Chronicle Logo by Helen Macildowie

The coastline approximately 1.8million years ago. From 'London The Illustrated History', by Ross and Clark

Coastline of 1.8million YBP

Clues to the early development of
Bury St Edmunds

Before the Ice and up to the Romans

1,800,000 BP The Lower, (or Early) Pleistocene of the Quaternary
The geological Quaternary period began with the lower Pleistocene sequence of rock deposits.

The climate in Britain during this early Pleistocene period was sub-tropical. It is believed that it was a relatively stable climate for the next million years. Some parts of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex were submerged under a shallow sea, as shown on the attached map from the Museum of London. These counties have marine deposits with bones of whales, fish and seals.

Britain was connected to the continent , allowing many species to cross over, including the mastodon, tapirs, red panda, extinct species of horse, and early forms of the mammoth.

The rivers of Britain occupied only relatively small channels, and carried and deposited only fine silts and sands. The course of the River Thames was being laid down at this time. Further north was a river which is now extinct, but which is today known as the beginnings of the Bytham River.

By now the Lower Paleolithic age of man had become well established in Africa and Homo habilis, the first species designated as man, or Homo, was the tool maker in Africa.
Australopithecus still roamed there as well, but by now was represented by A.robustus, as well as A.boisei.

Presumed course of Bytham River in West Suffolk. Diagram by David Addy, 2008
Bytham River in West Suffolk
500,000 BP Five hundred thousand years ago the British landscape was very different from today. Britain was a peninsula of the continent of Europe and Asia. Many of the major rivers we know today either did not exist, or flowed along a different course, as did the River Thames. There were also rivers that have since disappeared.

One major, now extinct, river was 310km in length, which has been named the Bytham River. It drained from the southwest Midlands and the Pennines through Warwickshire and parts of Leicestershire before turning south through the centre of East Anglia and eventually eastwards into what is now the North Sea but was then dry land. Its gravels included red quartzite pebbles and they are visible at Mildenhall and Icklingham. The deposits laid down by the Bytham River are called the Ingham series, after the prototype description derived from layers exposed in the gravel workings at Ingham in Suffolk.

This river, which was already some 250,000 years old at least, is traced along its presumed course through West Suffolk on the attached diagram. The diagram relies upon connecting up known sites of deposits of the Ingham series of sands and gravels. However, it should be noted that most of the gravel extraction along the Lark Valley, including West Stow and Lackford pits, comes from much later glacial and post glacial deposits. The Ingham deposits are, in contrast, much rarer and deeper layers.

The Bytham River was discovered by a geographer, Professor Jim Rose of the University of London, in the 1980s and named after the Lincolnshire village of Castle Bytham where Rose first identified it. The work of reconstructing this lost landscape has been carried out by several geologists and other specialists, with a major contribution being made by the research of Professor Fred Shotton. A large proportion of known human occupation sites, dating from before the Anglian Ice Age, have been shown to lie along the course of this river.

In 1986, a small gravel pit was investigated at Stanchils Farm at Hengrave, and the pre-glacial deposits categorised. The site seemed to illustrate the existence of Hengrave and Ingham sand and gravels which originated in the Midlands, transported here by the Bytham River, and deposited as it reached the area. In 1994, Professor Rose and John Wymer published a "Record of a struck flake and the lithological composition of ‘pre-glacial’ river deposits at Hengrave, Suffolk" in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History.

The Bytham River was probably one of the most important routes of colonisation for Britain’s first human inhabitants. Professor Rose considered that its wide sand and gravel banks would have provided an easy route to travel along and the river would have provided water, vegetation and attracted animals making it a useful place for humans to exploit. So far 14 important archaeological sites have been discovered along the route of this lost river. These include High Lodge, West Dereham, Feltwell, Brick Kiln farm at Brandon, Hengrave, Lakenheath and Warren Hill in East Anglia, as well as Waverley Wood near Coventry in Warwickshire. This means that at this early time man knew the area around Bury St Edmunds and Lakenheath, when the landscape was very different to today. It would have been the largest river in Britain at the time although the second largest river, which was to become the River Thames, shows no similar indication of pre-Anglian human occupation.

These first colonisers of Britain, before 500,000 years ago, probably belonged to the ancient human species Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of the Neanderthals. The stone tools of this period are classified as Lower Palaeolithic, with the most characteristic tool type being the handaxe. Handaxes associated with this early colonisation of Britain have been found at sites along both the south coast route, such as Boxgrove, and along the Bytham River route, such as High Lodge and those already mentioned.

High Lodge itself is an important geological site just outside Mildenhall. Deposits indicate that it was in the lower middle part of the Bytham river catchment (Ashton et al., 1992). High Lodge provides evidence for human occupance of this area dated to about 500,000 years ago, a time now linked to Marine Isotope Stage 13, or MIS 13.

The lower part of the Thames at this time flowed to the north of its current course, over much of South Suffolk laying down some ancient river gravels. Significantly there is as yet no evidence of colonisation along it at this early time. The Kesgrave series of sands and gravels are thought to have been brought here from Southern England by the Thames on its course northwards at the time. A flint which could possibly show evidence of working by man was found in these early deposits which could be up to 200,000 years earlier than the date attributed here.

At this time it was probably warmer in Britain than it is today. This time is called the Cromerian inter glacial period. There would be two more glaciations of this country before our modern times begin. Early man was in Britain at this time, as we have seen, although he would be driven out again by later ice ages.

Suffolk in the Anglian Glaciation, c474,000 BP. Diagram taken from 'An Historical Atlas of Suffolk', Dymond and Martin.
The Anglian Glaciation
478,000 BP The Anglian Glaciation
According to the Shotton project of the University of Birmingham, the Anglian Glacial epoch began around 478,000 years ago, and probably lasted to about 424,000 BP. It is usually safe to attribute it to around 450,000 BP, or MIS 12, if you prefer the more recent nomenclature.

Some geologists believe that the change from warm to cold periods can take as little as 50 to 100 years. This was the biggest of all the glaciations as far as the UK is concerned, and some authorities have dated it as much later than this, perhaps from 350,000 BP to 200,000 BP.

This glaciation arrived from the north-west and the ice sheet reached the coast south of Lowestoft and aligned itself roughly from there to Ipswich at its edge. The Anglian ice sheet thus covered all of Suffolk except perhaps for the very south east. It also covered the Midlands and reached south of Essex. Suffolk was never again completely covered by ice in later ice ages.

The coastline of the Anglian glaciation, approximately 480,000 years ago. From 'London The Illustrated History', by Ross and Clark
Coastline of 478,000 YBP
blankxxxx With the ice extending as far south as Finchley in north London, the landscape was completely changed, both temporarily and permanently. Rivers which had flowed into the North Sea were were blocked by a gigantic glacier or ice sheet. An icy lake formed in the low lying lands between the Netherlands and East Anglia. Hitherto this had been dry land.

As the ice carried massive sediments below it, these were both scraped away from some areas and re-deposited in others. The low lying Fens were scraped out in this way. The existing ancient river systems were either obliterated, like the Bytham and Mathon, or fundamentally altered by the Anglian glaciation, the severest glaciation known in British geological history. The River Thames was pushed nearly 100 miles south to somewhere near its modern course.This view of the coastline persisted from about 478,000 years ago until 425,000 years ago. The new lake had to overflow somewhere as the rivers continued to feed it, and a new channel was carved out to the south west, creating the breach in the chalk escarpment now called the Straits of Dover. The River Thames now joined up with the pre-existing Channel River. This was the first time that the British Isles was cut off from the continent, although there would be future periods when sea level falls would produce a dry land crossing again.

380,000 BP The effects of the glacial/interglacial cycles on Britain’s rivers formed the landscape of the river valleys we know today. Fast-flowing rivers transported sands and gravels, which were deposited to a depth of metres in the valley bottoms. These deposits now form a valuable resource extensively exploited, in the Midlands as well as along the Lark Valley, by the construction industry. The deposits also contain valuable evidence of past environments in the form of the fossilised remains of plants and animals as well as evidence of human activity in the form of stone tools. The majority of British handaxes have been found in these sand and gravel deposits.

During the glacial/interglacial cycles the rivers cut down through earlier deposits and laid down fresh deposits of sands and gravels. This process has resulted in the creation of a series of terraces in some river valleys, with the highest terrace being the most ancient and the lowest the most recent. Much geological research and controversy surrounds the interpretation of these terraces and their correlation with specific glacial events.

8,300 BC The Flandrian warm period
This date is generally reckoned to herald the start of the warmer Flandrian period, which we remain in today. Today's post glacial warm period began quite rapidly at this time and the treeless British landscape was gradually replaced by trees colonising from the south east. The first forests were of birch, an arctic tree, pollinated by wind when it was still too cold for insects in Britain.
Fish Spear reconstruction. Picture from 'Hunters to First Farmers' by Bruce Robinson.
Fish or eel spear
blankxx Early Mesolithic (hunter-fisher peoples) sites believed to date from this period have been identified at Home Heath at Lackford and Wangford, near Thetford. From this time to the present the human occupation of Britain has been continuous. Their flint technology now seems to include microliths, which are small worked flakes which are believed to have been set in wooden or bone shafts to make a composite blade, or tool.

Bone was also used as a resource, and barbed bone points have been discovered surviving from this time. One example was dredged from the North Sea 25 miles NE of Cromer, dating from this time when the area was still marshy land. Another example is from Feltwell. The diagram shows how these may have been used in pairs as fish or eel spears.

It is thought that the average July temperature rose from 8 degrees centigrade to 17 degrees within a short span of years. The earlier arctic animals were gradually replaced by the animals familiar to us today in East Anglia, together with other species which are now extinct. These included the elk, the tarpan, (a type of wild horse), the lynx, beaver, wolf, bear, wild boar, and the massive wild cattle known as aurochs. Of these animals, the wolf, beaver, and wild boar survived in East Anglia up to Anglo-Saxon times.

In 1998 the skull of an aurochs was dredged from the River Lark at West Row, dating from around this time. This was a very large specimen with a 90 cm span across the horns. Peat deposits were thought to have preserved it, together with cut marks attributed to butchery by the local inhabitants before eating it. It stood over 2 metres tall, and thus was larger than modern cattle. The aurochs died out during the Bronze Age.

In this early mesolithic period, Britain was still joined to Europe by a land bridge, probably at modern day Denmark. The North Sea coastline was somewhere north of the Dogger Bank, so continental flora and fauna could migrate freely into Britain.

Causewayed enclosure and cursus at Fornham All saints
Fornham all Saints Cursus
3,000 BC New Stone Age man had, by now,settled quite densely around Mildenhall and one form of their pottery is called Mildenhall ware.

Causewayed enclosures from this period have been identified at Kedington and Fornham All Saints from aerial observation of crop marks. At Fornham a 'cursus', or processional way, has been identified, together with circular enclosures or henge-monuments.

Several thousand implements were found in a single little valley at Icklingham, and perhaps these people arrived up the Icknield Way from Southern England and Northern France.

By contrast, East Suffolk is thought to have been colonised more from the Low Countries and Denmark and Germany up the coastal estuaries.

Meanwhile in the west country at Stanton Drew a massive wooden henge of concentric circles of wooden posts was erected, twice as big as Stonehenge was to be.

2,100 BC Pots known as Beaker pottery dates from the early Bronze Age, as do many round barrows. For many years these people were referred to as the Beaker People. Some 825 round barrows are known in Suffolk by 1999, including How Hill at Icklingham. Settlements are still in river valleys and on the light soil areas.
Grimes Graves flint mines
Grimes Graves

2000 BC Grimes Graves was the site of a massive flint production industry at this time. It was probably yielding flints long before this date, but appears to have been at its busiest around 2000 BC. The mines covered an area of about 90 acres, and at least 500 shafts have now been found, many thirty feet deep. There were also at least 1,600 shallow pits from which we believe open cast methods extracted the shallower flint. The best flint was the what we now call the black floor flint, laid down in beds rather than the random nodules found throughout East Anglia.
The deep mining ended here by about 1,800 BC, but shallow pits continued to be dug until 1,600 BC. There were other flint mines in Norfolk, in places like Lynford and Buckenham Tofts, but Grimes Graves is the best known.

With the growing availability of bronze the Stone Age era was now slowly drawing to its end, but it made up 98% of the time span that man has lived on Earth. Flint continued to be used where it was easily available, and bronze would have been too scarce to use for everyday tasks.

1,700 BC A settlement has been found at West Row, Mildenhall dated between 1,700 and 1,500 BC, and one bronze age house was circular, some 16½ feet in diameter. Its inhabitants used pottery, worked flint, grew cereals and processed flax.

Elsewhere, several metalwork finds have come from Rymer Point. At Rymer Point there were a series of ponds, the only water in the area, and the ten parishes that joined here in medieval times possibly had origins in settlements and land claims as far back as this time.

At Grimstone End, in Pakenham, near Ixworth a single round ditch was revealed by aerial photography. It was excavated in 1953 to reveal the base of an early Bronze Age barrow, containing an urn with cremated bones.

Collared urn from  aburial at Eriswell, c 1400 BC. On view at West Stow
Early Bronze Age collared urn
1,400 BC This collared urn, as it is described, dates to the Early Bronze Age, around 1400 BC. It was found at Chamberlain's Farm, Eriswell, in the centre of a bowl barrow, in 1966. It was inverted over the cremated remains of a man aged 22. This urn is currently on display in the Archaeology gallery at West Stow Visitor Centre.
700 BC Iron was introduced to Britain in about 800 to 700 BC and as its use would slowly spread, the use of bronze for tools would decline but continue for bowls and ornaments etc.. However, the way of life of the Bronze Age inhabitants did not change overnight. Iron had been in evidence on the continent and in central Europe for at least 300 years already. The continental Iron Age of this time is usually referred to as Hallstatt phase C, and this cultural influence accompanied the spread of iron working knowledge into Britain.

In our area, the people were still living in settlements in the north west of Suffolk on the light, well drained soils of Breckland. It has been thought that raiders from Belgium left sword scabbards found at Lakenheath. Nowadays, such evidence is much less readily attributed to invaders and more readily linked to trade or cultural exchange. Unfortunately nearly all of the iron objects have rusted away fairly quickly, and so the Iron Age is perhaps less evident in the ground than the Bronze Age. Nevertheless we are fairly sure that iron artefacts would not come into general widespread use until after 500 BC to 400 BC.

Distribution of Iceni objects in Suffolk shown in red. Trinovante objects shown in blue. Taken from 'The Archaeology of Roman Suffolk' by I E Moore et al.
Two tribes meet in Suffolk
100 BC It is thought that there were two separate peoples in Suffolk at this period, with a boundary roughly from Newmarket to Stowmarket and Aldburgh. To the north were the Iceni, and in the south the Trinovantes. Their names are known from Roman writers.

The iron age Iceni tribal heartlands were in North West Suffolk around Ixworth and the Blackbourne Valley and Icklingham, West Stow and the Lark Valley. They extended into South West Norfolk and north and south along the Icknield Way. The Iceni were widespread in Norfolk and archaeological remains there confirm the Roman descriptions of them using wheeled chariots drawn by a pair of ponies in warfare.

Thetford Earthworks - an Iron Age Hill Fort. Viewed from the Norman mound. Picture by Susan White.
Iron Age earthworks at Thetford
blank In Norfolk the Iceni had an earthwork fort at Warham Camp, near Norfolk's north coast. It was bigger than any fort in Suffolk. They also had a major fort with earthworks which survive today at Thetford. This fort would be re-used by Viking invaders in the 9th century, and most notably by the Normans, who added the massive central mound, or motte, in the 11th century.

Most of their remains in Suffolk are from Cavenham to Thetford. These people kept cattle and water had to be available within a mile of the herds, a requirement which held true up to the 20th century.

In South Suffolk the people were known as Trinovantes and are also known as the Belgic or Belgae tribes and were supposedly later arrivals from the Continent.

60 BC By this time close relationships existed between Southern Britain and Northern Gaul. The part of Gaul called Armorica had trade links with Dorset and further north there were several cross channel routes. Caesar noted that in his wars in Gaul he was often faced with British contingents and that Gallic fugitives would often escape to Britain. This may have led him to consider a punitive expedition against the British.
Iceni coin known as a Bury Diadem
Bury Diadem Iceni coin
blank Dating from around this time is a mysterious group of Iceni coins called the Bury type or Bury Diadem type because the first examples were discovered around Bury St Edmunds. They circulated widely in Norfolk and Suffolk and may be the earliest Iceni silver coins. They feature a well-styled female head with a complex crown on one side and a well modelled horse on the reverse.

First phase of the Gallows Hill/Fison Way Iceni centre. Picture by Sue White.
Iceni Centre at Gallows Hill
40 AD At Gallows Hill, in a location now called Fison Way at Thetford there was a series of hilltop enclosures dating back to the Middle Iron Age. This settlement was replaced, at about the time of the Roman conquest, by a single substantial circular building within a double-ditched enclosure. Outside it was surrounded by smaller peripheral enclosures containing possible graves.

The discovery of this cult centre has led some people to believe that the Iceni "capital" must have been moved here from a site near to Norwich, called Venta. However, there is no indication of a royal presence here, and very little evidence of any major or permanent occupation of this enclosed site.

The site of Thetford on the Icknield Way. Map by Alan Crosby in his History of Thetford.
Thetford's beginnings
43 AD The emperor Claudius began the military conquest of Britain, which would remain part of the Roman Empire for the next 370 years. Under treaties made in the time of Julius Caesar Britain was already nominally subject to Rome, but the Celtic Kings had often allowed their ambitions to run counter to these treaties.

After an unopposed landing, running battles were fought against British chariot forces under the command first of Togodumnus and then Caratacus. These two men were the leaders of the Trinovantes-Catuvellauni alliance, the most powerful of the tribes. The combined British were defeated at a decisive battle on the River Medway, during which Togodumnus received fatal wounds and his younger brother Caratacus was forced to flee with the rest of his family through Gloucestershire to Wales.

The Romans now attacked the homeland of the Catuvellauni, in revenge, and captured their fort at Camulodunum. Claudius himself led the victorious Roman army into Camulodunum and spent sixteen days in Britain, holding audience with the leaders of several British tribes. Two of the tribes were made clients of Rome because they had played no part in resisting the Roman invasion. First were the Iceni from Norfolk and North Suffolk, and second were the Brigantes from the hilly Pennines in the north.

The Iceni probably did not have a single King at this time, something which confused the Romans. They wanted to deal with one man, and this seems to have been Antedios. Other Iceni chieftains were apparently Aesu and Saenu from coinage evidence. Claudius decided that Antedios was to be the ruler of all the Iceni.


Go to Bury St Edmunds Growth Home Page Last updated 25th February, 2020 Go to Main Home Page