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The afterlife of the Prittlewell Prince

In my two previous posts, I discussed the effect of visiting archaeological tourist attractions on me and upon the public perception of archaeology. Despite the hard work of curators, managers and excavators, archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites can feel somewhat sterile to the archaeologist and generate misconceptions about archaeology amongst other visitors. These misconceptions lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology in the public consciousness. I believe that better communication by archaeologists about archaeological practice and increasing the numbers of people who are able to take part in archaeological activities can help in correcting these misconceptions and laying to rest various myths about archaeology and archaeologists. Correcting these misconceptions and laying these myths to rest certainly has important implications for the reception of archaeology, but it can also influence public policy in positive ways. The Prittlewell Princely burial offers a curious example of how misconceptions about archaeology and the myths they generate can have a negative effect upon public discourse and policy more widely.

Public policy and the Prittlewell Princely burial

Map showing the location of the Prittlewell Princely burial
Location of the Pirttlewell Princely burial. (Map by Openstreetmap contributors from Wikimedia Commons on a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license).

The Prittlewell Prince was discovered in 2003 during excavations in advance of a road-widening scheme on the A127/A1159. The burial site was crammed on an oval of undeveloped land between the cutting of the Southend to Liverpool Street railway line to the east, the A127/A1159 main road to the west and south, and further development to the north. The planned road-widening scheme would have extended the A127/A1159 into a dual carriageway, necessitating building over the oval of land where the burial was found. The discovery of the Princely burial proved a focal point for anti-road protestors, who moved into a temporary camp (Camp Bling) on the site. Local residents resoundingly rejected the road-widening proposal during a subsequent consultation. After much debate, the council reduced the scope, and later shelved the scheme. The A127/A1159 remains unaltered to this day.

Protecting the Prince

Much of the local opposition to the road-widening proposal was rooted in a desire to protect the Princely burial. The threat to the Princely burial was emphasised by media coverage. In July 2005, The Guardian asked ‘is it worth destroying the burial ground of an East Saxon king?’ After the Council reduced the scope of the scheme in 2009, BBC News noted that the new plans would ‘leave the eighth-century burial site . . . unaffected’. Archaeologically speaking, the BBC’s statement is so ridiculous as to be laughable. At the time these headlines were written, the ‘eight-century burial’ had already been affected by the road-widening scheme. Thanks to the road-widening proposal the Princely burial had been discovered, excavated and removed in 2003. By the time the BBC trumpeted that the burial would be unaffected, it had already been destroyed; meticulously, with the greatest care and most careful recoding methods offered by modern archaeological techniques. Any concerned citizens of Southend who voted against the road-widening to protect a Princely burial did so based on a false premise – that there was anything left on the site to protect. At the same time, the focus on protecting the burial detracted from good environmental, social, and town-planning reasons to oppose the road-widening scheme or propose an alternative.

Reconstruction of the Prittlewell Prince's burial chamber showing a wood-lined chamber with a body in a wood coffin in the centre and various artefacts laid out around the walls.
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).

A time to destroy and a time to protect

Opposition to the road-widening scheme based in the protection of the Princely burial, reflects another archaeological myth, that excavated sites always require protecion. Like most myths, there is some truth behind it. Unexcavated, partially excavated and sites with archaeological remains in situ do require preservation. But fully excavated sites do not because all the archaeological remains have been removed, archaeologically. This is the practical effect of the reality that archaeology is destruction! Once archaeologists have fully excavated a site, there should not be any archaeology left!

The idea that archaeology is destruction isn’t particularly common in public discourse. Understanding that archaeology is destruction can be difficult when visiting an archaeological tourist attraction. Here is a site that has been excavated, but the archaeological structures are very clearly visible. The information, guidebooks and apps may describe the excavation process and emphasise that the site has been conserved to ensure its longevity. You may hear and understand that excavation removes the archaeological deposits, but how far do you believe it when you are faced with a meticulously conserved mosaic? Does that intellectual knowledge overwhelm your sensory experience or will you mainly remember the beautiful floor? Given that most people only interact with conserved and protected archaeology, in person or via press resports, it is hardly surprising that the idea that archaeology removes what it excavates is not widely recognised.

A grassed around with a mound beside a road, with planting in the background.
The reconstructed tumulus on the site of the burial of the Prittlewell Prince. (Author photograph)

Re-creation

Although the ancient tumulus which originally covered the Prittlewell Princely burial was removed centuries ago, a new one has been rebuilt slightly south of the location of the Princely burial chamber to commemorate the burial’s location. It looks a little incongruous beside a busy road, but provides something of a focal point for the adjacent flower beds. Archaeologically it is harmless, but meaningless since it reveals almost nothing about the original burial except for its approximate location. Nevetheless, it does make me wonder how many of those who conceived, implemented and approved the tumulus’ recreation understand that the Prince is no longer in residence. It also raises questions of archaeological honesty. Should we encourage such re-creations? There’s nothing wrong with a memorial, but does a rebuilt tumulus, without additional context, contribute to the idea that this excavated burial is somehow still present? Are we disneyfying our environment and creating fantasies out of our past? And how might the tumulus be viewed in the future? Might it ever be assumed to be genuine? These are all difficult questions, variations on which can be asked for almost any conservation or preservation work. Whatever answers we arrive at can only be improved by a better public understanding of what archaeology entails, including its destructive aspects.

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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.

Copticflagon
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.

Burial_chamber_reconstruction
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.