Ellie Broad, Assistant Curator of Archaeology at Southend Museums, on the Prittlewell Anglo-Saxon princely burial going on permanent display at Southend Central Museum from May 11 – for the first time since their discovery 15 years ago
The Prittlewell Princely Burial is the earliest evidence of Anglo-Saxon Christianity ever found in England. Compared with the princely burials at Sutton Hoo and Taplow, Prittlewell has a beautiful and exotic array of artefacts, with many of the most impressive objects going on permanent display from May 11 2019.
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In 2003, archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) began excavating land in Prittlewell, Essex ahead of a road widening scheme. The discovery of a chamber grave came as a great surprise to the archaeologists as they uncovered incredible objects buried under centuries of earth.
“A copper-alloy hanging bowl was found still hanging on its hook on the chamber wall”
A small, wood-lined chamber had been buried under a mound, which had collapsed over time, concealing its location and protecting its contents from robbers.
The first object that archaeologists found was a copper-alloy hanging bowl, which was found remarkably still hanging on its hook on the chamber wall. Other objects including a box for a wooden gaming board and a large copper-alloy bowl were also found still hung up.
The deceased had been buried in a wooden coffin, which was preserved as its iron coffin fittings. Placed around the coffin were personal objects including a beautiful pattern-welded sword, drinking vessels, exotic wares from the eastern Mediterranean and exquisite gaming pieces, many of which can be seen on display in the permanent display.
Perhaps the most significant find was the two gold foil crosses in the head area of the coffin. These are an undoubted symbol of Christianity and are unparalleled in any grave in England. Dating has shown that the deceased was buried between AD 580 and AD 600, which means it could belong to the time of, or immediately after St. Augustine’s arrival in Kent in AD 597. However, there is an 80% chance that the deceased was buried before this time, so there may be other explanations.
The burial assemblage is incredibly rich and shows the ‘princely’ status of the deceased. Some of the objects have exotic origins; the large copper-alloy bowl comes from the eastern Mediterranean and the flagon might have been obtained by a pilgrim in Syria and traded all the way to the UK to arrive in Prittlewell. Similarly, golden objects such as the belt buckle, thread and crosses would have had high values then as they do today.
Giving a name to the deceased has been a point of interest in the local area, with many originally naming the deceased the ‘Saxon King’ or trying to align with the kings of the East Saxon kingdom. However, 15 years of research have shown that the ‘Prittlewell Prince’ was buried too early to have been King Saebert and was probably only a local nobleman or relative of the Essex kings.
Take a virtual tour of the burial chamber at www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org/museum/
The Prittlewell Princely Burial is on permanent display from Saturday May 11 at Southend Central Museum. The Museum is open from 9am to 5pm from Tuesday to Saturday.
Southend Central Museum and Planetarium
The Central Museum is situated in Victoria Avenue, and houses the Planetarium and principal artefact store. The Central Museum was opened in April 1981, in a magnificent Edwardian library building. The displays tell the story of the natural and human history of south east Essex. The Southend Planetarium is the…