Royal Saxon tomb in Prittlewell

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The Royal Saxon tomb in Prittlewell is a high-status Anglo-Saxon tomb excavated at Prittlewell, north of Southend-on-Sea, in the English county of Essex.

In the autumn of 2003, in preparation for a road-widening scheme, an archaeological survey was carried out on a plot of land to the north-east of Priory Park in Prittlewell. The archaeologists were lucky in the placement of their trench and uncovered a set of Saxon remains.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology Service, under the supervision of Atkins Ltd, excavated the site and discovered an undisturbed 7th century chamber grave beneath a mound. They described it as "the most spectacular discovery of its kind made during the past 60 years". Earlier excavations had indicated Saxon burials in the area however it was not expected that such a significant find could be made.

The quality and preservation of the Prittlewell Chamber Tomb has led to inevitable comparisons with the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and associated graves. The artefacts found were of a quality that it is likely that Prittlewell was a tomb of one of the Kings of Essex and the discovery of golden foil crosses indicates that the inhabitant was an early Christian.

The tomb and artefacts[edit]

Excavation demonstrated the tomb to be a deep, formerly walled room full of objects of copper, gold, silver and iron. These finds included an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl, decorated with inlaid escutcheons and a cruciform arrangement of applied strips, a folding stool, three stave-built tubs or buckets with iron bands, a sword and a lyre, the last one of the most complete found in Britain.[1] The tomb itself is 4 metres (13 ft) square, the largest chambered tomb ever discovered in England.[2] The chamber had gradually collapsed and filled with soil as its containing wooden supports decayed.

About 110 objects were lifted by conservators in two phases, over a period of ten days. The final lift was completed on 20 December 2003, with final defining of the chamber walls and backfilling continuing for three days after.[1]

The inventory of grave goods is comparable to one found in a burial at Taplow in 1883, and though the overall collection is less sumptuous than that from the ship-burial in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, many individual objects are closely comparable and of similar quality. For example, there is a hollow gold belt buckle, but much plainer than that from Sutton Hoo, but the lyres, drinking vessels, and copper-alloy shoe buckles are very similar.[1] As at Sutton Hoo, the best hope for closely dating the burial is the Merovingian gold coins, however the dating of these is a complicated matter, based on their metallic content rather than the design and information stamped on them. Research continues on this as on other aspects of the find, but the evidence initially suggests a date in the period 600-650,[1] or 600-630.[3] There is an object identified as a "standard", as at Sutton Hoo, but of a different type, and there is a folding stool of a type often seen in royal portraits in Early Medieval manuscripts that is a unique find in England, and was probably imported.[4]

The acidic sandy soil had completely dissolved the body's bones, and any other bone in the tomb, but some pieces of human teeth were found, but too far affected by decay for DNA to be found in them. The body had been laid in a wooden coffin, with two small gold foil crosses, one over each eye. One opinion was that he had been laid in the coffin by Christians, and that the coffin had been then buried by pagans.

Some of the objects were block-lifted together with the soil that they were embedded in.

The design of the lyre was reconstructed from soil impressions and surviving metal pieces. There was evidence that it had been repaired at least once. A copy of it was made, in yew wood, and was played to accompany a funeral song sung for King Sǣberht in Anglo-Saxon and English in a church in Southend.[5]

Theories about occupant[edit]

The quality of the locally made objects, and the presence of imported luxury items such as the Coptic bowl and flagon, appear to point to a royal burial. The most obvious candidates are either Saebert (died 616 AD) or Sigeberht II the Good (murdered 653 AD), who are the two East Saxon Kings known to have converted to Christianity during this period. As the evidence points to an early seventh century date, Saebert is considered more likely.[6] It is, however, also possible that the occupant is of some other wealthy and powerful individual whose identity has gone unrecorded.[1] In the mean time, the occupant has acquired the popular nickname of the "King of Bling", in reference to the rich grave goods.[7]

Post-excavation events[edit]

Southend Borough Council faced criticism due to plans to continue with the already controversial road widening scheme - covering the site. The council has, however, promised to find a home for the finds, in order to keep them in the borough and it has been suggested that a new gallery will be created at Southend Museum for their display.[1] The project was the winner of the Developer Funded Archaeology Award as part of the British Archaeological Awards for 2006.[8] From September 2005 to July 2009 the site was occupied by a road protest camp known locally as Camp Bling.[7] Funding for a reduced road scheme at Cuckoo Corner includes provision for post-excavation work at the tomb. [9]

In 2004 a rededication of the King's tomb was hosted by the Bishop of Chelmsford and a large celebration event took place attended by over 5000 people in the area. The tomb was de-dedicated in a ceremony held at Prittlewell Priory supported by 85 local churches and voluntary organisations entitled 'Discover the King'. The Event Patron was local MP Sir Teddy Taylor and the Chair of the organising event was Jonathan Ullmer.

An episode of Channel 4's Time Team archaeological series devoted to Prittlewell was first broadcast on 13 June 2005, and replayed later.[10]

Early Anglo-Saxon Prittlewell[edit]

In addition to the Princely Tomb, there is other archaeological evidence of early Anglo-Saxon occupation of Prittlewell. A 1923 excavation in Priory Crescent revealed a 6th or 7th century Anglo-Saxon cemetery which may have extended into what is now Priory Park. The parish church, a short distance to the south, contains a remnant of a 7th-century church.[11]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Blair
  2. ^ Pollington, Stephen (2008). Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds. Anglo-Saxon Books. p. 21. 
  3. ^ Southend
  4. ^ Blair, MoLAS
  5. ^ Prittlewell episode of Time Team
  6. ^ Channel 4 Time Team, Prittlewell Southend, The name of the king
  7. ^ a b "The battle for the 'King of Bling'". BBC News. 6 February 2006. Retrieved 2008-01-13. 
  8. ^ "BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGICAL AWARDS 2006". Council for British Archeology. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  9. ^ "Cuckoo Corner Improvement Scheme - Proposal". Southend-On-Sea Borough Council. 2009-09-29. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  10. ^ Time Team microsite
  11. ^ Hirst, Sue (2004). The Prittlewell Prince. Museum of London Archaeology Service. 

References[edit]

Coordinates: 51°33′16″N 0°42′31″E / 51.5545°N 0.7086°E / 51.5545; 0.7086