The History of Archaeological Research in Ipswich

There have been four phases of archaeological investigation in the town.

Phase 1 (1850-1950)

Pottery and artefacts recovered from developments in the town were collected throughout this period by the Borough Museum (opened in 1847).  Some derived from watching briefs carried out by Nina Layard, including the construction of the first town sewers in 1884 and the redevelopment of the Carmelite Friary site and quay in 1899 (1898, 1899). Layard also excavated the important Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hadleigh Road (Layard 1907). Also, the important Roman Villa at Castle Hill, discovered in the 19th Century was excavated by Basil Brown in the 1940s.

Phase 2 (1950-1974)

In the late 1950s, the large pottery collection at the museum was studied by John Hurst and Stanley West. They concluded that most of it was Anglo-Saxon and made of the town (Hurst and West 1957). The earliest pottery, which they termed Ipswich ware, was dated to the Middle Saxon period (c. 650-c. 850 AD) and this was followed by Thetford ware from c.850-1150 (so-called as it was first recognised in Thetford).

During this phase, Ipswich Museum took a more active interest in the archaeology of the town.  Watching briefs were carried out during developments at the Ipswich Co-Operative Society premises in Carr Street (Smedley and Owles 1963 ) and on the site of the West Gate.

The first professional and government-funded excavations were carried out by Stanley West at Cox Lane in 1958 and Shire Hall Yard in 1959 (West 1963). West established that Ipswich was a large settlement, covering at least 30 hectares, and international port during the Middle Saxon period. In the early 1970s it became clear that Ipswich was one of only a handful of trading settlements, displaying urban characteristics (emporia), in North-Western Europe during this period. This elevated the town’s archaeological status to one of international importance. 

At the same time, the Scole Committee identified that the archaeology of Ipswich was under serious threat from a potential development boom, and lobbied for the government and Local Authorities to make provision for its ‘rescue’ (Scole Committee 1973).

Phase 3 (1974-1990): The Origins of Ipswich Project

In 1974, the Suffolk Archaeological Unit was created, initially under the management of the Scole Committee for East Anglian Archaeology, and then Suffolk County Council. The Unit provided a countywide rescue archaeology service, and appointed Keith Wade to the post of urban archaeologist to monitor development in all the urban centres of Suffolk, with special reference to Ipswich. The Ipswich excavations formed part of a wider programme of research (The Origins of Ipswich Project) which included documentary research and the recording of standing buildings.

Funding for this work came originally from archaeological grants from the Department of Environment, Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments, and supplemented later by Manpower Service Commission schemes, utilising firstly school leavers (Youth Opportunities Programme) and then unemployed young adults (Community Programme). From 1987, some three years before the introduction of Planning Policy Guidance: Archaeology and Planning (PPG) 16, limited developer funding became more available to supplement the Government and Manpower Service Commission money.

The sampling strategy established for the excavation programme (Wade 1978) was achieved over a sixteen-year period. A total of thirty-six archaeological excavations took place between 1974 and 1990. All the sites all lay within the historic core of the town with 27 within the Anglo-Saxon and medieval defences, and nine within the medieval suburbs. All the excavations were supervised by Tom Loader or John Newman under the overall directorship of Keith Wade.

Unfortunately, none of these excavations has been fully published to date. However, extensive post excavation analyses were completed, and the complete archive should is now accessible via the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) website.

Short site summaries were published in the annual ‘Archaeology in Suffolk’ section of the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History and short reports in East Anglian Archaeology (Dunmore et al 1975; Dunmore et al 1976). Synthetic works have also been produced (Wade 1988a, 1988b, 1993) and the earliest phase of the St Stephens Lane / Buttermarket sites (the 7th century cemetery) was fully published (Scull 2009).

Some reports on the Middle Saxon finds have also been published by the specialists, such as the pottery (Blinkhorn 1990 and 2012) and faunal remains (Crabtree 2012).

Phase 3 (1991 to present)

From 1991 onwards, all excavations were developer-funded following new planning guidance (PPG 16). The excavation of sites is now the subject of competitive tendering by developers and archaeological contractors based outside of Suffolk are now undertaking most of the work in the town.

There was very little development in the town over this period, apart from the redevelopment of the Ipswich docks, which was cut short by the financial crash after 2008. Important sites were excavated along the waterfront but as most of the developers went into liquidation, none of the sites have been analysed or published.

Currently, as the economy starts to recover, excavation work is starting again. A large site was excavated at Stoke Quay, south of the river, in 2012.

Keith Wade, 2017


Crabtree, P., 2012                  Middle Saxon Animal Husbandry in East Anglia, E.Anglian Archaeol., 143


Blinkhorn, P., 1990                ‘Middle Saxon pottery from the Buttermarket kiln, Ipswich’, Medieval

                                                   Ceramics 13, 12-16.

Blinkhorn, P., 2012                The Ipswich Ware Project: ceramics, trade and society in Middle Saxon

                                                  England  (Medieval Pottery Research Group, Occasional Paper 7).

Dunmore, S., Gray, V.,          ‘The Origins and Development of Ipswich: an Interim Report’,

Loader, T. & Wade, K.            E.Anglian Archaeol., 1, 57-67     


Dunmore, S., Loader, T.        ‘Ipswich Archaeological Survey: Second Interim Report’, E. Anglian

and Wade, K., 1976                 Archaeol., 3, 135-140

Hurst J. G. & West S.E.,          Saxo-Norman Pottery in East Anglia, II, Proc. Camb. Antiq. Soc., L


Layard, N. 1898                      ‘Underground Ipswich’, East Anglian Daily Times, 28th September 1898

Layard, N F, 1899                   ‘Recent discoveries on the site of the Carmelite Convent at Ipswich and

                                                    the Old River Quay’, Proc.Suffolk Inst.Archaeol and History, X, 183-188.

Layard, N, 1907                      ‘An Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Ipswich’, Archaeologia 60, 325-52

Scole Committee 1973           Ipswich: The Archaeological Implications of Development

Scull, C, 2009                          Early Medieval (Late 5th-Early 8th Centuries AD)  Cemeteries at Boss

                                                  Hall and Buttermarket, Ipswich, Suffolk,Soc Medieval Archaeol Monogr

                                                  Ser., 27.


Smedley, N., and                    ‘Some Suffolk kilns: IV. Saxon kilns in Cox Lane’, Proc. Suffolk

Owles, E., 1963                        Inst. Archaeology, XXIX, 304-335.

Wade, K, 1978                         ‘Sampling at Ipswich: The origins and growth of the Anglo-Saxon Town’,

                                                    in Cherry, J.F., Gamble, C., and Shennan, S., Sampling in Contemporary

                                                    British Archaeology (BAR British Series 50).

Wade, K. 1988a                       ‘Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Ipswich’ in Dymond, D., and Martin, E. (eds),

                                                    An Historical Atlas of Suffolk, 122-123

Wade, K. 1988b                       ‘Ipswich’ in Hodges, R., and Hobley, B. (eds), The Rebirth of Towns in the

                                                    West, AD 700-1050, Counc. Brit. Archaeol. Res. Rep. 68, 93-100

Wade, K. 1993                          ‘The Urbanisation of East Anglia: the Ipswich Perspective’ in Julie

                                                    Gardner (ed), Flatlands & Wetlands: Current Themes in East Anglian

                                                    Archaeology, E. Anglian Archaeol., 50, 144-151

Wade, K. 2001                         ‘Gipeswic – East Anglia’s First Economic Capital 600-1066’, Ipswich from

                                                     the First to the Third Millennium, The Ipswich Society, 1-6.

West, S. E. 1963                      ‘Excavations at Cox Lane (1958) and at the Town Defences, Shire Hall

                                                     Yard, Ipswich (1959)’, Proc. Suffolk Inst. Archaeology, XXIX, 233-303.

Nina Layard (1853-1935) was a prominent local archaeologist, who excavated important sites in Ipswich, (notably Palaeolithic remains at Foxhall Road, the Saxon Cemetery at Hadleigh Road and the Carmelite Friary on the Buttermarket). Image after Plunkett, (1994:48). Guardians of the Gipping, Ipswich Borough Council.

Basil Brown (1888-1977) was a local archaeologist most famous for excavating at Sutton Hoo, within Ipswich he excavated at the Castle Hill Roman Villa in the late 1940s. (Image, SCCAS).

The 1974 Report into the archaeological implications of Development of Ipswich was the first attempt to survey the situation and make recommendations to rectify the then serious lack of systematic recovery/recording of remains threatened with destruction by development. (Scole Committee, 1974

Urban Archaeologist Keith Wade at The Buttermarket Excavations in the late 1980s. Members of the Suffolk Archaeological Unit excavated numerous sites within the borough. (Image, East Anglian Daily Times)


Excavations at Stoke Key by Commercial Archaeological Contractors in 2012, (Image, Ipswich Archaeological Trust Newsletter 083, November 2012)

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