A new analysis of antler and bone finds in the Ipswich area could provide us with a greater understanding of the activity of Norse settlers in the region of East Anglia. 

An Early Medieval Craft: Antler and Bone Working from Ipswich, by Ian Riddler, Nicola Trzaska-Nartowski, and Shona Hatton, has been published by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service (SCCAS) in partnership with Historic England

The book provides photographic records and detailed analysis of finds from a series of 40 excavations made in Ipswich between 1974 and 1994. 

Co-author Ian Riddler speaks to The Viking Herald about how the work has unfolded and the potential implications for understanding Norse influence in Ipswich and the British Isles as a whole. 

A wealth of material 

As Ian tells us, the monograph has been long in the making. "The book began following a chance meeting between myself and Keith Wade, the director of SCCAS, at Ipswich Railway Station around 1990," Ian recounts. 

The archeological digs recovered a total of 1,340 objects and 2,400 fragments of waste, including a significant amount of antler, bone, and ivory. Initially, however, the Vikings were not expected to be the focus of the analysis.

"We were both aware that some fascinating material had come out of Ipswich, but at that time, we were thinking more about its pre-Viking archeology," Ian admits. 

"Ipswich was primarily known for its ceramic industry of the eighth and ninth centuries, and until recently, it hadn't appeared on any distribution maps of the Scandinavians in England. We weren't expecting that to change!"  

It was discovered that many artifacts recovered from Ipswich date back to the Viking Age. Notable among them are 13 Scandinavian combs, providing strong evidence of Norse presence in the area. Photo: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service

Viking traces 

Yet when Ian finally had the opportunity to begin sifting through and analyzing the material with his colleagues, his expectations began to shift. 

"Nicola Trzaska-Nartowski and I are specialists in the analysis of objects and waste of antler, bone, and ivory. Shona Hatton, the third author, was already working in Ipswich, preparing databases and catalogs of objects." 

"We started to examine the material without any funding but with huge amounts of goodwill from our colleagues in Ipswich and Suffolk." 

It soon became clear that much of the material recovered actually dated from the Viking Age, and that some of it was truly significant. 

"Once Shona had shown us the material, we knew it had to be published and put into the public domain," Ian says. 

"As far as Viking-period archeology is concerned, we can now say that Ipswich has the finest collection of early Scandinavian combs from any site in England." 

The artifacts include 13 Scandinavian combs that Ian says provide strong evidence for the presence of Scandinavians in Ipswich in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. 

These dates suggest that the Norse would have come to Ipswich as part of the Great Heathen Army that conquered much of northern and eastern England. 

Other Norse artifacts identified include gaming pieces, bone pins, a whalebone clamp, and a pair of cordage toggles. 

Through meticulous analysis and collaboration, Ian and his colleagues uncovered a trove of Viking artifacts in Ipswich, including distinctive Scandinavian combs. Photo: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service

Painting a new picture 

Although our understanding of Viking activity in the United Kingdom has advanced over time, the true extent of their impact is still subject to much speculation. 

In the case of Ipswich, the work done by Ian and his team indicates that their influence may have been much greater than previously thought. 

"Until quite recently, Ipswich has been a blank space on distribution maps of the Scandinavians in England," Ian tells us. 

"There are few historical sources for Ipswich and East Anglia as a whole, unfortunately, and archeology does what it can to fill in the gaps."

Through the team's painstaking analysis, it has been possible to not only confirm a Viking presence but also track their cultural assimilation over time. 

"With such a large overall corpus of material," Ian explains, "We are able to see how the Vikings effectively became Anglo-Scandinavians over the course of the tenth century in terms of various aspects of daily life."

The analysis also shows how integration may have occurred between the two cultures. 

While one of the main comb-making workshops appears to have ceased production prior to the arrival of the Norse, a second learned to work with the newcomers. 

"The second workshop appears to have embraced them and continued in use," Ian tells us. 

"They produced combs in a Scandinavian format but with an Ipswich twist. They effectively utilized existing local techniques for new comb types – becoming Anglo-Scandinavian." 

Alongside the combs, other Norse artifacts such as gaming pieces, bone pins, a whalebone clamp, and cordage toggles were identified, offering further insights into Viking material culture. Photo: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service

Changing connections 

Ian tells us there were also signs of changing trade routes between Ipswich and the European mainland. 

It is believed that the Scandinavians would have been aware of Ipswich as a place of trade and that there was regular commerce between the town and northern France, Frisia, and southern Scandinavia. 

During the period of extensive Viking settlement, however, it appears that trade shifted more towards the Viking trading post of Hedeby

There is also indication that while some industries and areas of the town appear to have flourished under the influence of the Norse, there was also a continued decline in other aspects. 

"The subsequent Anglo-Scandinavian town was arguably less important than its predecessor," Ian explains. 

"It did become a regional center for East Anglia, like Norwich and Thetford, but its wider connections to the continent appear to have diminished." 

By publishing their volume, Ian and his team seek to enhance understanding of Viking presence in East Anglia, hoping to stimulate future archeological investigations and scientific research. Photo: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service

Sharing the findings 

With the book's publication, Ian and his colleagues hope to provide people with more information about Viking activity in the East Anglian region and inspire further research. 

"We wrote our volume principally as a means of identifying a large number of objects and making them known to fellow archeologists and the general public," Ian says. "There will also undoubtedly be more scientific work – some of which has already begun." 

In addition to attaining a more precise understanding of the raw materials used, other research is likely to include further excavations. 

"We know where Scandinavian material has been found in Ipswich, and this knowledge will guide future archeological investigation," Ian says. 

"There has already been one small excavation since we finished our book, and it is likely that other sites will emerge in future years." 

Overall, Ian is proud of his team's achievements and their pioneering work in this area. 

"We can see in some detail the effect the Vikings had on Ipswich. We now know they were present here, while the material culture suggests they became Anglo-Scandinavian quite quickly and were integrated into the local landscape." 

"In terms of Anglo-Scandinavian history, Ipswich is now firmly a dot on the map!"

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