Archaeology breakthrough: Mass grave discovery changes UK’s historical narrative

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The find reveals insights into Anglo-Saxon lives in a “poorer area” according to exports involved in the dig. It took place at “one of England’s oldest trading ports”. The initial excavation at Great Whip Street, Ipswich, happened in 2012.

Scientists have used the previous findings for in-depth research.

Eight years of analysis of the remains have offered unprecedented glimpses into the lives of the port’s previous inhabitants.

A 6th to 8th century barrow cemetery was unearthed, revealing finds linked to local industry and what could be the “earliest evidence” of an autopsy.

The Quays waterfront, a three-acre site, was ripped up by Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology.

Remnants from several periods of British history were found.

Among them, burials associated with the Middle Saxon trading centre and extensive remains of the Middle-to-Late-Saxon settlement.

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A lost medieval church from the later middle ages was also found, as well as a cemetery of St Augustine’s from a later period still.

Richard Brown, co-author of the book ‘Excavations at Stoke Quay’ and senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology, said the findings “very much exceeded expectations”.

He added: “We hope this volume goes some way to highlighting the rich resource of this internationally important town’s archaeology.”


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According to researchers involved in the dig, a Middle Saxon settlement from around the 8th to 9th centuries overloaded the cemetery.

What remained of the settlement showed plots sporadically placed, and streets and buildings similar to other Anglo-Saxon trading centres in London, Southampton and York.

One of the biggest breakthrough discoveries was the remains of a skeleton whose spine had been cut post-mortem.

A researcher explained: “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.”

Over 1,100 burials were recovered from the cemetery in all.

These spanned the Late Saxon to the Late medieval period – a timeline stretching hundreds of years.

Importantly for the archaeologists, the discovery offered a snapshot into the life of those who once called the Quay home.

Finds included antler combs and textile tools found in wells and cess pits, an extremely well-preserved kiln that, according to researchers, is “of crucial importance since it indicates that production [of pottery] took place across a wider area of the town than was previously suspected”.

The population is thought to have contained a high number of sailors as reused timber for boat construction was found in abundance.

An individual buried with a chalice and paten indicated that he was a priest.

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.”

All of the findings have been published in Excavations at Stoke Quay.

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