A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 1

east anglia

Mesolithic Period, Middle Stone Age 8,000 - 3,500 BC

After the Ice Age, the glaciers finally retreated, somewhere between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, and the waters of the Atlantic spilled over into the North Sea as the ice-sheet melted. The edges of the East Anglian coast, which were once exposed marshy land, were subjected to the encroaching waters. As the drier climates gave way to wetter conditions, the sea flooded the lakes and marshes and the ever-narrowing bridge of land which linked us to the continent was broken, and we became an island.

With this warmer phase, the tundra, an expanse of frozen sub-soil, gave way to birch and the willow scrub, and which was eventually followed by true forest with pines and oaks. In the open grass lands the bison, mammoth and hippopotamus lived, and as the reindeer herds gradually moved north, the woods were once more inhabited by red deer, pigs and auroch.

The Mesolithic humans liked well-drained sandy soils, where the woodland was not too dense, and signs of their presence have been found in Suffolk. In such places they built flimsy shelters with wooden frames covered with branches, turf or animal skins. Alternately they moved seasonally to the river valleys beside streams and marshes such as at Halesworth, where they could live off the abundant small animals, birds and fish they found there. They could fish more easily in the open rivers, and moved about searching for game in the heath and scrubland among the birch and hazel trees.

These people were still nomadic, living in small family groups. They developed a new Mesolithic technology which included the use of hafted axes in addition to the earlier hand axe, and made composite tools and weapons for hunting and fishing.

In Halesworth itself, excavations were undertaken in the late 1980's by Mike Fordham and others of the Halesworth Museum as the new relief road was being built. Their finds indicated Mesolithic and Neolithic sites were in use where the old Angel Bowling Green had formerly stood - currently the public car-park behind the Angel Hotel - (IP19 8AH) - and this would have been a habitable area close to the river and a dwelling place from which the people of those times were able to fish, or use as a base as they went into the forests nearby to hunt for food. It is probable that not only was the river-bed some 2.15m lower than at present, but evidence indicates that the Blyth River at one time was almost 185m wide and flowing swiftly.

The toolmakers were becoming more expert in their craft and using good quality flint to make a variety of tools which, among other types, utilised their characteristic microlith or micro-blades. These could be fixed with bitumen or resin into tools of wood or bone to produce sharper cutting edges. They therefore took that extra step in evolution when they learned how to make tools which could themselves be used to make other more sophisticated tools. Harpoons, spears, needles and sickles were made of bone or deer antlers, a move beyond the expertise of Palaeolithic man.

At the Angel Hotel site were found scrapers, burins (a kind of flint chisel) and borers. Also excavated were several potboilers which were pieces of flint which were heated in the fire, then dropped into a water-filled skin bag which also contained meat, in order to warm it up in an attempt to cook it. This discovery of fire opened up a whole new world to them, and it is possible that they hollowed the first boats out of the trunks of trees, with the use of fire.

Mesolithic people may well have fished in the Blyth River with nets or bone fishing hooks, and the place in Halesworth where the several streams met might also have formed a meeting place for the nomadic groups who might barter or exchange skins, flints or other merchandise.

All this time men were continuing to travel long distances on foot laying down the ancient roads and paths which were to become the green ways of England, and the earliest of our roads. Peddar's Way, Norfolk, still exists and the Icknield Way in Norfolk - which became the A 11 - travels west to meet the ancient pathways which connect with the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. These two roads ran very close to a pre-history industrial area which is pock-marked with scores of chalky hollows in the ground. Known as Grimes Graves, in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, these were flint mines created to meet the growing demand of the toolmakers of the Neolithic era.

The presence of a Mesolithic and Neolithic encampment near the Angel Hotel came to light when the Halesworth relief road was started in 1988. The team from the Halesworth Museum found flint tools and pottery sherds ranging from the Mesolithic up to the Saxon period - 8,000 BC to 850 AD. Examples of these finds, as well as others from Chediston, Wissett and Walpole are on display in the Halesworth and District Museum.


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