The archaeology of Essex: A whistle-stop tour

Essex is an incredibly large county, covering 3670 km2, and as such has a wealth of history. Archaeological excavations and metal detected finds have been able to inform us about a great deal more than the written record already had. Here are a few of the significant events in Essex’s past and some objects that highlight each period.

(300,000-200,000 BC) A great deal of evidence for human activity in the palaeolithic (early stone age) comes from Essex. In 1911 Hazeldene Waren found a large assemblage of stone tools at Clacton-on-Sea. These tools were seen to be different from others of a similar date and thus the term “Clactonian” was used to refer to objects of this type. Clactonian tools have been found as far as the river Nile in Egypt!

(4,000-2,500BC)In the Neolithic period (later stone age) people started to settle down and start farming. At places such as Springfield Lyons, these early settlements have been identified. It was also at this time when stone tools, which up until this point had been purely functional, started to take on a more symbolic meaning. Polished stone axes and other tools that were never used have been found across the county, showing changes in social hierarchy and possibly even the development of religion. The stone for the example below (ESS-3CD931) came all the way from Cornwall!

ESS-3CD931 Neolithic greenstone axe
ESS-3CD931 Neolithic greenstone axe. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museums. License: CC-BY

(2350-800BC) Essex saw increased activity in the Bronze Age.  There is evidence of changing burial traditions with the arrival of Urnfield and barrow complexes  and also developing agricultural practices. Many incredible Bronze Age hoards have been found scattered across the landscape, providing insight into the development of metallurgy and ritual practice in Britain at this time. It is not certain whether these objects were simply the resources of a metalworker who had buried them in the ground never to return (whether intentionally or otherwise). Fortunately it means we have objects such as ESS-DEF947, that was found as part of the Burnham-on-Crouch hoard in 2010.

ESS-A22698 gold stater of Cunobelin, minted at Colchester
ESS-A22698 Gold stater of Cunobelin, minted at Colchester. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. License: CC-BY
ESS-DEF947 BA axehead
ESS-DEF947 Late Bronze Age socketed axehead. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. License: CC-BY.

(800BC – AD43) During the Iron Age, the population continued to expand and is reflected in the ever increasing number of settlements found across the county. Notably the fort, such as at Shoeburyness, show the move to a more defensive form of settlement. Of course Iron production was on the increase, as well as the extraction of salt from sea water evidenced by the Red hills that litter the Essex coastline.

(20BC-AD43) The first recorded town in Britain was at Colchester.  Pliny mentioned it in AD79, but coins with CA MV appear much earlier, during the reigns of Tasciovanus (20BC-AD9) and Cunobelinus (AD 9-43). Traces of Camulodunum and it’s Iron Age surroundings can still be seen around Colchester today, at Gosbecks and Lexden. The coin pictured above (ESS-A22698) was produced in the town of Camulodunum before the Romans arrived in Britain, with many of its type found across southern Britain.

(AD43-410) In the Roman period Essex, like much of the rest of Britain, was revolutionised. Major towns sprung up at Colchester and Chelmsford, as well as many smaller settlements. Temples were built for the worship of new Gods and Goddesses, such as the complex at Harlow and the temple of Claudius at Colchester. Furthermore, an intricate road network was put in place to connect all of these new settlements together.

(AD450-1066) In the Early Medieval period, Essex suffered regular and violent shifts in power. There is evidence to suggest that, as in many other places, life continued as normal after the Romans withdrew in AD410. At Mucking, there was very early Saxon occupation in the 5th century, marking the start of a new cultural shift in Essex. The kingdom of the East Saxons then spread to cover the region between the river Stour and the Thames, making  London its capital. In AD 825 the Kingdom was given to Egbert of Wessex, though not long after the Vikings incorporated much of the kingdom into the Danelaw. Traces of the Viking presence in Essex can be seen in objects such as the sword below (ESS-D45534), now on display in Colchester Castle Museum.

ESS-0144A4 Elizabethan gold pendant with diamonds and a ruby.
ESS-0144A4 Elizabethan gold pendant with diamonds and a ruby. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. License: CC-BY
ESS-D45534 Viking sword
ESS-D45534 Viking sword. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. License: CC-BY.

(AD1066-1509) After the Norman conquest, several castles were built in Essex, such as at Colchester, Heddingham and Rayleigh. The abbots of Waltham abbey and the nuns of Barking abbey were also granted large amounts of land in the county, leading to the construction of numerous hunting lodges at places like Upminster and other manorial sites such as Ingatestone Hall. Monastic sites were established at places like Southend-on-Sea (Prittlewell), Colchester (St Botolph’s) and St Osyth’s, the remains of which can still be seen today. Furthermore, PAS data has allowed us to identify an ever increasing number of Medieval market sites across the county, developing our understanding of trade and commerce in this period.

(AD1509-1900) The Tudor period saw the dissolution of many of the monasteries that had been established in the county during the previous era. Many manor sites were taken out of the hands of the church and ended up belong to the nobility. At places like Ingatestone Hall, the manors were completely redeveloped to fit in with changing fashions of the day. With this fashionable lifestyle came fashionable jewellery such as the fantastic pendant pictured above (ESS-0144A4). Thanks to contact with the New World, precious stones and metals flooded the English markets and those high up in society benefited greatly from it.

During the English Civil War, Essex was not only at the centre of the conflict between the royalists and parliamentarians, but also was a hotbed for witches. Matthew Hopkins (Witchfinder general) lived in Manningtree for much of his life, perhaps explaining why Essex had the highest number of witches executed in the country.

It is clear that Essex has had a rich and varied past, which explains why so many objects of historical significance have been found in the county. Since early humans arrived in Britain around 800,000 years ago to the modern day, objects have played an integral part in everyday life and it is through their study that we can learn much more about our past.