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Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research

Previously hidden secrets and insights into the Prittlewell princely burial and the man buried have been painstakingly reconstructed by a team of over 40 archaeological experts. The new research published today by archaeologists from MOLA, and funded by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England, explores the internationally significant collection, including hitherto unidentified artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon princely burial chamber.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
Archaeologists excavate the burial chamber in Prittlewell, Essex [Credit: PA]
In 2003 archaeologists from MOLA excavated a small plot of land in Prittlewell, Essex. The discovery of a well-preserved burial chamber adorned with rare and precious objects astounded archaeologists but many of the burial chamber’s secrets lay concealed beneath centuries of earth and corrosion, only to be revealed as conservators and archaeological specialists began their meticulous work.

Sophie Jackson, MOLA’S Director of Research & Engagement, said: “This is one of the most significant Anglo-Saxon discoveries this country has seen and because of the meticulous attention to detail given when excavating and recording the Prittlewell princely burial, a team of specialists has been able to reveal new elements of the burial chamber, details about the man buried and insights into Anglo-Saxon traditions that we never thought possible.”

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
Reconstruction drawing of the burial chamber believed to be that of Seaxa,
brother of King Saebert [Credit: PA]
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “This burial chamber was an exciting discovery in 2003 and over the years it has slowly been giving up its secrets. The range of exquisite objects discovered here, now around 1400 years old and some of them representing the only surviving examples of their kind, are giving us an extraordinary insight into early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and culture.”

Rediscovering a long-lost Anglo-Saxon musical instrument

The lyre (Old English hearpe) was the most important stringed instrument in the ancient world; this is the first time the complete form of an Anglo-Saxon lyre has been recorded. The wooden lyre had almost entirely decayed save for a soil stain within which fragments of wood and metal fittings were preserved in their original positions. Micro-excavation in the conservation lab revealed that the instrument was made of maple with tuning pegs made of ash.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
The remains of the only surviving example of painted Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain,
which were discovered in a burial chamber [Credit: PA]
Using Raman spectroscopy specialists determined that the garnets in two of the lyre fittings are almandines, most likely from the Indian sub-continent or Sri Lanka. Extraordinarily, this treasured lyre had been broken in two at some time during its life and put back together using iron, gilded copper-alloy and silver repair fittings.

A 1400-year-old colour painted box is the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. Originally lifted by archaeological conservators in a block of soil, detailed micro-excavation in the lab exposed hidden fragments of a painted maple-wood surface believed to be from a box lid. The design includes a yellow ladder-pattern border that resembles the borders seen on Anglo-Saxon goldand-garnet jewellery, as well as two elongated ovals, one in white and one in red with cross-hatching perhaps representing fish scales Britain’s earliest Anglo-Saxon princely burial.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
Conservator Claire Reed inspects the remains of a wooden drinking vessel
with a decorated gold neck found inside the chamber [Credit: PA]
Scientific dating has revealed the burial most likely dates to the late 6th century, making this the earliest of the dated Anglo-Saxon princely burials. During the excavation it was not known whether collecting enough organic material to date the burial would be possible but sufficient material was collected in the lab from items such as a drinking horn to secure radiocarbon dates by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry.

The modelled radiocarbon date for the burial was narrowed to AD 575-605 and further refined by coins to a date after AD 580. This is a remarkably early date for the adoption of Christianity, as attested by the presence of Christian symbols within the grave.

An Anglo-Saxon prince?

The new dating evidence again throws the identity of the man buried into question. We can be certain that it was a man of princely or aristocratic lineage from the items in the chamber but earlier suggestions that this could be the burial of the Christian King Saebert (died about AD 616) must now be ruled out. Experts believe it’s possible that he was the kin of King Saebert, perhaps his brother Seaxa, although there is no way to know for sure.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
A gold belt buckle discovered inside the burial chamber [Credit: PA]
However, analysis of items found within the coffin have revealed exciting new details about the man. The presence of weapons and a triangular gold belt buckle reveal that this was a man, and the gold foil crosses, amongst other items, show he was a Christian. Tiny fragments of tooth enamel, the only remains of the skeleton to survive, reveal that he was older than six.

From the position of the tooth fragments, gold crosses probably placed over his eyes at one end of the coffin, with a gold belt buckle (pictured) in the middle and garter buckles to fasten his footwear at the other end, we can now estimate that he was about 1.73m (5ft 8in) tall, indicating he was an adult or an adolescent. Placed with his head to west, he may have been buried with a gold coin in each hand, with one hand on his chest and the other lying by his side.

113 person-days to build a chamber fit for a prince

The original chamber timbers decayed, leaving only stains and impressions of the structure in the soil for archaeologists to investigate. Back in the lab specialists managed to find more evidence, including mineral-preserved wood surviving on iron wall hooks, from which they skilfully recreated the chamber design.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
Gold coins were also found inside the burial chamber [Credit: PA]
Working with engineers, the team calculated the resources needed to construct the chamber. Requiring about 113 person-days’ work, the chamber represents a huge investment in skilled labour, as well as materials.

Led by archaeological experts from MOLA, the work was funded by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England. The research was undertaken by leading experts in a range of specialisms, including Anglo-Saxon art and artefacts, ancient musical instruments, ancient woodworking, engineering and soil science. The team left no stone unturned, using a range of techniques - from soil micromorphology and CT scans to Raman spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy and mass spectrometry - in their quest to reconstruct and understand the chamber as it would have been on the day of the burial.

Anglo-Saxon princely burial secrets revealed in new research
Conservator Claire Reed, inspecting a decorated blue glass beaker
which was discovered in a burial chamber [Credit: PA]
For the first time objects from the Prittlewell princely burial will go on permanent display at Southend Central Museum. Open to the public for free from Saturday 11 May 2019, the new permanent gallery features some of the chamber’s most impressive items, including a gold belt buckle and gold-foil crosses (pictured below) made specially for the burial, a Byzantine flagon (pictured below) and basin, an ornate drinking horn, a decorative hanging bowl and coloured glass vessels.

Ciara Phipps, Curatorial Manager at Southend Museums Service, said: “The long-awaited return of the Prittlewell Princely burial collection is a hugely exciting and significant moment for Southend Museums Service and the town. The finds, now on permanent display at Southend Central Museum, highlight the richness of this community’s heritage and have deepened our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Essex. Alongside iconic objects such as the gold-foil crosses, we have a huge array of other incredible artefacts for the public to view, such as the unique remains of a Lyre – a musical instrument - and even the surviving tooth fragments of the man himself. This is a turning point for the cultural heritage offer of Southend.”

Source: MOLA [May 09, 2019]


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