In the autumn of 2004 there was great excitement in the world of Anglo-Saxon archaeology with the announcement of the discovery of a burial near Prittlewell in Essex (found 2003).
Prittlewell today is part of Southend-on-Sea, which only really expanded from a small settlement in the 19th century with the arrival of the railway. The Domesday Book of 1086 lists Prittlewell as a settlement but traces are few. The church of St Mary’s has a filled in stone doorway dating to the 7th century; as most churches were wooden the presence of a stone or partially stone building indicates it was a settlement of some significance. There is also evidence of Roman tiles in the Anglo-Saxon doorway indicating Roman buildings in the vicinity. Some pre-Christian burials have also been discovered in the village, supporting an early date for the settlement and its location on the Thames Estuary would have made it attractive because of the river’s status as an important trading route.
The burial found in 2003 was initially dated to the 7th century, firmly in the Saxon period, and was described as the most important find since the one at Sutton Hoo in 1939. Since then carbon dating has resulted in a recalculation of the date to the slightly earlier time of the late 6th century (c. 580 AD).
The burial chamber had been discovered during an evaluation of a proposed road widening scheme proposed by Southend-on-Sea Council in 2003. Saxon finds had been made in the immediate area in the 19th and early 20th century so it was anticipated that there may be some further remains to uncover, but nothing so significant was expected. The burial chamber was wood-lined and included a rich collection of grave goods indicating a very high status burial.
Organic material, such as wood, fabric and bodily remains had disappeared in the acidic soil but the goods remained undisturbed and in their approximate original positions. Some dental remains were also retrieved but were too far decayed to do more than
Senior Archaeologist Ian Blair who led the excavation said:
“to find an intact chamber grave and a moment frozen in time is a once in a lifetime discovery. The fact that copper-alloy bowls were still hanging from hooks in the walls of the chamber, where they had been placed nearly 1,400 years ago, is a memory that I’m sure will remain with all of us forever.”
Over 100 objects were found and identified in the chamber, including items originating in the Mediterranean and a folding chair. Two gold crosses are thought to have been placed on the eyes of the deceased, but are probably but not necessarily indicative of Christianity. At this time Christian symbolism was appearing as one thread among many in royal and noble artefacts.
Referring to Bede we learn that the first East Saxon King to become Christian was Saeberht in 604 AD. However, his sons reverted to paganism after his death. Then King Sigeberht II “the Good”, an ally of Kings Oswald and Oswiu of Northumbria, converted in 653 AD. It was Oswiu who finally persuaded him to convert and sent Cedd to Essex to minister to the needs of the people. The foundation of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-the-Sea, the oldest intact Christian church in England, dates to this time.
One current theory is that the man in the chamber may be Saeberht’s brother but there is no definitive evidence of either the identity or religious persuasion of the deceased.
Other items in the burial chamber include a cast bronze flagon, a bronze bowl, gold coins, glass vessels, decorated wooden drinking cups, gaming pieces, musical instruments, buckets, caskets, a sword, shield and standard. One of the wooden caskets represents the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork on its lid. The number and variety of goods compares well with those of Taplow, the other known princely burial, but is not as rich as Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. However, the gold and garnet jewellery of Sutton Hoo is largely absent, and the gold buckle of Prittlewell is less elaborate and would have cinched a tunic but probably not held a sword; neither has a helmet been found.
Findings have been published and there is an excellent interactive website to introduce you to the burial at https://prittlewellprincelyburial.org/ or the Museum of London Archaeology at https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/prittlewell-princely-burial-secrets-revealed