An intact royal burial in Essex
In 2003 Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) found the intact burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon noble or prince in Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. The discovery was widely reported and media interest renewed with the subsequent permanent exhibition of the artefacts in Southend Museum in 2019. The excitement, elite nature of the tomb and presence of precious metals prompted comparisons with the discovery of Tutankhamun.
An unexpected comparison
While writing my review of the permanent exhibition I found myself thinking about the comparison between the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun. Several commentators on social media had made slightly derisory remarks about it. Did they have a point? I set out to compare the two.
In many respects, the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun’s tomb are vastly different. They are world’s away from each other, coming from very different cultures separated by c. 3,500 miles and c. 2000 years (since absolute dating of Egyptian Pharaohs is disputed this figure is approximate). The Prittlewell tomb was smaller than Tutankhamun’s, with artefacts numbering in the 10s rather than the thousands, and it did not contain nearly as much precious metal or jewelry.
The Prittlewell burial was also much less well-preserved than Tutankhamun, requiring every modern technique of excavation and conservation to carefully extract the surviving artefacts. In Tutankhamun’s subterranean tomb the dry, relatively constant environment preserved the wooden and other perishable objects, many of which were carried out on the shoulders of the excavators. At Prittlewell, only modern ‘block’ excavation methods (where a fragile artefact is removed from the site within a large block of soil and fully excavated in the lab) have made it possible to identify and preserve many of the objects. The difference in preservation is stark and most evident in the folding stools found in each burial. Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE62035) is almost perfectly preserved and is on display in Cairo (image above left). The Prittlewell Prince also took a folding stool to his burial, but as the fifth image in this Museum Crush post shows, it did not fare as well as Tutankhamun’s. Although reconstructions are possible on paper (Hirst and Scull 2019, 70) the remains of the stool are not included in the current exhibition, presumably because of its state of preservation. Such artefacts have only been identified and preserved from the Prittlewell burial thanks to careful modern excavation, conservation, and scientific techniques
There are also considerable differences between the occupants of the tombs. While Tutankhamun’s name is plastered all over the objects in his tomb with typical ancient Egyptian concern for its preservation, the identity of the Prittlewell tomb owner remains unknown. He is now believed to have been a royal prince rather than a King, but any suggestions as to his identity remain speculation (Hirst and Scull 2019, 96-97).
The occupant of the Prittlewell burial was also associated with a much less powerful political entity than Tutankhamun. The Kingdom of the East Saxons was only one of several in what is now England (Hirst and Scull 2019, 99-102). Tutankhamun, by contrast, ruled what can only really be described as an early superpower, with an empire, vast influence across the Middle East, and regular diplomatic interactions with both equals and vassals.
What then are the similarities that prompted this comparison, or was it just hyperbole? I came to a surprising answer. There are some important parallels between Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Prittlewell Princely burial and they become more interesting the more you investigate them.
While it wasn’t a worldwide sensation like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Prittlewell burial certainly caused a stir amongst archaeologists and the public. Newspapers and TV carried the story and in 2005 it featured in a Time Team Special. Such publicity rapidly attracted those who wished to make use of the discovery for their own purpose. Like the many debates and scandals surrounding Tutankhamun, the Prittlewell Prince rapidly became involved in local controversy. Protestors, objecting to the road-widening scheme which originally prompted the excavation of the site, set up the protest ‘Camp Bling’ and argued that the road scheme should be stopped because it would destroy the burial site. Despite the spurious nature of this argument (the burial site having already been removed by archaeological excavation), the road has never been widened.
The discovery of both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince both encouraged the archaeological community. Howard Carter spent years excavating the Valley of the Kings before his discovery of Tutankhamun demonstrated that there were still important discoveries to be made there. The Prittlewell burial, sandwiched between a road and a railway cutting in the middle of a town, demonstrated that significant archaeological discoveries are possible even in heavily urbanised areas. Such discoveries provide huge validation for archaeologists. Your average commercial archaeologist spends most of their career working in all weathers knowing that most of their work will only contribute incrementally to the sum of archaeological understanding. This incremental knowledge is important, but when you are toiling away in the rain, hacking through hard clay to excavate a dull field drain or tree throw, its encouraging to think that one day you might help to recover a truly remarkable find.
Both finds also shed new light (and provoke even more questions) about relatively obscure periods of history; the Amarna period in the case of Tutankhamun, and the Anglo-Saxon period in the case of the Prittlewell Princely burial. We are all intrigued by the unknown, and obscure periods of history often attract the attention of both enthusiasts and scholars. New discoveries offer the hope of new parallels for existing artefacts and architecture, and additional scientific evidence that may fill in some of the historical and cultural gaps in our current understanding. Of course, these hopes are rarely fulfilled and more often than not such new discoveries provoke even more questions than they answer, but it is the excitement that we feel as enthusiasts and researchers that feeds into the public imagination.
Finally, thanks to the excitement and media attention that always surrounds such discoveries, both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince were given fond nicknames, although they might not appreciate being called ‘King Tut’ and the ‘King of Bling’ if they were here to hear them.
Reception and exploitation
Reviewing the similarities between Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Princely burial, a clear pattern emerges. The similarities between these two very different burials are all about our reception of them as archaeological discoveries, rather than any intrinsic similarities between the burials, cultures or people buried. It is the public and scholarly excitement over the excavation of an intact (or largely intact in the case of Tutankhamun) burial of an elite individual, from a thrillingly obscure or controversial period, accompanied by rich grave goods that are comparable. Such comparisons say more about us than about Tutankhamun or the Prittlewell Prince. They speak to our positive enthusiasm for archaeological discovery, our interest in the past and fascination with obscure or controversial periods of history. Less positively they reflect excitement over ‘buried treasure’ and (sad inditement of our society that it is) speak of a desire to consume and even exploit the past that is present in some quarters.
So yes, in many respects the Prittlewell Princely burial is Essex’s Tutankhamun. Although far removed from each other in time, space and culture Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince are highly comparable in terms of the public reaction to their discovery and the use made of them by various groups. That such similarities are present with regard to two so very different archaeological discoveries says much about our culture, and that is a rare and valuable treasure in itself.
In addition to the digital references cited in this and my previous post, the main references for the Prittlewell Prince are:
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.
There are innumerable references for Tutankhamun, the discovery of his tomb and its fate. The following are good introductions to the discovery, archaeological context of his tomb and the debate about how the discovery has been used and abused since:
Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.
Romer, John, and Romer, Elizabeth 1993. The Rape of Tutankhamun. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.