Category: Archeology and important finds

The Canterbury Portable Sundial

Anglo-Saxon Portable Sundial
Anglo-Saxon Portable Sundial, Canterbury Cathedral 01513 (1-2)

The Canterbury Portable Sundial, often referred to as St Dunstan’s watch, was found in 1938 by workmen clearing the cloister garth at Canterbury. There were various devices for keeping the time in Anglo-Saxon England, from sundials to Alfred’s candle clock. However, this portable sundial is a unique find. 

It is dated roughly to the 10th century and consists of a silver tablet, 61mm x 16mm, on a chain and a small peg.

The two faces of the sundial have three columns inscribed with pairs of the months in abbreviated Latin. They are equidistant from the marker for the summer solstice. Each column has a hole at the top into which the peg is inserted. The peg is made of gold and terminates in an animal’s head. It acted as a gnomon to cast the sun’s shadow.

If the tablet was held facing the sun with the peg inserted in the correct hole, the position of the peg’s shadow gave a rough idea of the time. Around its sides runs the inscription ‘[SA]LVS FACTORI [PA]X POSSESSOR[I]’: ‘Health to my maker, peace to my owner.’

The portable sundial is a unique find and probably belonged to someone associated with the Cathedral. It would have helped its owner to keep track of the time in accordance with the Benedictine Rule. The copy of the Rule at Canterbury was also prefaced with a table to show how long someone’s shadow would be at different times throughout the year.

In the 10th century Byrhtferth of Ramsey wrote in his Enchiridion that with the gnomon in place:

“you can consider in how orderly a fashion the sun advances on the sundial, as if some learned man sat down and wrote a verse with his pen.”

Much earlier Bede, writing in the early 8th century, also mentioned sundials, indicting their use in monastic circles. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book V.21 he says:

“Now the equinox, according to the opinion of all eastern nations, and especially of the Egyptians who took the palm from all other learned men in calculations, usually falls on the twenty first of March, as we can also prove by inspecting a sundial.”

The Franks Casket

Front panel of Franks casket
Front panel of casket on display at British Museum, photo P Wicks

The Franks Casket is a cornucopia of stories and legends created from the bone of a whale and incorporating its very own riddle. It is not named for the people known as the Franks, but of the donor who gave it to the British Museum, Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).

The casket was made in the 8th century, probably in Northumbria, and it is astonishingly, although not completely, intact. It bears the scars left by lost metal fittings on the exterior – handle, lock, hasps and hinges – and crude internal repairs. Originally it would have been painted.

The panels around the sides and on the lid show an array of stories from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. Starting with the Romans, the left hand panel depicts the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, being suckled by the she-wolf. The inscription is in Old English runes and reads:

“Romulus and Remus, two brothers, a she-wolf nourished them in Rome, far from their native land”

The back panel depicts the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD to the Romans. Part of the inscription here is in Latin using the Roman alphabet and the other part is in Old English in runes. In the top left the Romans attack the city and it states “Here Titus and the Jews fight” (Old English runes); then in the top right the population is trying to escape, with the text “Here the inhabitants flee from Jerusalem” (mixed Latin and runes); in the bottom left we see a judge, and the word “judgement” (in Old English runes); and finally in the bottom right the defeated slaves are led away with the word “hostages” (Old English runes).

The front panel has two stories side by side. The first is the Christian Adoration of the Magi at the birth of Jesus. A rather duck-like bird in the scene is probably the Holy Spirit, and word “magi” is shown in runes.

The other side of the panel depicts the legend of Weyland the Smith, a Germanic story about a master smith captured and hamstrung by King Nithhad. In revenge Wayland kills the king’s sons and makes goblets from their skulls which he presents to the king. He also gives drugged beer to the king’s daughter and then rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Wayland finally escapes on wings made from the collected feathers of birds.

Around the border of the front panel is a riddle about the casket itself, written in Old English in runes and ending with the solution:

“The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff

The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.”

The lid is quite damaged but the detail that remains is taken from the Germanic story of Egil, the brother of Wayland, relating to the front panel discussed above. This is not Egil Skallagrimsson from the eponymous Icelandic saga. Egil is a legendary archer and King Nithhad forces him to shoot an apple from his son’s head, much in the style of William Tell. Later Egil shoots birds to collect their feathers and make wings so that Wayland can escape.

The most mysterious panel is the one on the right hand end of the casket. It depicts a story about which there is no agreed interpretation. An animal sits on a mound confronted by a warrior and another animal, probably a horse, stands in the centre facing another figure with a sword, or stick. Three figures are to the right. The runes themselves are damaged and decoding them is difficult, with different suggestions producing different translations.

There have been numerous suggestions about what story this represents, from Hengest and Horsa through the death of Balder to the story of Rhiannon from the Mabinogion.

Despite the strong Germanic imagery and styling of the casket, the actual design and layout is based on a casket from Brescia in northern Italy. Possibly a similar casket travelled back to Northumbria with Benedict Biscop after one of his many visits to Rome.

The use of a range of stories and traditions is generally understood to promote a Christian message in a way that made sense to early converts to the Church The theme can be seen as good kingship, and perhaps the casket was to hold a psalter comprising the psalms of another king, David as inspiration to an Anglo-Saxon Atheling.

The Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard
The Cuerdale Hoard, British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 15th May 1840 according to the Preston Chronicle:

‘the numismatic collectors and connoiseurs (sic) are quite in a furor about the matter, and the spot where the treasure was found has, since the discovery, been more zealously scratched than any dunghill in the best populated poultry yard!’

The immense Cuerdale Hoard had been discovered by workmen repairing an embankment on the banks of the Ribble in Lancashire. The land was on the estate of Downham Hall, owned by William Assheton (who was in Italy at the time), and there was hot dispute as to who owned the Hoard; it seems that three parcels were separated from the finds. One was displayed at the Hall, one was taken by Assheton’s steward for his master, and one was removed by Joseph Kenyon, a local coin collector. It was further reported at the time that the workmen had also managed to carry off some pieces in their pockets or boots and offered them for sale later. Later many of these items were returned but an early drawing of the “display” items includes a lost silver finger-ring. Kenyon also seems to have retained a number of rare or unique coins himself, which were later sold from his collection, and indeed stray items appeared for sale by private collectors over the years which almost certainly had originated in the Cuerdale find. As late as 1956, more than 100 years after it was found, a bequest was made to the British Museum which included items from the hoard. This dispersal among more than 170 recipients means that the Hoard as a whole is now distributed across such a number of collections, both known and unknown, that appreciating its full value is challenging.

While cataloguing the coins was an immediate priority, listing the other material was not completed. The Blackburn Standard (19 August 1840) reported that “There are sixteen large bars or ingots averaging 6¼ oz [recte: 8¼ oz] and weighing in the aggregate 132oz. Each of these has a cross upon it, and they are said to be marks, being of the value of 160 of the smaller coins.”

The identified components of the hoard are nevertheless extraordinary. It includes more than 7,000 coins, hack-silver and silver ingots, and 1,153 non-numismatic silver objects including English and Carolingian jewellery. The estimated total weight of the Hoard is around 31.9kg of which about 10kg is unaccounted for.

The majority of the Anglo-Saxon coins date from the last three decades of the ninth century. Two series of coins in the hoard can be attributed to the Vikings in East Anglia at around the same date, linked to “Æþelstan” which was Guthrum’s baptismal name. The largest group within the hoard is now firmly attributed to the northern Danelaw. In addition there are around 1000 Carolingian coins, as well as 50 Islamic, a few Scandinavian, one Byzantine coin and some Viking issue coins which are unattributable.

It is believed that it was buried around 900-910 AD by Vikings, and historically it is tempting to link it either to those who had been driven out of Dublin in 902 AD (although this is considered to be rather early for the deposition), or following the Viking defeat at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 AD. However, such precise dating is not possible.

The hoard is one of at least 18 Viking hoards recorded between the late 860s and 927 AD when King Æþelstan defeated the Viking rulers of York, although in fact only one hoard, the “North Yorkshire” hoard, is dated earlier than Cuerdale.

The rings found in the hoard were mostly for personal use, for wear around the neck, arm or finger (there were no ear-rings at this time). Primarily this was for display, although they would also be broken into hack-silver when required. Because some of the items are so plain it may be that their use as hack-silver was actually their main purpose.

Fragments of brooches were found but these appear to have been reduced to hack silver in advance of being deposited. Items from the hoard are held in various public and private collections: the British Museum;  the Assheton collection (on loan to the British Museum); the Evans collection (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford);  the Nelson collection (Liverpool World Museum); and the Harris Museum, Preston), as well as other museums and private collections including the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; Society of Antiquaries of London; Alnwick Castle Museum; Blunt collection; and McCoy collection

The Chessell Down Brooch

Great square-headed brooch from Chessell Down
Great square-headed brooch, early 6th century, Early Anglo-Saxon, From Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight © Trustees of the British Museum

The Chessell Down Brooch is a silver-gilt and niello square-headed brooch found at Chessell Down on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was in the grave of a woman from the 5th-6th century together with two stamped pendants, a pair of tweezers, an iron knife and a waist buckle.

The style of decoration reflects a Scandinavian influence. The brooch is divided into a number of sections. The rectangular head plate has two crouching animals, back to back, in the border, with scrolling metalwork down the sides in Roman style. The inner panel is divided in two by a human face, with a complex image on each side of two hybrid animal bodies with human heads. These are so stylised they are very hard to make out!

Next is a plain section leading down to the foot-plate. Again there are more animals, their open jaws ending in smaller heads and curving around another human face. The necks curve on down to frame the central panel. On either side are two lobes with a human face in each. Again the border continues down on each side with back to back creatures leading down to a disc at the terminal. 

In the central panel is a bearded face with a cap or hair ending in bird heads pointing outwards.

All of the images are intricate and hard to decipher – at least to most of us! But we can pick out some probable messages from among the extraordinary richness and complexity.

We can see, for instance, that the brooch is expensive. The materials are luxurious and, combined with the craftsmanship required to create it, the brooch reflects the prestige and status of the owner.

Undoubtedly the form of decoration would have carried meaning about social and probably religious relationships and membership of specific groups or affiliations.

It is also likely the images reflect stories and traditions known to the wearer and those with whom they came into contact. The brooch was probably also intended to provide the wearer with protection and good fortune. The central bearded face, for example, may well represent Woden with ravens. The other images may also represent creatures and characters from legend, perhaps intended to ward off evil or to imbue strength, courage, wealth or success in battle. The borders frame each segment into its own story or message.

The People in the Bayeux Tapestry

Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”
Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”, image on web site of Ulrich Harsh

Although referred to as a tapestry the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidery.

It was not made in Bayeux, but most likely at Canterbury, and was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux and made during the 1070s.

Its first appearance in the documentary record is the 1476 inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral where it is described as “A very long and narrow tapestry, made of cloth and embroidered with images and inscriptions, which shows the Conquest of England” and further explains that it was hung around the nave of the church on the day and the octave of the Feast of Relics.

It comprises 9 panels sewn together into a length of about 70m and it is probable that there was a 10th panel on the end (there was certainly more at the end but we don’t know for sure how much). It is about 50cm deep, split into three horizontal narratives of 7cm, 36cm (the main story) and then 7cm. Sometimes the three bands merge into a single story at critical moments of drama. In total there are around 60 scenes with (mostly) Latin text describing people, places and actions.

There are shelves and shelves of books, and a large number of web pages that can tell you more about the story; almost half of it is set in 1064 before the invasion of England, and was designed to try and justify it. However, in this article we are going to look at the named individuals in this dramatic tale.

In total there are 15 people named on the tapestry: 14 men and 1 woman. We can identify some others as well but they are not specifically named – Queen Edith for example is at King Edward’s deathbed but is not mentioned by name.

To begin with there are the major characters, kings and nobles: King Edward the Confessor, King Harold Godwinson, Duke William, and Guy of Ponthieu, who captured Harold when he landed on the Ponthieu coast, between Flanders and Normandy. Guy was well known for capturing and ransoming nobles from ships and must have been ecstatic to find Harold in his grasp; but William was his overlord and soon took control.

Other characters include Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, William’s half-brothers. Odo has a much more prominent role than might be expected (including in the feast scene which seems to be modelled on the Last Supper and in which Odo sits in Jesus’ place) which suggests evidence that he was the commissioner of the work. In addition we meet Wadard, who supervises some pillaging, and Vital, who brings news, and both of whom have been identified from other documentary sources as probably being men of those names in the service of Odo.

Harold’s brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, are identified in the battle scenes at Hastings reminding us that Tostig and Harald Hardrada, and the events at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, are noticeable by their absence from the tapestry. Describing these events would have legitimised the English King Harold and emphasised his authority and right to the throne. Meanwhile Eustace of Boulogne is shown carrying a banner and is the highest ranking non-Norman in William’s army who is depicted.

Archbishop Stigand is depicted at Edward’s deathbed, looking exhausted and unshaven, and later with King Harold. He was famously excommunicated by 5 different Popes for un-canonical behaviour and this meant that he did not crown William as king but only assisted the Archbishop of York. He was finally deposed and imprisoned in April 1070.

A man called Turold appears at Ponthieu holding the horses belonging to William’s messengers to Guy. The name is common for the period, and he is not a Norman because he is at Ponthieu. He may in fact be a dwarf and it has been suggested that his costume indicates that he was a jongleur or court entertainer and would have been a celebrity one for his name to be quoted. The name itself was very common but it is fun to speculate that he may be the Turold who is sometimes suggested as a possible composer of the “Song of Roland” (written c. 1040-1115).

The 14th man is Conan who is shown fleeing Dol during the campaign led by William and on which Harold accompanied him in 1064. Conan finally has to surrender Dinan to William and is depicted handing over the keys on the tip of a spear.

Only three women are shown in the tapestry and only one is named: Aelfgyva. She is clearly extremely important but no one can be certain who she is – although theories abound. There certainly seems to be reference to a sex scandal as there are some very explicit images in the margins at this point.

The other two women are Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward and sister of King Harold, who is shown in Edward’s deathbed scene; and an unnamed woman fleeing a burning house with a boy when the Normans pillage the countryside around Hastings. Here’s another piece of speculation to consider: the house is near Hastings and clearly quite grand, so one possibility is that we are seeing Harold’s wife Edith Swan-neck and little son Ulf escaping Harold’s property.

Orm’s Sundial, Gregory Minster, Kirkdale

Orm’s sundial, St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale
Orm’s sundial, St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale. Photo © 2019 PWicks

At St Gregory’s Minster in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, in the south porch you can still see the 11th century sundial made by Hawarth when Brand was the priest.

The full inscription can still be made out.

The sundial at Kirkdale, line drawing
The sundial at Kirkdale, Yorkshire from Wall, J. Charles (1912), Porches & Fonts, by Roger Griffith, Public domain

On the left hand side:


Orm, son of Gamal, bought St Gregory’s Minster when it was all broken and fallen down and he made it anew from the ground for Christ and the Saints in King Edward’s day and in the days of Earl Tostig

In the centre:


This is the sun marker of the day and at each time

On the right hand side:


Hawarth made me and Brand the priest

Little of Orm’s rebuilding programme has survived beyond the sundial. There was probably a church there in the 8th century but there are no remains for that. The south and west walls incorporate Orm’s work: an archway, some shafts and capitals.  The church also has sculptures on display including some cross heads, a tomb slab associated with Bishop Cedd (died 664 AD), a tomb slab associated with King Æþelwald of Northumbria (died 765 AD) and a stone quern (hand mill) which may in fact be the oldest item there.

The sundial is located above the porch as you enter the church. If you feel agile and non-litigious you can scramble up onto a stone ledge to get a closer look. This may not have been its original location but the porch at least protects it from weathering now.  It is nevertheless likely to have been placed on the south side of the church to catch the sun.

The format of the dedication is similar to the one at Jarrow on the 7th century St Paul’s Church. Most of the characters inscribed on the sundial are from the Latin alphabet and the language is Old English. Beyond the conventional Latin alphabet the Old English characters of “ash”, Æ, (“a” as in “ash”), “thorn”, Þ, (the “th” sound), eth, Ð, (also “th”) and wynn, Ƿ, (W) are also used. There is also the & symbol, the Tironian note used in Old English for “&”.The abbreviations used are indicated with a short line above them, as in manuscript writing.

Four of the personal names (Orm, Gamal, Hawarð and Brand) are all Scandinavian in origin, as the area was heavily affected by Danish and Norse settlers. King Eadward is of course Edward the Confessor and Earl Tostig is Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria from 1055-1065. This provides a timeframe for the date of the sundial. It is generally assumed Hawarð was the sculptor and Brand the priest who understood the “computus” or science of calculating times and dates, especially for Easter. Orm himself can be identified in the Domesday Book as Orm at Chircheby (probably Kirkdale).

Sundials were old technology. There are Roman examples in the same half-dial format as this one, and also early (7th century) Anglo-Saxon ones at Bewcastle on the Cross, and at the church Escomb above the south doorway used by the laity.

Most people would have used landscape shadows as a means of telling the time, so the sundial probably had a more symbolic meaning given its position at the church entrance, possibly relating to the need to keep watch for the Second Coming, and the concept of the day, and all of life, as a pilgrimage. For example, Ælfric in one of his sermons compared sun to Christ, and the waxing and waning of the moon to cycle of birth and death. Likewise the Old English poem, the Menologium, links the passage of the seasons with the church calendar, starting with midwinter and the birth of Jesus.

St Gregory Minster
St Gregory Minster, Kirkdale, (c) PWicks 2019

Beagnoth’s Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth
The Seax of Beagnoth from the British Museum, by S Marshall, CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1857 an extraordinary find was made: a 10th century Anglo-Saxon seax, almost 2 feet long, and inscribed with runes, was found by a labourer in the River Thames near Battersea. A seax is a large, single-edged knife and was characteristic of the Anglo-Saxons. The word is even thought to have given the Saxons their name.

‘Seax’ is in fact the generic Old English word for knife, but tends to be used by archaeologists to describe the larger iron single-edged knives which first appear in Anglo-Saxon graves of the seventh century. Later examples tend to be isolated finds, often from rivers, like this example. Seaxes were used for hunting and combat.

Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth
Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth on display at the British Museum, BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0]

This particular seax was clearly a prestigious object. It is the only one found to have a full set of the Anglo-Saxon set of the runes, known as the futhorc, inscribed on the blade, along with the Anglo

-Saxon name “Beagnoþ.” It is not known if Beagnoþ was the sword-maker or its owner.  Other seaxes have also been found with inscriptions, using either runes or Latin lettering.

Beagnoþ’s blade was originally inlaid with silver, copper and brass wire. A similar inlaid example was found deposited at Keen Edge Ferry in Berkshire, so close to Beagnoþ’s seax in shape, method of construction and decoration that they may have been from the same workshop.

The order of the runes does not match the usual sequence recorded elsewhere, and some of the individual runes are written slightly differently from usual too. It may be that the craftsman was not familiar with runes or else had problems inscribing the letters into the blade. However, all the runes from the futhorc are included.

It appears that the seax may have been deposited deliberately in the river, like other similar finds, but it is not known for certain why such valuable objects were treated in this way. It may have been for religious reasons, perhaps as protection at difficult crossing places on the river, based on pagan beliefs. At this period there may have been Viking or Scandinavian influences at work, and the law codes of King Cnut and Archbishop Wulfstan in the early 11th century, which forbade such rituals, certainly indicate that such practices were happening at this time despite widespread Christianisation.

The seax of Beagnoth can be viewed in the British Museum in London.

Street House Anglo-Saxon Cemetery

Saxon Princess Reconstruction
Saxon Princess Reconstruction, Kirkleatham Museum by Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon finds was in Street House in North Yorkshire,  where a cemetery dating to the 7th century has been investigated.

The site was excavated between 2005-7, originally as part of an investigation into an Iron Age settlement. However, it soon became apparent that an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of significance was also beneath the soil. The site itself had evidence of human activity from the Neolithic through to Roman periods and the cemetery was an unanticipated delight.

The team led by Dr Steve Sherlock found 109 graves arranged in a square plan with the most spectacular finds in the centre. The high status jewellery found among the burials allowed accurate dating which placed it in the second half of the 7th century, with some finds dated 650-675 AD. This means that it was a “conversion” cemetery; a cemetery at the time of the conversion to Christianity with rapidly changing funerary practices being evidenced. Such sites have mostly been found in the south of Britain so this was even more unusual, and most excitingly it revealed the only known bed burial in the north of England. The original occupant of the bed burial in Grave 42 was a noble, possibly royal, female.

Princess Pendant
Princess Pendant, by Prioryman [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Grave 42 was near the centre of the cemetery. The bed is thought to be made of ash and it is 1.80m long and 0.80m wide with especially decorative iron work cleats holding it together and may have once had a canvas awning over it. The skeleton had dissolved entirely in the acidic soil, but the quantity and quality of the associated finds indicated the burial of a very high status individual.  The jewellery consists of three gold pendants, two glass beads, one gold wire bead, and a fragment of a jet hair pin. The pendant, which became iconic of the find, is a shield-shaped jewel inlaid with 57 red garnets and a larger scallop-shaped gem in the centre, and is of exquisite craftsmanship. The design has been linked to early Christian belief as a symbol of rebirth through baptism but it is not clear whether the owner in this case was a Christian or not.

Beads from Grave 62
Beads from Grave 62, Photograph by Dave Currie, “An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Street House, North East Yorkshire”

As well as the bed itself, over 100 beads were excavated from sixteen graves, mostly of glass with one amber and some metal. There were few beads in each grave, reflecting a trend for smaller but higher quality jewellery at that period.

Grave 43 revealed some unique items: a gold triangular shaped pendant, three gold wire beads, two silver wire beads, four silver bulla, two glass beads and a silver annular brooch dateable to the third quarter of the 7th century.  The triangular pendant reuses Iron Age beads as part of its construction, a particular feature of finds in Conversion Period cemeteries.

Jewelled brooch (grave 70)
Jewelled brooch from the Street House Anglo-Saxon cemetery (grave 70) by Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0

Grave 70 uncovered a spectacular gold brooch, unique in the north, along with glass beads, potsherd, iron key set, glass fragment, a gold bicone bead, a gold cylinder and a small gold chain. The pendant is 44.5mm in diameter and was decorated with red gemstones, and has been repaired with a new suspension loop.

There was also an amulet of black annular twist glass bead, broken in two. Similar examples are known from at least six sites including two other cemeteries (Swallowcliffe Down and Shudy Camps) where there are bed burials. There were five graves that had amulets in a variety of materials including jet, glass and amber, and four of the five pieces were broken.

Iron Age gold coins were found in grave 21 with glass beads which had been formed into a necklace. This is unique, in that whilst coins are found in Anglo-Saxon graves, similar date coins have not been found to be adapted in this way.

The date and location of the cemetery encouraged speculation that the inhabitants may have known Abbess Hild of Whitby, who lived at around this time and was also of royal connection. Hild had also spent some time in East Anglia, where other bed burials have been found.

The cemetery appears to have been used for around 30 years, and to be based around the woman in the bed burial, which seems to have been the first grave dug. It is speculated by the team that she was “a female member of the local aristocracy, probably a princess and an outsider, whose personal status was strong enough to act as a catalyst for the site.” The site may therefore have been dedicated to her immediate household or family and ceased to be used after they had all died.

In this video, archaeologist Dr Steve Sherlock talks about his discoveries at Street House with Kirkleatham Museum curator Alan Pearce; the museum has an exhibition of finds from the excavations.

The Prittlewell Princely Burial

Map of the Anglo-Saxon burial in Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea
Map of the Anglo-Saxon burial in Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, CnbrbOpenStreetMap contributors [CC-SA 2.0]

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  or the Museum of London Archaeology at

The Shorwell Helmet

Image of Shorwell Helmet replica
Replica of the Anglo-Saxon Shorwell helmet, made by Dave Roper (Ganderwick Creations), free to use

The Shorwell Helmet was found in 2004 on the Isle of Wight, and it dates to the early 6th century. It was found in a grave of a high status individual. The pieces were so fragmented that initially it was thought they came from an iron bowl but later analysis identified them as belonging to a helmet. The grave had also contained an iron pattern-welded sword blade, a silver pyramidal-shaped pommel, part of a gilded copper alloy scabbard mouthpiece, the socket from a broken spearhead, a shield-boss with extended grip, a copper alloy buckle (perhaps from a sword belt), a clear, fluted glass vessel, the remains of a Celtic copper alloy hanging bowl with bird-shaped mounts and two pieces of flint that may have been worked. A nearby square gold mount of Mediterranean origin inlaid with garnet and glass was also found. Later in 2007 a gold solidus was also recovered and is believed to have come from the same grave.

It was possible to reconstruct about two-thirds of the helmet from the fragments found, but by comparing it to other similar known artefacts, which are symmetrical in construction, it has been possible to envisage the final size and shape of this helmet.

Eight separate iron plates were riveted together and the frame was formed by an encircling brow band, a brow to nape band and two lateral bands. It is smaller than the Sutton Hoo or York Helmets, and is not believed to have had a nasal piece, but rather to have been in the style of a close fitting cap.

While the helmet would have needed to be worn with padding it is not clear whether this was present in the burial, and it may have been used over a separate woollen or linen cap rather than lined.

The helmet is very plain and functional rather than an elaborate object such as Sutton Hoo or the Staffordshire Hoard examples.  However the quality of work and thoughtfulness of the design imply it was made by a specialist such as an armourer.  It is typical of designs throughout Europe at the time, and the style is most closely parallel to Frankish helmets.  However, there are some differences. It is constructed from three bands, one joining the brow to the nape and two side bands, rather than only two bands crossing one another, for example.

The date c. 500-550 AD means that this helmet represents a bridge in  the  chronological  sequence  of  helmets  within  the  British  Isles  between  examples deriving from the Roman occupation and  the  helmets  known  from  the  Anglo-Saxon  period,  ie the  late  6th  to  the  late  8th  century. However the link to Frankish helmets also indicates it could be an example of a very early import or a local product influenced by Continental design.

Helmets were very rare and elite objects so the grave occupant is believed to have been a high status individual. The Frankish influence combined with the other finds in the grave, such as the belt plaque and the solidus, suggest that the owner may have been a Frankish warrior serving in the retinue of a local warlord.