Roman Ipswich

During the Roman period (mid 1st to early 5th centuries AD) Ipswich borough was an area of intensively populated countryside. It lay just east of the main road between the major towns at Colchester and Caistor by Norwich, with a minor town on this route at Coddenham. A Roman road probably also linked Felixstowe, which was another substantial settlement and a late Roman coastal fort, to the Coddenham area and this road is likely to have passed through Ipswich, perhaps crossing the urban core from the south-east to north-west and from there along the Norwich Road.

Many of the Roman period farmsteads already existed by the first half of the 1st century (the later Iron Age). The hoard of gold torcs (IPS 079) buried on high ground overlooking the Belstead Brook in the 1st century BC suggests a place of exceptional status, perhaps a religious enclosure comparable to Snettisham in NE Norfolk. Occasional finds of Late Iron Age coins also indicate high status activity and confirm that Ipswich fell within the territory of the Trinovantes tribe, although close to the boundary with the Iceni to the north.

Roman settlements are often located on relatively high ground overlooking the River Gipping and its tributaries. For example at Whitehouse (IPS 247, with other findspots to the north) evidence of a timber building and ditched enclosure lay above the 35m contour, overlooking the Gipping to the west. To the north of the town an enclosure at the Albany (IPS 240) is on the 45m contour at the head of one of the small valleys that run south to the Orwell and was inhabited between the 1st and the end of the 3rd centuries, with probably related activity nearby to the east (IPS 047); further probably agricultural features were identified half a mile to the east at the ex-Fire Station (IPS 717). To the south of the Gipping there are a succession of potential rural settlements, many of them identified during 20th century building development and all minimally investigated, at Crane Hill (IPS 185), Clover Close (IPS 030), Halifax Primary School (IPS 074) and Sheldrake Drive (IPS 082). More recently areas of Roman fields, trackways and potential settlement have been identified to the south-east, on land above 35m overlooking the Orwell estuary to the west (IPS 390, 617,676, 719).

There are, however, also areas of Roman settlement (and contemporary burials) on the lower ground adjacent to the river and the estuary, including some potential in the Boss Hall area (IPS 867) and an extensive area around Handford Road and the south end of Burlington Road (IPS 033, 183, 221, 245, 280, 655, 660, 716). The evidence from Handford Road (mainly IPS 280) shows that there were a series of enclosures, trackways and fields from the mid-1st to the mid-3rd centuries including probable timber buildings, a well, pottery production and iron working, with some, possibly reduced, activity also in the 4th century, just before the establishment of an early Anglo-Saxon settlement. It is also possible that there was a Roman farmstead within the later Anglo-Saxon town, with suggestive finds groups around Wolsey’s College and St Mary’s church (IPS 054, 055, 745) and definite late Iron Age and Roman features at Elm St (IPS 053/IAS3902) but many of the excavations have found Roman objects such as tiles that were very likely collected from elsewhere. The sites at Handford Road and at Elm St are also close to the course of the Alderman Canal (River Gipping) for which a Roman origin has been suggested; although this is highly speculative it is not unknown for river courses to be modified, for example to provide power for a Roman water mill.

The most significant Roman site is the villa complex at Castle Hill (IPS 015, 200, 203, 421 etc, sometimes also known as the Whitton villa) comprising several buildings, perhaps arranged around a courtyard, in a prominent south-facing location at 35m above OD. This is the largest known villa in Suffolk, even though we do not have a complete plan, and it had the typical Roman architectural features including hypocausts, bath building, decorated mosaic floors and painted plaster on the walls. Most of it was examined under far from ideal conditions during the 19th and first half of the 20th century but it seems to date from the 2nd century with considerable expansion and refurbishment during the 4th century and it continued in use until the end of the Roman period in the early 5th century. It was visited as a source of building material from the 6th or 7th century onwards. Unusual Roman finds from Castle Hill include a jet plaque depicting the Near Eastern deity Atys and an oculist’s stamp. It seems very possible that the Castle Hill estate took over many of the smaller farmsteads such as Whitehouse and the Albany during the 3rd and 4th centuries and it has been suggested that the estate owner may also have had links to the administration of the late Roman military coastal defence system. Although a group of 4th century burials from an extraction pit on Dales Road (IPS 010) has been associated with the Castle Hill villa it is likely that the owners would have had more ostentatious graves and that another cemetery is yet to be discovered.

Jude Plouviez, 2017

All Known Roman sites and find-spots in the borough of Ipswich. (Image: SCCAS).

 

 

Decorated Mosaic Pavement in red, white and black tessera. Discovered at Castle Hill, Ipswich 1930, (Image: Moir and Maynard, 1933)

 

Decapitated skeleton in situ. Roman cemetery, Dales Road brickfield, 1930s, (Image: Moir and Maynard, 1933)

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