It’s not every day that an intact royal burial is discovered less than a mile from your childhood home, but in 2003 that’s exactly what happened to me. Even more amazing, this royal burial was found in Prittlewell in Southend-on-sea in Essex, which is often assumed (rather unfairly) to be a cultural backwater. I was living at home at the time and looking for archaeological work when I noticed a large white tent had gone up over excavations taking place along Priory Crescent. Knowing that commercial British archaeologists only get the privilege of working in a nice dry tent when they have found something truly significant, I eagerly awaited the publication of whatever had been discovered.
The results of the excavation did not disappoint! A well-preserved, intact and richly furnished Anglo-Saxon burial had been discovered in a c. 4x4x1.5m wood-lined burial chamber (Hirst and Scull 2019, 30-31). The quality of the grave goods suggested the highest stratum of Anglo-Saxon society, inviting comparisons with Sutton-Hoo and even Tutankhamun!
After excavation, the artefacts were conserved by Museum of London and are now on permanent display in the Southend Museum. I went along in early June 2019 with my daughter. Being only one at the time she wasn’t very impressed, but if you have older children they will probably enjoy looking at the artefacts and exploring the digital displays. Eight-year-old me would certainly have loved it.
The permanent display occupies a relatively small room at the rear of the museum, which made it slightly challenging to visit with a large pram. Crowding might be a problem if you visited during a very busy time or coincided with a school party, but it wasn’t crowded when I attended. The displayed artefacts are all located together in a single large case, which the visitor can walk around. Artefact numbers and further information are provided in labels in the case, but the hard work of contextualising the objects, and explaining the process of excavation and interpretation is done with digital displays on the walls. This makes for an efficient and effective exhibition space. The visitor can read descriptions of the excavation and watch videos about the conservation and research into the artefacts, before turning around to examine them in the case. This approach places the excavation and conservation of the artefacts front and centre. The story of the exhibition is literally the story of the excavation and post-excavation process, and the artefacts are contextualised as pieces of evidence that provide information about the burial, the owner and his culture.
The gold belt buckle has become the star of the exhibition and a potent symbol of the site, but (like many objects in Egyptian tombs) it was probably made especially for the burial and was not used by the deceased during life (Hirst and Scull 2019, 46). The beautiful, highly-decorative hanging bowl originating in northern or western Britain shows clear links with the late Roman traditions (Blackmore et al. 2019, 175), while the Eastern Meditteranean flagon and basin reflect trading links beyond Europe (Hirst and Scull 2019, 49-50; 52-54).
Fans of glass will find the glass beakers interesting (see the featured image above the title). Two highly decorative blue glass examples with trailed decoration are typical of elite Anglo-Saxon burials, while the simpler green pair are more common (Hirst and Scull 2019, 58). To my eyes, they also owe a lot to Roman glass traditions, but others may disagree.
I found it slightly disappointing that the exhibition does not include all of the surviving artefacts from the burial chamber, but this is probably either because the missing artefacts are too fragile for permanent display or because further conservation and interpretative work is necessary before they can be exhibited. Space in the exhibition case may also be a factor.
Some artefacts are represented by scant traces identifiable only by scientific analysis; fragments of gold braid, which told of a luxurious piece of cloth laid over the face; a painted wooden box; and remains of over 19 different types of textile preserved through association with metal (Hirst and Scull 2019, 44-45; 72-73; 76-77). The metal fittings of the decomposed wooden lyre are exhibited on a stand cut to the shape of the wooden lyre body, which was only visible as a shadow in the sandy soil of the grave. It is in the identification and reconstruction of these badly-decayed artefacts, that scientific excavation demonstrates its great value.
The tomb owner
The body interred in the Prittlewell tomb completely disintegrated in the acidic soil, leaving only a stain to show where the coffin was located. The excavators suggest the owner was male based on the absence of female dress items and the presence of weaponry, although clothing and weaponry are not always conclusive in sexing burials. A possible owner has been proposed in the person of Seaxa, brother of King Saebert of the East Saxons, but Hirst and Scull (2019, 97) are careful to point out that although Seaxa died at roughly the correct time, there may be other candidates of whom we are not aware.
In addition to the information available in the exhibition, Southend Museum publicised the exhibition on their News page and also run a blog, which recently featured a post about brooches found in other graves in the same cemetery as the Princely burial. The burial has also been featured on the Museum Crush website and parts of the excavation can also be seen on the MOLA Youtube channel. There is also information on the MOLA website, including an interactive model of the burial chamber where you can explore the stories behind the artefacts.
In terms of guidebooks or catalogues, there are two choices: The full excavation monograph, published by MOLA and costing £35 (Blackmore et al. 2019) and a smaller volume at £15 (Hirst and Scull 2019). Unless you plan to do academic or archaeological research into the Southend area, the Hirst and Scull (2019) volume will be quite sufficient. Reconstructions of both the entire burial chamber (image above) and of individual artefacts are provided as appropriate throughout and the book is really well illustrated. It contains a detailed description of the discovery and excavation of the burial, a thorough review and discussion of the artefacts, and analysis of who was buried and their cultural and political context. I really liked this approach as it mirrors what archaeologists do when we excavate. We work from the known to the unknown. The exhibition and its accompanying books begin with the story of the discovery and excavation of the site, move to the conservation and investigation of the artefacts and finally put it all together to propose the identity of the deceased and his position, historically and geographically.
Overall the exhibition of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a great pleasure to see the objects after conservation and read the full story of the excavation and post-excavation process as part of the exhibition. I hope that in future we may see more of those artefacts that have not yet been displayed, and perhaps even some reconstructions of those that are missing due to decay and disintegration. The accompanying books were also very well done, with the smaller Hirst and Scull (2019) volume containing just the right amount of information to inform without overwhelming the reader.
Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019 The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. Museum of London Archaeology: London.
Blackmore, Lyn. Blair, Ian. Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA Monograph Series 73. Museum of London Archaeology: London.