Essex’s Tutankhamun? Learning from seemingly incongruous comparisons.

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.

Tut_Stool_JE62035
Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE 62035) in the Cairo Museum (Author Photograph).

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

Tut_cartouche_JE62117
Tutankhamun’s cartouches on an Egyptian alabaster vessel (JE 62117) from his tomb (Author Photograph).

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.

Surprising similarities

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.

MW 2.30
‘Camp Bling’ road-widening protest, Priory Crescent, taken 20 January 2006 by David Kemp. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).

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.

VK_fromabove
The Valley of the Kings from above (El Qurn). Howard Carter cleared the central part to the bedrock before finding Tutankhamun. (Author Photograph).

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.

References

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.

Featured

Artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon burial at Prittlewell exhibited in Southend Museum.

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!

The exhibition

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.

Overview of the exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum
The exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum. The artefacts are displayed in a central case, while the interative wall displays detail the excavation and post-excavation process. (Hannah Pethen June 2019)

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.

Star finds

Hanging bowl
The northern or western British hanging bowl. The first object to be found, it was still hanging on its hook on what had been the wall of the burial chamber. Now in the Southend Museum (Author Photograph).

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.

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The Eastern Mediterranean flagon from the Prittlewell Princely Burial reflects trading links across Europe (Author photograph).

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.

Additional material

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.

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Reconstruction of the burial chamber from the digital displays in the exhibition. Hirst and Scull (2019, 88-89) contains the same reconstruction. (Author Photograph, June 2019 at Southend Museum).

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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.