On September 26 2020 Channel 4 screened the first episode of Series 2 of Bone detectives: Britain’s buried secrets. Tori Herridge and Raksha Dave present a rather over-excited programme (participants really savour the word ‘murdered’) focusing on Stoke Quay in Ipswich and the 2012 archaeological dig lasting six months which preceded the building of the large Genesis housing development. Stripping out the repetition and odd camera angles which are a feature of many current television documentaries, the programme did contain some fascinating research into the location of the lost St Augustine’s Church over a wide time-frame (9th century to 15th century). Today’s Austin Street is the only indication of this small but important church which served one of the town’s ancient hamlets: Stoke.
“Nobody has excavated such a large collection of burials from a medieval port before, in this country.” (– Dr Louise Loe, Oxford Archaeology). Around 1,100 burials were found.
The Suffolk Explorer website tells us that in 2012:
‘Full excavation revealed a late 7th/early 8th century cemetery including 7 small ring ditches (one with a sword and glass 'palm cup') and 11 inhumation burials with few grave goods , suggesting a relatively late transitional pagan/christian date. Also an Ipswich ware kiln and numerous Middle Saxon pits, wells and post holes from structures are found across the site. Norman church of St Augustine (replacing earlier timber structure) and remainder of cemetery (at least 1000 burials) and numerous medieval and Saxon features. Medieval occupation traces across the whole site but concentrated close to Whip Street. The church was robbed of its stone after 1484 when last mentioned and replaced by the King's Cooperage in the 17th century and then a shipyard in the 18th century. The Union workhouse (replaced by malthouses by 1904) was constructed at the south end of the site and the New Cut excavated (1839-42) along the eastern boundary of the site.’
The three skeletons looked at in the programme each provide their own story and puzzles. The first was a high status, 60+ year-old male burial in the centre of the nave of St Augustine’s. Here, computer-generated imagery brought the church and location to life for the viewer. He clearly met a violent death probably by several sword blows to the head. More intriguing still, his spine had been surgically dissected from neck to sacrum, post-mortem. This was most unexpected as such practices were forbidden by the monarch; prior to this, such anatomical procedures were believed to have been performed first at Cambridge University in the 16th century. There was also a tantalising possibility that the body might have been that of John de Halteby ‘such an unpleasant individual…’, murdered in 1344, but that is speculative.
A teenage boy who also met a violent end was identified by his teeth enamel to have been born in the Scandinavian countries and brought over to Ipswich at around 6 years of age. This was the earliest skeleton on the programme, carbon dated at AD 860 to 1040 (Late Saxon period).
The third individual was female, dating from about 1150 to 1300 and, through analysis, was of African heritage but raised in Europe. There was evidence of tuberculosis and other disease in the bones.
The main themes drawn from the examinations were that, over a long sweep of time, Ipswich became a major port centre for a churning population, also for immigration of people coming from Europe and beyond. Many of the inhabitants lived lives of hard, physical work and suffered from serious diseases.
Several locations in Ipswich are shown in the programme including the Wet Dock and New Cut, Stoke Quay, Christchurch Park, Dial Lane and St Lawrence Church. The programme should still be viewable on the All4 service on the internet.