Neolithic arrow-heads and other tools have been found on the rising land below Manor Farm, Ashby. Pre-historic man found the shores of Fritton Lake a congenial place to settle, being plentiful in trees, with good agricultural land and pasture, and with a large expanse of water in Fritton Decoy for fishing. The natural isolation of the site met the demands for fishing, hunting and in supplying timber.
The Decoy itself has been said to be the result of extensive peat-digging in medieval times, the origin of many of our Broads in those times and perhaps earlier. But there are other considerations - the Decoy appears to be too deep in the centre for this to be the sole reason. It has been suggested that the depth was due to 'scoring' in the late Ice Age. The two-mile long expanse of water is served by no less than 4 cold springs, and the Decoy itself was part of a water-way linking the North Sea to the River Waveney, thus virtually cutting in half the Isle of Lothingland. Peat digging there probably was, but along the boggy land adjacent to the Decoy, rather than in the central Lake area.
The whole area was extensively occupied by pre-historic man - neolithic axes were found in 1902-4 AD 400 yards to the north-east of the western extremity of the Decoy, and five years later, further flint tools were found about 800 yards east-south-east of the same point. Coming into the Bronze Age, a bowl of that period was found in 1909 AD when workmen were cutting out the Sam 300 yards to the east of the eastern extremity of the Decoy; and in 1927 a Bronze hoard of some 27 tools were found at the Old Rectory, Somerleyton. Expert opinion of the then Dept. of British and Medieval Antiquities identified the hoard as dating c. 800BC. Extensive occupation of the area by neolithic and Bronze Age man is also attested in the adjacent coastal area where, for instance, around Corton, flint arrow-heads, scrapers and a bronze slag piece have recently been found. By the Bronze Age it was not all hunting and fishing. Some of these finds indicate the earliest examples of textile culture, and the hollow sickle, ox-collars and ring bits of the Somerleyton find suggest a settled area. We know little about the crops grown here, but may hazard a guess that wheat, rye, oats and a six-rowed barley were grown. We know little about the kind of animals kept, but cattle enclosures with ditch and bank were a common feature of this area.
THE DARK AGES
So far, no Roman remains have been discovered but perhaps this is not surprising, as the Roman route lay to the north of Fritton Decoy. After the Roman period, the Anglian shares were periodically invaded, first by raiding parties, then by settlers, the Saxons, Vikings, and Danes, and the inlet from the coast through the Decoy-water-way to the river Waveney would provide an invitation to 'come inside'.
Ashby, or Haskeby as it was once known, indicates that at some early date after the Roman withdrawal, a Saxon settlement was made there. This view is supported by R. Rainbird Clarke in his 'East Anglia', who puts the Ashby settlement c. 450AD - a Saxon settlement rare for these parts. There was one at Gariannonum, nestling in the remains of the old Roman fort, another to the North of Yarmouth; while most of the others along this stretch of coast were in the Ipswich area. By 500 AD there were extensive Saxon settlements from Schleswig-Holstein, N.W. Germany, the N. Frisian islands and possibly Denmark, but these stretched from the Wash through the Fens to Breckland.
THE ASHBY BURIAL BOAT
Further support for an early Saxon settlement also comes from the discovery of a Saxon burial ship of the chieftain type. Charles Green in his 'Sutton Hoo' gives a full description of the burial ship at Ashby and dates this with fair confidence to between c. 400-450AD, in the period before the last traces of Roman influence had disappeared, though the custom of boat-burial being later rather militates against this early view. Buried deeply in Ashby Dell, 3/4 mile from the Decoy Shore, an ancient boat was discovered in 1830, so well preserved that a detailed accurate drawing of its peculiar construction was recorded by Mr. Keable, estate carpenter, also described as 'agent and draughtsman to H. Mussenden Leathes of Herringfleet Hall'. An abstract of this record by Keable's great-nephew, Kenneth Luck, was published by his landlady. Neither men were versed in the details of ancient boat construction, but we may trust their accounts for they were both master carpenters by training, though Luck thought it was a Viking ship and was probably wrong in designating the planking as of 'river larch'. It is probable that larch was not available at this time, so it may have been constructed of another coniferous tree. An interesting feature was that no iron was used, all fastenings being either by treenails or lashings, and the boat was clenched not with iron rivets but with lashings. A similar method, Mr. Charles Green notes, was used in the Haslney (Norway) boat which was dated c. 200AD and he draws interesting points from Luck's narrative which point to primitive features in the Ashby boat - suggesting Roman influence. Belton Fen, lying in the shelter of the Saxon Shore fort at Burgh Castle, has been suggested as the possible headquarters and dockyard of a detachment of the Roman fleet of the 4th century - it may be that this chieftain's boat of Ashby was built for an early Anglo-Saxon settler before the completed phase of the Roman withdrawal.
Above board, its length was 54 ft and along the keel 47 ft. Its width amidship was 8 ft, height amidship 6 ft, and its height bow to stern, rotted (but not much) above the silted mud, was approximately 9 ft. The keel, stem, and stern posts were of elm and straight. Wooden pins were used throughout for the fastenings. The keel, stem, and stern posts were rebated to take 'garboard' (i.e. adjoining) streak and side planking, and although rough, the workmanship was good. The boards along the side were of 'river larch' (Luck) thinner on one edge, weathered and adzed or brought into form by some other tool. The planks were wide in the earlier style, each one having two cleats, and each cleat was slotted, with holes bored on either side of the slot.
This slot took the timber to which every board in turn was lashed. There was wood pinning or lashing wherever any connection was necessary. No evidence of iron was discovered. The timbers were suitable crotches of trees, and where the canker was faulty the cleats were eased or packed to meet it. There were 7 'tonlocks' on either side, and 14 thwarts or seats, ingeniously fastened to the timbers and gun'al by the same method of pins and lashing, the rowlocks being of wedge shape hollowed to take the oar and grooved to take the lashing. There was no hole in either thwart to take a mast and no 'stepping' in the keel - presumably it was propelled by rowing only. In the crosspiece from the stem to the first seat was found a rounded timber, 9 inches in diameter, 40 ft. long, and as there appeared to be a hole right through it, it is supposed this was an adjustable, small, capstan.
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first posted 20 April 1999 last revised 20 November 2016
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