© 2019 Southend-on-Sea Borough Council

Southend Museums Service is part of the Culture Section of the Place Department, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council

AT CENTRAL MUSEUM

Discovery...

In 2003 archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) excavated a small plot of land in Prittlewell, Southend, Essex. Roman and Anglo-Saxon burials had been discovered here when Priory Crescent was being constructed in 1923 and they wanted to find out what remains had survived and how they might be affected by the proposed road widening scheme.

On Day 1, archaeologists identified a large, square pit filled with what appeared to be the remains of a timber lining. On the second day, this theory was confirmed by the discovery of a beautiful copper-alloy hanging bowl still hanging on a hook on what seemed to be a chamber wall. As excavations continued, archaeologists found a complete burial chamber full of amazing objects and the remains of a wooden coffin where the deceased would have lain.

History and Dating...

It became clear that the chamber probably dated to the Anglo-Saxon period. The assemblage of grave goods appeared to reflect pagan beliefs, but archaeologists were faced with a puzzle when they discovered two gold foil crosses in the head area of the coffin, thought to have been placed over the eyes of the deceased. Their presence indicated that the individual was a Christian.

Some of the objects, horn from a drinking horn and wood from a bottle, were suitable for radiocarbon dating, and produced calibrated dates of AD 575-605. Two gold Frankish tremisses (coins) were also discovered and narrowed the dating of the burial to no earlier than AD 580, suggesting an overall date range of AD 580-605 for the burial.

This dating means the individual was buried before the first Christian missions came from Rome with St. Augustine in AD 597. The majority of the English kingdoms were still pagan with the exception of Kent, whose king Æthelbert had married a Christian woman, Bertha and was living as a Christian. Experts now understand that the Prittlewell Prince was probably connected to the Kentish kings in some way perhaps through family or marriage.

Significance...

The early dating of the Prittlewell chamber grave is hugely significant: it is the earliest dated Anglo-Saxon princely burial in England. Comparable discoveries have been made at Sutton Hoo and Taplow, but Prittlewell is the only one to have been excavated to exacting modern standards, courtesy of MOLA.  It is also the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial to have been discovered in England, dating to before the Augustinian mission of AD 597.

Many of the objects in the chamber are exotic, luxury items that had travelled long distances. For example, the copper-alloy flagon was probably acquired by a pilgrim to the shrine of St. Sergius in Syria and traded until it reached England. The large copper-alloy basin comes from the Eastern Mediterranean and the garnets in the lyre are probably from India or Sri Lanka.

Conservation...

A selection of these fascinating objects is on permanent display in Central Museum, however many of the objects from the chamber are too fragile and unstable to go on display.. In order to provide as much access to this collection as possible, many of these beautiful finds can be viewed on the burial chamber app:

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