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.