunning hoard from Hoxne in mid-Suffolk. The local farmer there made the initial discoveries when searching for a lost hammer with a metal-detecting friend; they reported their finds to the Suffolk Archaeological Unit, who then undertook a formal excavation of what turned out to be both the largest hoard of late-Roman silver and gold discovered in Britain, and also the largest collection of gold and silver coins of the 4th-5th centuries found anywhere within the Roman Empire. It comprised nearly 15,000 gold, silver, and bronze coins, and some 200 pieces of silver tableware and gold jewellery. CA 248 (November 2010) followed up with more detail on the British Museum’s analysis of these finds.

From later in the Iron Age/Roman period, I also want to fly the flag for a notable Roman site, that of Scole on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. The result of many years’ fieldwork by local voluntary and educational organisations came to a head there in the early 1990s, when a long-proposed bypass was constructed, destroying major elements of the Roman settlement. CA 140 (September/November 1994) reported on the final burst of pre-development investigations, giving a wonderful insight into a thriving Romano-British small town with rich prehistoric foundations that began in the Neolithic.

Astonishing Anglo-Saxons

So much for earlier eras. Suffolk is primarily known for its early medieval heritage, and rightly so. Sutton Hoo I have previously dealt with; what of other sites and finds? My first stop is at West Stow near Bury St Edmunds in CA 1 (March 1967) and CA 40 (November 1973), where one of the largest British archaeological investigations of the day was under way, examining a multiperiod landscape with a particular focus on the the site’s main phase of occupation, roughly AD 420-650. The project was, from the outset, one both of excavation and exploration – in particular, using experimental archaeology to reconstruct buildings modelled on the floor plans and surviving structural elements of the site. CA’s 50th anniversary magazine, issue 325 (April 2017), celebrated the rich story of this site, with its long-lived and long-beloved reconstructed village.

The early medieval settlement at West Stow featured in CA’s 50th anniversary round-up.

Moving on, CA 97 (July 1985) visited a fascinating 8th- to 9th-century industrial site at Butley – a prominent hilltop site overlooking the River Ore, not far from Sutton Hoo. Another high-status site in this neighbourhood, combining industry and aristocracy, was examined in CA 323 (February 2017), which reported on a 5th- to 8th-century settlement discovered in the Rendlesham Forest that is a strong candidate for the vicus regius (royal centre) in this area that Bede described in the 8th century. CA 323 also reported on another early medieval site in the area: Barber’s Point, on the River Alde. This may be one of the earliest Christian cemeteries found not just in the county but in the whole country, with burials that straddle the transition from pre-Christian to Christian burial practices.

Moving back in time in terms of Current Archaeology’s chronology, CA 118 (January 1990) is well worth a visit, examining the primarily 6th-century cemetery at Snape, a site well known since its 19th-century antiquarian examination, as well from more modern surveys of the 1920s and 1980s-1990s. Other cemeteries and finds have been identified in the coastal region of Suffolk: for example, CA 130 (August 1992) reported on a rich burial at Boss Hall on the outskirts of Ipswich and, at nearby Flixton Park Quarry, CA 187 (August 2003) reported on finds from a high-status site that may have been one of the estates of the Wuffingas ruling dynasty, as well as – possibly – an Anglo-Saxon ‘shrine’. Finally, from the other side of the county came a similarly impressive series of early medieval burials, reported on in CA 163 (June 1999) and CA 192 (June 2004). At Lakenheath, to the west of Thetford, works on an airbase revealed a wealth of early medieval burials, more than 260 in total, one including a horse, weaponry, and other artefacts that indicate a warrior grave.

CA 118 examined a near-contemporary cemetery at Snape.

I conclude with the briefest of celebrations of later medieval Suffolk. There has been wonderful work done by communities across the county in recent years on such sites. Most notably, CA 261 (December 2011) surveyed the medieval and post-medieval rabbit warrens of the Brecklands in mid-Suffolk; CA 265 (April 2012) the medieval religious art and architecture of churches in the county, especially around Lakenheath; and CA 302 (May 2015) the surviving remains of the once-powerful abbey of Leiston near Aldeburgh. These are but three fine examples of the diversity of more modern archaeology in a county that ought to be better celebrated for its superb sites and finds of all periods.

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