Late Saxon occupation, a medieval cemetery and post-medieval pits and industry at Fore Street, Ipswich

Excavation showing irregular post-holes

Featured Image: The possible sawyer’s pit, showing irregular post-holes close to the sides, which would have held posts supporting a plank lining, and central shallow ‘pits’ where the underdog would have placed his feet. © SCCAS

This guest blog is written by Sue Anderson, a freelance archaeological specialist at Spoilheap Archaeology. Sue has been analysing archive material curated by SCC Archaeological Service to complete the post-excavation analysis for a site near St Clements Church in Ipswich. The site has an intriguing history, from the Late Saxon period to post-medieval craft and industry, adding to our knowledge about the past communities of Ipswich.


An open plot of land at 85–87 Fore Street was excavated in 2008 by Suffolk County Council Field Team, but post-excavation work has only recently been completed. This work shows the importance of retaining records in the archives, as these have enabled the full significance of the site to be revealed.

Previous excavations on the plot in 1990 had revealed Late Saxon occupation to the southern end of the site, and further evidence for activity of this date was found in 2008, comprising the bases of sunken-featured (cellared) buildings. These contained both Middle and Late Saxon pottery, perhaps suggesting that the earliest building on the site dated to the transitional period of use of Ipswich and Thetford-type wares.

Section of excavation showing part of structure in situ
Section of the most complete Late Saxon cellared structure, below the 19th-century floor of building 0145 © SCCAS

In the northern part of the site the earliest major land-use was as a cemetery, presumed to relate to the nearby church of St Clement. Although dating evidence was sparse, a 13th–14th-century date appears likely. The thirteen individuals buried there included a high proportion of young adult males who were taller than average for the period, and one of whom had met death by violence.

Image shows an unhealed cut on the frontal bone
Unhealed cut on the frontal bone of one of the male skeletons © Sue Anderson

The exact date at which the graveyard boundary was moved to its current position to the north of St Clement’s Church Lane is uncertain but documentary evidence suggests that it must have occurred by the 16th century.

The graves were cut by pits and other features which have been broadly dated to the 15th to 17th centuries, a few with finds which suggest that they were not completely filled in until the 18th century. Several large early post-medieval cess pits were identified, presumably relating to contemporary buildings in the southern half of the site. Several near-complete pottery vessels of this date range were recovered, including chamber pots and similar vessels. The vestigial remains of a chalk-walled circular oven were also of this period.

The material culture of this period from the site is rich and occasionally exotic, including for example an Italian Montelupo ‘foglia bipartita blu’ decorated bowl, a French chafing dish, an Iberian oil jar, a German Weser ware bowl and a small fragment of Venetian soda glass with opaque white vetro a fili trails.

There are many imported vessels in the pottery assemblage, but some of these are commonplace in post-medieval assemblages throughout the town – specifically the German stonewares and the Dutch redwares. Late medieval and early post-medieval French wares are relatively frequent finds at coastal settlements and ports in Suffolk, although they occur less frequently here than on the south coast of England. Spanish and Portuguese coarsewares also occur, but these are usually the least frequent imports of the period. Italian wares are generally very rare, but in this assemblage the Italian maiolica bowl and fragment of Venetian glass would probably be relatively high status objects at the time in most urban environments.

However, the cess pits in the backlots at this site do not suggest that anyone living here in this period was particularly wealthy – stone-lined pits of this period have been found elsewhere in the town and these are more in keeping with merchant and other high-status town houses in the 16th century and later. Imports are typically more frequent in port towns and may simply reflect ease of access to such objects brought back by sailors and merchants.

Several fragments of animal bone also appear to relate to possible high status feasting (a boar skull, a gannet) and the keeping of birds as pets (falcon, magpie). Nevertheless, there is possibly also some evidence for craft use of bones and horn, as well as the typical range of animals associated with daily food consumption.

An unusual structure was uncovered, also cutting two of the graves, which comprised a 0.5m deep subrectangular cut (3.5+ x 1.5m) with eleven post-settings cut into the base. The cut was probably originally more than 1m deep based on the section in the baulk. This was later infilled with building rubble which included carpenter’s tools. The feature has been interpreted as a possible timber-lined sawpit of post-medieval date. The base appears to have been unlined and the two shallow central ‘pits’ probably represent the positions of the feet of the ‘underdog’ sawyer as he rocked backwards and forwards while pulling on the saw. The greater number of posts on the east side may perhaps represent at least one repair or attempt at stabilisation.

While many saw pits would have been constructed in woodland, there is evidence for more urban examples at, for example, The Queen’s College, Oxford and many are associated with the Royal Dockyards such as Chatham, Sheerness and Portsmouth. The 1674 map of Ipswich depicts a ‘Carpenters yard’ just to the north of St Clement’s Church, and sawyers are mentioned in several documents held by the Ipswich Borough Archives (e.g. ‘John Rewarde, alias Harrys of Ipswich, sawyer’ in 1552, ‘William West of Ipswich, sawyer’ in 1771, ‘Cutler Green of Ipswich, sawyer’ in 1774, ‘William Howes of Ipswich, sawyer’ in 1775). Some of these presumably served the shipbuilding industry on the docks, but others may have prepared timbers for construction. An example of this type of structure in use in the late 1940s can be seen in the image above.

During the 19th century, the site was redeveloped and a stable was constructed in the back yard of No. 85 (western half of the site) – at least one circular brick-built sump was associated with this construction work, and another brick structure with a similar function was identified further to the south.

Excavation showing brick sump and well
19th-century brick sump and well © SCCAS

In conclusion, the excavations at Fore Street have revealed evidence for Mid to Late Saxon occupation, part of a medieval cemetery which indicates shrinkage of St Clement’s churchyard, use of the site for disposal of waste in the post-medieval period, and possible craft and industry in the form of a saw pit, tools relating to carpentry and smithing waste. This latter evidence appears incompatible with suggestions of wealth and status in the post-medieval period, but the fortunes of those living on the site may have altered within a few decades, or the rubbish from the site may represent several households of differing means. The site was partially truncated in the 19th century, and probably before, as the map evidence suggests that buildings were remodelled several times and new structures added.

The post-excavation work was funded by Landex Ltd, to comply with planning requirements prior to development of the site for student accommodation. Thanks to Julie Curl for analysis of the animal bone.

Sue Anderson, Spoilheap Archaeology, February 2022.

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