Sixteen years after a spectacular early Anglo-Saxon burial was discovered in Essex, a team of more than 40 archaeological experts – including conservators and finds specialists, ancient timber specialists, and engineers – has produced revolutionary new insights into the lavishly furnished wooden chamber and the man buried there. Sue Hirst and Ian Blair describe some of the revelations.
It was clear, from the moment of its discovery in 2003, that the early Anglo-Saxon princely burial at Prittlewell, north of Southend-on-Sea, was of international importance. Working ahead of a road-widening scheme, MOLA archaeologists had uncovered an undisturbed underground wooden chamber, richly furnished with well-preserved artefacts – provisions for the afterlife or, more likely, symbols of the presumably elite occupant’s status as provider for his followers and dependants in this and the next life (CA 190). Rare copper-alloy vessels still hung on hooks on two of its walls, while a splendid array of drinking vessels and buckets occupied the ground below. Weapons and a lyre had been placed along the third wall, and an iron-bound tub, a unique iron folding stool, and the remains of a small box containing a silver spoon and other personal items lay against the fourth.
It was a remarkable find, but even after fully excavating the burial there was much we did not know. What could we say about the construction of a chamber whose wooden lining survived only as soil stains? Was the probable wooden structure identified alongside the north wall a coffin? In the absence of a skeleton, could we be sure that there had been a body in it at all – perhaps the owner of the gold-foil crosses, gold braid, and gold belt buckle that were also found within it? And could we get a more precise date for the burial? Bit by bit, as investigative conservation and specialist study and analysis progressed, we began to assemble the answers to these questions, and to piece this princely burial back together.
IF WALLS COULD TALK
Although the timber that had once lined the burial space had completely decayed, as MOLA archaeologists excavated the chamber they were aware that the soil filling the underground space held vital evidence for how those walls had been constructed. Traces of the timbers had left greyish-brown stains in the soil, and by combining the excavated evidence with subsequent analysis of soil samples and organic material preserved on some of the metal objects in the chamber, it has proved possible to reconstruct in detail how the chamber was put together, and even the woodworking technology that it represents.
Together with the soil stains, crucial clues also came from mineral-preserved wood surviving on the iron hooks hammered into the chamber walls, and on some of the metal items that hung from those hooks. From these tiny traces, it is still possible to determine the orientation of the wood grain, showing that the walls were made from radially cut planks of oak around 50mm thick that were set on end, upright. With no evidence for a beam-slot cut into the base of the chamber, it is likely that the bases of the vertical boards were originally held in grooved timber baseplates.
Indeed, signs of just such a baseplate had survived in the form of a horizontal band of mineral-preserved oak against the bottom iron hoop of a wooden bucket. We assume that a similar horizontal bracing frame would have secured the tops of the boards at ground level – in the same way as a wall plate on a building – and that this structure probably had integral double-grooved corner posts that slotted into both the baseplate and wall plate to help spread the weight of the wall plate and roof timbers, which would otherwise be bearing on the plank walling.
The roof timbers themselves are thought to be represented by three parallel soil stains running north– south across the east half of the chamber (the largest timber seems to have been c.60cm wide), while two more parallel stains run east–west below these, probably reflecting beams that were notched over the wall plate to help to brace and retain the east and west walls of the chamber, and support the roof. The roof timbers would have had to be of a length to span the chamber, and strong enough to support the mound built over it.
As for the make-up of the floor, again we can examine stains and small fragments of oak in the soil, as well as in the corrosion layers of metal objects resting on the bottom of the chamber: from these, we can analyse the preserved wood grain, which suggests that this surface was covered with timbers running north–south. The minimum height of the walls is indicated by the tallest object in the chamber – a 1.33m-high iron stand – while the surface of the prepared ground on the north (downslope) side of the chamber, which was probably the level of the top of the wall and so also the underside of the roof timbers, was c.1.4m above the base of the chamber.
Building a chamber like this would have been a complex task – we estimated it might have required up to 113 person-days’ work – to get the ground ready and dig the construction pit, fell up to 13 oak trees, prepare the timbers, and to put it all together. A workforce of 20-25 people, including experienced woodworkers and labourers, could have produced the timbers and erected the chamber in as little as five days, with a further 18 person-days to build the mound over the chamber. This was a huge investment in labour and materials. Who was it all for?
A COFFIN AND A BODY?
The Prittlewell chamber, with its lavish grave goods, was clearly a burial space. What could we learn about the individual who was interred within its walls? The first clues came from a series of iron fittings that picked out a rectangular outline on the chamber floor. Together, they appeared to represent some sort of support or container for the body of the deceased. In fact, closer examination revealed the fittings to be L-shaped angle brackets that would have reinforced the lid and corners of a wooden coffin. Study of the outline of the coffin, together with mineral-preserved wood on the metal fittings and soil stains indicating planks from the lid, enabled the team to reconstruct an exceptionally large ash-wood coffin with an elaborate lid.
The coffin would have measured some 2.25m by 0.85m by about 0.5m high, and would have weighed around 160kg – its size and the use of iron fittings reflect the importance of the person placed inside. The timber planks would have been joined together with wooden pegs, and certain elements reinforced with the iron angle brackets, and again its construction was a mighty task – from finding and felling the trees to preparing the boards and making the coffin represents perhaps 8-13 person-days’ work. Iron coffin-fittings are rare for the early Anglo-Saxon period, but coffins with angle brackets are known from contemporary burials in Kent and the Merovingian Frankish kingdoms in present-day France and neighbouring countries.
No trace of a skeleton survived within the area of the coffin, but after the excavation was completed, while sorting flotation residue from an environmental sample taken from the west end of the coffin, our team discovered tiny fragmented pieces of human tooth enamel, confirming that a body had once been laid there. These included pieces of permanent molars, meaning that the individual must have been more than six years old at the time of their death. Unfortunately, the decayed elements of the collapsed coffin lid and the body it once covered had been reduced to a dark organic stain compressed into little more than 25mm of soil, making it impossible to discern a soil silhouette of the body as is sometimes found. The positioning of objects within the coffin held further clues to their age, though – as we will explore below.
GOLDEN GRAVE GOODS
The body was most likely placed within the coffin, with or without the lid, before being lowered into the chamber. There were other clues to the rites associated with their burial: at the head end of the coffin, two tiny gold-foil crosses lay side by side, suggesting that the deceased was a Christian convert. These delicate objects are a unique find in England, and difficult to parallel anywhere. Gold-foil crosses are known from burials of the late 6th to early 8th centuries AD in southern Germany and northern Italy, but these are usually equal-armed, highly decorated examples found singly, and were sewn to cloth or garments. By contrast, the matching pair of Prittlewell crosses are smaller, undecorated, Latin crosses (with one long and three short arms), and had no holes to suggest that they had been attached to a cloth backing. Instead, their position suggests that they may have been placed over the eyes of the deceased.
Below these, in what would have been the dead person’s upper chest region, was a small section of delicate woven gold braid thought to have been the edging of a piece of cloth laid over their head and neck. Next to this was a small gold coin, with another found lower down the coffin in the region of what would have been the right thigh. Both coins are Frankish tremisses of the mint-and-moneyer type; they are dated to between AD 580 and 630. If the coins had been placed in the hands of the deceased, then their location suggests that at the time of burial the right arm could have been fully extended along the side of the body with the left arm flexed across the chest.
The largest and most striking object from the coffin, though, was a gold belt buckle found in the area where the person’s waist would have been: a clear indication of the status that this individual held in life. Their body had been further adorned by the smallest grave goods that MOLA recovered from the burial: two tiny copper-alloy garter buckles that were found at the east (foot) end of the coffin (further confirming the orientation of the body) and would have fastened cross-gartering on the instep over soft leather shoes.
The distance between the gold foil crosses and the garter buckles was c.1.63m (5ft 4¼in); assuming that the crosses were placed over the eyes and that the top of the head would have been at least 100mm (4in) higher, this would have made the deceased around 1.73m (5ft 8in) tall. These measurements, combined with dental evidence and the large size of the coffin – as well as the presence of a large gold belt buckle and the inclusion of weapons within the chamber – all suggest the clothed burial of a male adult or older adolescent. It seems too that this individual had been placed with his head to the west, in keeping with the Christian traditions demonstrated by the golden crosses laid over his eyes. In early Anglo-Saxon England at this transitional moment, such beliefs were evidently compatible with elaborate grave goods.
DATING THE BURIAL
Could we date the burial more precisely? The closest archaeological estimate of date comes from the most recently manufactured items, which we think were made especially for the burial – the gold crosses and the gold belt buckle. The crosses are unique items and, in themselves, can offer no secure date, but the buckle is a rare gold example of a copper-alloy type that in England and on the Continent is found in male burials of the period c.AD 570-620. The gold coins are a lucky inclusion given their clear dates, and these tell us that our buckle cannot have been buried before c.AD 580. So we can confidently narrow the archaeological dating to c.AD 580-620. But what of scientific dating?
While organic preservation within the chamber was generally fairly poor – there was no skeleton for conventional radiocarbon dating and no large piece of wood for tree-ring dating – there were exceptions to this that were only discovered in the laboratory. Enough organic material was preserved by the metal fittings on the wooden drinking cups and drinking horns to provide reliable samples for radiocarbon dating by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which needs only very small samples.
The resulting dates were used together with information from the new chronological framework for Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods (in which seriation and high-precision radiocarbon dates were combined to produce chronological models using a Bayesian approach – see CA 285) to produce modelled date ranges. The preferred statistical model places the Prittlewell chamber burial in cal AD 575-605 (95% probability) or cal AD 580-600 (68% probability), while the coins independently rule out a date before c.AD 580. From this we can proceed to say that there is only a 10% probability that the grave belongs to the AD 600s, but a 38% probability that it dates to the 580s and a 45% probability that it dates to the 590s.
These results are significant, as they effectively rule out one of the original favourite candidates for the ‘Prittlewell prince’, Saebert, who died in c.AD 616 (the statistical probability of the burial being of this date is less than 1%), though the chamber’s occupant could be his kinsman. The new dating makes Prittlewell the earliest of the dated Anglo-Saxon princely burials, and also makes it remarkably early for the grave of an Anglo-Saxon Christian – while the burial could have been made around the time St Augustine was sent from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons in AD 597, there is an 80% probability that the chamber pre-dates this mission.
Connections between the East Saxons and Christianity are known to pre-date St Augustine – by c.AD 581 King Æthelbert of Kent had married a Christian Frankish princess, Bertha, who came to England accompanied by a bishop. Æthelbert’s sister Ricula married the East Saxon king, Sledd, bringing knowledge of Christianity to this ruling family, too; their sons were the Saebert mentioned above and Seaxa.
AN EAST SAXON PRINCE AND HIS WORLD
The lavishly furnished chamber shows that this man and his family occupied a position at the apex of a hierarchical society, surrounded by a household and retinue – a lifestyle supported by a sophisticated farming regime, a productive agricultural population, and skilled craftspeople with the resources to produce artefacts of wood, bone, iron, copper-alloy, silver, and gold. This family had access to imported luxuries like the eastern Mediterranean flagon and bowl and the Byzantine silver spoon that were included in the burial, as well as prestige items like the hanging bowl made in western or northern Britain and the glass beakers made in Kent. A princely burial like this one implies the presence of a ruling family in the Prittlewell area, with an estate including a great hall where retainers and visitors could receive hospitality and gifts from the lord.
The wealth, importance, and sophistication of the early East Saxon kingdom, the heartland of which is represented by the county of Essex, have frequently been underestimated. In archaeological terms, another princely burial at Broomfield, near Chelmsford, has not been given the attention it deserves because the finds are incomplete and fragmentary, and because its excavation in the 1890s – which left a lot to be desired by modern standards – has still not been fully published. Meanwhile, historical accounts also play down the kingdom’s influence: Bede’s History of the English Church and People is the primary source for 7th-century England, but the East Saxons do not feature much in his description of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, as they reverted to paganism on the death of King Saebert.
This omission gives the impression the East Saxons were of lesser importance than other regional rulers – a perception that is now being challenged by the Prittlewell finds. The discovery and analysis of this remarkable burial is forcing us to reassess our assumptions about this period, and to restore the East Saxon kingdom to its proper place in the world of the late 6th and 7th centuries, as an important power whose rulers were at the forefront of the social, political, and cultural changes that shaped early England.
Excavation, conservation, and post-excavation work was funded by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England, and carried out by MOLA with the support of numerous other institutions and individual specialists.
Examine some of the amazing grave goods for yourself at Southend Central Museum’s new permanent exhibition, and explore the chamber for yourself at www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org. To read the full story of the Prittlewell prince, see MOLA’s new publications: L Blackmore, I Blair, s Hirst and C scull (2019), The Prittlewell Princely Burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003, MOLA Monograph 73, London, priced £35; and, in popular form, S Hirst and C scull (2019), The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, London, priced £15; both are available to buy at www.mola.org.uk/publications.