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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.