My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
My Lord Essex
The Prittlewell chamber tomb is being compared to Sutton Hoo’s richest graves. Excavation director Ian Blair, conservator Liz Barham and finds specialist Lyn Blackmore reveal the inside story of a powerful Anglo-Saxon man
When this magazine is published, it will be less than six months since we first stuck spade in ground. What we found then is known round the world: an exceptionally well-preserved grave of a high status man who died when Christianity was a minority religion in northern Europe. What we will describe now, however, goes far beyond the press stories. Excavation and discovery continue in the laboratory.
Faced with traffic congestion, Southend Borough Council propose adding a second carriageway to Priory Crescent, where a road curves around the park grounds of what was originally an early 12th century Cluniac priory. The council asked the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) to assess the potential impact on archaeology if works went ahead.
A few generations ago Prittlewell was a village centred on a Medieval church. In the later 19th century, however, the Thames effect – barges, oysters and bathing – swelled ‘South End’ until surrounding countryside became suburbs. Wider roads and railways to London swept aside ancient timber-framed buildings.
Searches at sites of road and rail cuttings between 1887 and 1930 revealed many graves with swords, knives, spears and shields, and a few containing jewellery (including two gold pendants, one with inset garnets), suggesting a huge cemetery dating from around AD 500-700.
There were Roman finds too, including fragments of a lead coffin and a wealthy cremation burial. So when we designed our evaluation, it would be no exaggeration to say we were expecting to uncover graves.
None of us, however, imagined what was to come.
Starting on 22 October we identified a few Late Iron Age ditches and pits and Roman field ditches, but neither Roman settlement, which seems to be nearby, nor burials.
We did find three probable Anglo-Saxon graves, one with the classic male repertoire of iron sword, spearhead, knife and shield boss. A geophysical survey revealed little, and we opened only three of four proposed trenches. It was the first that took over our lives.
Squeezed between road and railway, and subject to the constant clatter of traffic, the ground was so cramped that our trench layout, designed in the office, had to be revised. To avoid trees and accommodate heaps of loose excavation fill, we moved Trench 1 east: thus unwittingly placing it over one of the richest graves ever seen in Britain.
It only took a week. We could see faint, darker marks in the yellow sand indicating the edges of an unusually large, backfilled rectangular pit. We had barely started to empty it, when, in the north-west corner, archaeologist Mike House uncovered a large copper alloy bowl lying upside-down against the edge.
It was an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl, decorated with inlaid enamelled escutcheons and a cruciform arrangement of applied strips. One of the suspension-rings was hooked over a corroded piece of iron: the bowl was still hanging from what was once a wooden wall.
In itself, this would have been a rare find, but as the pit was excavated further, more amazing shapes emerged. It became clear that we were in a deep, formerly walled room, full of objects in copper, gold, silver and iron: a burial chamber of the highest status. Many of these objects were still exactly where they had been placed 1,400 years ago.
For the next two months, this excavation would take every physical and mental resource of those involved. Every day brought new discoveries and revisions to the excavation schedule. MoLAS archaeologists and conservators from the Museum of London Specialist Services (MoLSS) kept in constant contact. Recording and lifting were planned to enable as many objects as possible to be surveyed and photographed together, while minimising deterioration of the remains. It was also important not to have so much exposed that there would be no room to work in the 4 m square space, and we needed to be cost-effective without compromising evidence.
Besides locating surviving artefacts, the excavation defined roof timbers fallen into the chamber, indicated by staining, and basketry impressions from a container. One of the most delicate tasks was the removal of a 10 cm square block of sand containing minute traces of gold thread. X-ray plates, as suspected, show the braid pattern survives only because it had been lifted in the block, with nothing but wet sand holding the tiny gold threads in place.
Thanks to copper’s bactericidal properties, many of the bowls had preserved a substantial amount of wood where their rims had been touching wall planks. Such details, potentially vital to establishing how the chamber was constructed, are in some ways more important than any others because they were often not recorded in early burial excavations.
Altogether, with the support of the archaeological team, conservators lifted about 60 identified objects in two phases, over 10 days. We had to have everything removed before Christmas. The last lift was completed on 20 December, with final defining of the chamber walls and backfilling continuing three more days. It was stressful and physically demanding but a great privilege to be involved. We were all conscious of the fantastic rare opportunity the discovery offered to examine an intact Anglo-Saxon burial chamber, its significance for the town—as yet still unaware of this remarkable find—and the need to make every possible effort to retrieve and protect the evidence in the available time.
Aside from conventional archaeological recording, we felt it was crucial to preserve the experience with photographs and video footage. This was particularly important as it was not possible to admit the public. In a densely settled area, the necessary security if word got out would have been difficult to mount. So we worked behind high mesh-screened fences. Some local residents seemed to think we were actually starting road construction.
The broad details of what we found are widely known from media coverage (from the Times’s ‘blaze of golden light’ to the Sun’s ‘bling king’). Thousands queued to see a selection of objects displayed for two weeks at the Museum of London and a month in Southend Central Museum. Many more have visited the excavation website. Our illustrator Faith Vardy’s drawing of the chamber at the moment of burial has been reproduced around the world.
A fuller story however will emerge only as the artefacts are investigated and conserved in the laboratories at the Museum of London, and then scrutinised by an army of specialists in archaeometallurgy, glass-working, textile technology, mineralised organics, archaeobotany, archaeo-osteology, and the historical interpretation of Anglo-Saxon finds of all types. One can never anticipate the discovery of a burial of international significance during an archaeological evaluation, so we are very grateful to English Heritage who offered the funding to stabilise the finds. This has been crucial to achieving this work. The largest objects do not fit into conventional X-ray machines, and have been photographed at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology in Portsmouth.
It will be several years before the project is complete and the grave displayed in its entirety, we hope in a new gallery space at Southend museum. Nonetheless, as the conservators excavate the objects in minute detail, recording the direction of wood-grain in remains touching metal, rejoining separated pieces, revealing decoration, mineralised organics and residues, we already have a much clearer idea of what really went into that chamber in the early 7th century, and more information about the chamber itself. We told the press it contained 60 objects. With the excavation of just one block in the lab, that increased to 110. Some of the discoveries have surpassed even our expectations. If the Sun were to call them sensational, we could not disagree.
Because they are less well preserved, and were mostly invisible when lifted at the dig in their soil blocks, the iron objects have received relatively little public attention. Yet they are of key importance.
The folding stool is unique in Britain. It is of a type represented in Early Medieval images of kings and emperors; other excavated examples all come from high status graves (a stool in the British Museum once said to have been dug up in Essex in 1827, but since discredited, may need revisiting). Metal detector signals suggest there is decorative non-ferrous metal on the Prittlewell stool, at the time of writing still in its dense soil block.
There are three stave-built tubs or buckets with iron bands. In X-ray the largest, in the north-west corner, appears to contain another object, perhaps a fifth copper-alloy vessel, yet to be excavated.
X-ray shows twisted decoration on the iron standard, found upright on its four feet in the chamber’s north-east corner. In form, though comparable in concept to the Sutton Hoo stand, it is unique for England.
The sword’s tang can be seen in X-ray with two milled ring fittings, possibly gold. There are also buckle-like shapes in the soil block, which may be part of a scabbard or belt.
Flat on the floor nearby lay a lyre, the most complete seen in Britain. Graeme Lawson of the Cambridge McDonald Institute was amazed when X-ray images of its metal fittings exactly matched his reconstruction based on other East Anglian finds. The man himself would have strummed it when telling old stories, says Lawson.
Most poignant are objects on the floor of the chamber’s south-west corner. When we lifted these in a block, we thought there might have been a box (as shown in Vardy’s drawing). Detailed study has confirmed the former presence of a wooden container; regular lines on one face may be traces of yellow and red pigment.
This seems to have held personal items, including a possible comb or comb case (whose five iron rivets show in X-ray, suggesting comparison with Sutton Hoo comb 1), a small copper alloy cylinder with lid attached to a ring by four S-links, and a silver spoon.
Comparison of the Prittlewell chamber with the finer graves at Sutton Hoo is inevitable, and appropriate. Only one chamber of our type has been found there, in Mound 14, unfortunately badly robbed before excavation in 1991: tiny fragments suggest it was for a rich woman. Better known, however, are the chambers in and under buried ships (Mound 1 and Mound 2, respectively). The latter had also been plundered before modern excavation, but remains of copper alloy vessels, a glass jar, drinking horns and gilt buckle hint at substantial wealth.
Nonetheless, that leaves Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, dating from c AD 625 and one of the richest tombs from anywhere in Europe, as the only one from that cemetery to match that at Prittlewell. Less well known chambers at Broomfield (30 km north-west of Prittlewell), and particularly Taplow (Bucks), both excavated before the development of modern archaeological techniques, also offer close parallels. All four graves are contemporary to within a generation or two.
Digging beneath a 5 m high barrow at Taplow in 1883, James Rutland found a timber-lined chamber with gold buckle, drinking horns, glass beakers, gaming pieces, weapons, a cauldron and Coptic bowl, buckets and a lyre. This is remarkably close to the Prittlewell inventory, especially when we remember that Rutland is likely to have missed smaller and more fragile remains. Yet Prittlewell is still more impressive, with more bowls, buckets and cauldrons, an exceptional collection of 57 gaming pieces and two dice, iron standard and silver spoon, and further items that are, as far as we know, unique in Britain: folding stool, gold crosses and Byzantine flagon.
Again, comparisons can be made piece by piece with the Sutton Hoo grave. Here the East Anglian king’s gold surpassed his Essex counterpart’s in sheer bulk and craftsmanship (or, one might say, brashness), but in other respects parallels are extraordinary, and rarely to the detriment of Prittlewell. From identical pairs of copper alloy shoe buckles to remarkably similar drinking vessels and musical instruments, the funerary objects to which the two men had access, and with which they wished to be seen (or which their followers chose them to be associated with), reflect a near identical culture of international trade, political contacts, power games and bragging.
Martin Carver, who directed excavations at Sutton Hoo in the 1980s and ‘90s, has likened the wealthy graves there to poems, physical and theatrical manifestations of the great tales we know best from the c 8th century Old English Beowulf. This ends with the burial of a hero ‘… behind a wall/as worthy of him as their workmanship could make it./And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels’ (trans Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber).
The man buried at Prittlewell may not have had a ship (at least in death), but his chamber was the biggest, allowing its contents to be arranged almost as one might imagine them to have been in life: the man enthroned in an inner room, surrounded by the symbols of his wealth and diplomacy, toasting a visiting potentate with gold-decorated drinking horn. The complex drama of early Anglo-Saxon elitism is evoked by the range of items.
He was a leader, represented by his standard and his throne-like stool, and perhaps the item worn around his neck decorated with gold braid. For those who knew him, his sword and shield may have recalled battles in which he had fought, famous warriors he had killed or wounded—though it has to be said his weaponry seems little more impressive than that in many of the simple graves nearby. The extraordinary range of vessels shows him as a generous host, welding alliances while softening visiting dignitaries with games, drink and music. Everything sings of a man of wealth and power, able to acquire or commission fine things from across the known world: and more, for his followers to consign them in perpetuity to the afterlife, to create his monument and myths to inspire future generations.
In one respect, however, there is something about the Prittlewell chamber that makes its occupant stand out from this select group.
Raedwald, an East Anglian king (died 624/5) described by Bede and likely to be the Sutton Hoo man, toyed with Christianity, proclaiming the faith and soon after reverting to his pagan allegiances. It was not just about religion, but also politics: Christian leaders in France and Kent drew their inspiration from Rome, while Scandinavian and Germanic pagans forged their own alliances that looked to a separate tradition.
The Sutton Hoo burial chamber was defiantly pagan, but amongst the treasures were two Byzantine silver spoons, their handles inscribed ‘Paul’ (on one once thought to read ‘Saul’, the ‘S’ is now seen as a clumsy Greek pi). It has been suggested they were presented on the occasion of Raedwald’s conversion to Christianity, albeit brief. We think the Prittlewell man did more than flirt with this new religion.
The shape of the tiny gold Latin crosses, in their details apparently unique in Europe, can be seen in some Anglo-Saxon pendants and mounts, and in the silver cross on the famous iron and horn helmet from Benty Grange, Derbs. These crosses likely reflect the arrival in England of Augustine and his mission in 597. The Prittlewell man was almost certainly a Christian.
Other objects seem to point the same way. The Coptic bowl and flagon, with medallions of a possible saint, might have been used for the ritual washing of hands or feet. The gold buckle does not feel like a real dress item, and may have been a reliquary, its hollow box once containing a sacred fragment of bone or textile.
The cylinder in the wooden casket may also have been a reliquary. The spoon, of eastern Christian or Byzantine type, is particularly interesting. The Sutton Hoo spoons, in excellent condition, were probably inscribed when made. At Prittlewell, however, the spoon is unusually worn, and amongst the many fine scratches are the unmistakable marks of inscriptions likely to have been made locally rather than in the eastern Mediterranean.
When these first appeared during conservation, we thought they might be runic. However after a brief first examination, John Hines, a specialist in Medieval archaeology, Old English and Old Norse at Cardiff University, is confident the marks are Latin letters. Scanning electron microscope study of the groove profiles may help isolate lines engraved with different tools. Deciphering them will take time and cooperative effort. Hines suspects a complete reading will never be possible, but suggests the letters FAB…, and in a line below, …RONAM (the O might just be a D), can be discerned in the spoon’s bowl; both could be parts of Latin words. Other scratches on the handle side may be unreadable. Above the lettering in the bowl is a clear cross.
This spoon—their singular occurrence in graves is more common than the pair at Sutton Hoo—seems strongly to corroborate the Christian iconography of the other finds. At the time of this man’s death, baptism was mostly by immersion, rather than the later practice of anointing, but a spoon might have been presented at the ceremony for later use in communion. Even if the spoon and perhaps the inscription were Late Roman (though the cross as symbol could not predate the 5th century), there can be no doubt, says Hines, that the man would have understood its Christian character. The poverty of his actual dress (where is Sutton Hoo’s lavish gold and enamel purse packed with gold coins? The luxurious helmet? The complex toilet kit?) may be a statement of Christian, spiritual wealth.
If our man was Christian in both life and death, perhaps, like Boniface (Wynfrith) a century later, adopting a Roman name, that narrows the options on a question we would all like to answer. Who was he?
The artefacts, of types well-dated across Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, suggest a time bracket of c 600-650. It may be possible to refine this as study continues, particularly of the coins, where gold quality is chronologically diagnostic.
However, barring the unlikely event that the inscribed spoon delivers a name, it seems probable that a definitive answer will remain elusive. There are two recorded East Saxon kings who converted to Christianity in this period, Saebert (died 616) and Sigeberht II (murdered 653). The man was undoubtedly of high status, but was he a king? Even if he was, we know there could be more than one king in Essex at this time, not all of whom are known by name.
There is no doubt, however, that this was a wealthy and powerful individual. If history did not record him then: it will now.
Items from Taplow, Sutton Hoo and other graves can be seen in Room 41 at the British Museum. Ian Blair directed the excavation for MoLAS; Dave Lakin is project manager. Liz Barham is conservator and Lyn Blackmore finds specialist at MoLSS
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005