The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 88

Issue 88

May/June 2006



Meadowsweet flowers in prehistoric graves

Strange fish

"Find of several lifetimes" – cathedral archaeologist

Oldest houses in Scotland

Archaeologists mourn loss of two popular colleagues

In Brief


End of the line: St Pancras Station
How many graves would you have saved? Phil Emery rescues French revolution refugee history.

The floors that Rome built
Stephen R Cosh and David S Neal are recording every Roman mosaic.

Protests at Bling King's grave
What can the Prittlewell protesters hope to achieve?

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Bling king's last battle

Aproposal for road improvements in Essex led to the discovery of the now famous Prittlewell Anglo-Saxon grave. As local people wait to hear if the government will fund the works, Mike Pitts met some unusual protestors.

A little more than two years ago the Museum of London revealed that in the weeks before Christmas 2003 it had been excavating what field director Ian Blair called "a once in a lifetime discovery". An Anglo-Saxon burial chamber had been unexpectedly found during routine excavation before roadworks in the outskirts of Southend. Immediate comparisons were made with the richest Sutton Hoo grave: but this time the chamber had not collapsed - luxury vessels were hanging on the walls - and advanced techniques could be applied to dissembling blocks of soil in the laboratory.

This promise was amply fulfilled when British Archaeology published for the first time further discoveries, including over 50 gaming pieces and a silver spoon engraved with letters and a cross (May 2004), and a rare iron lamp (Jul/Aug 2005). The archaeologists concluded that the occupant might have been Saebert (d616) or Sigeberht II (d653), two known East Saxon kings who converted to Christianity around the time indicated by the objects; or he could have been simply an unknown man of high status.

In February 2004 the press had less reserve, proclaiming the dead man the prince of Prittlewell, or, in the Sun's phrase, "the bling king". In the Southend Evening Echo, of course, he was the king of Southend, but this paper had another agenda. "Protestors", ran a headline on the day of the press announcement, "say Priory Crescent scheme is in doubt. Royal discovery could scupper road widening".

Apublic inquiry on the proposed dual carriageway was about to start. The Conservative council had argued the road was "vital to the economic development of the eastern side of the town". The Labour group had accused the council of being "blind to public opinion", and to concerns that the road would remove trees and a green space on the edge of a historic park, given to the borough by a local businessman in 1917. Protestors were jubilant at the archaeological discovery. "Surely", said Chris Keene, Green party campaigns coordinator for England and Wales, "this will be the final nail in the coffin for a ridiculous scheme".

Coffins notwithstanding, in February last year the inquiry found in favour of the road alterations. "There is no realistic alternative", said the inspector, "and doing nothing is not a credible option". However objectors found renewed hope when this February the scheme costs appeared to have ballooned from an original £3.5m to £27.5m - an announcement from the Department for Transport that was promptly corrected by the council to £20.5m, an apparent confusion greeted with delight down at the site of the Anglo-Saxon grave. For now there was a road protest camp, said to be Britain's only one.

It may also be the first such camp linked specifically to an archaeological dig. It would be easy to dismiss it. The burial chamber is completely excavated and the artefacts are in London. The road is approved, and merely awaits the decision from central government to release the funds, though that cannot be guaranteed. Yet, as I found when I talked to them, the protestors are eloquent on important issues not always considered by archaeologists. It is worth listening to the residents of Camp Bling.

Anthony Bailey, an injection moulder and tool setter, has lived in Southend all his life; he might look the part in long hair and rainbow clothes, but this is his first protest camp. He remembered the excavation in 2003.

"I was going to work and I saw it here, the tent and the spoil and stuff, and pretty soon everyone knew. We couldn't believe it, we thought oh, you know, a Saxon king burial site, you know, it's like they're never going to build a road over the top of that. We've won, we've won the campaign!"

Shaun Qureshi, leader of protest group Parklife, had felt the same. "We thought, crikey that's it", he had earlier told me on the phone, "they'll never do it now".

Perhaps at first news of the chambered grave had no more significance than an apparent stop to the roadworks. If they had lost the public inquiry, now they had won the final battle. As we sat and talked on sofas in the hut, warmed by a wood burner and surrounded by the neatly stowed paraphernalia of protesting and camp living, it seemed to me that at some point over the past six months the emphasis had changed. This was now about more than a road and trees.

"Being local is very important to me", said Christiana Tugwell, watching her 16-month-old son Aaron. "I'm very deeply emotionally involved with Southend."

Her mother was a teacher, and as a child Tugwell played in the park and went to the museums.

"We're almost on a different paradigm here", she told me. "Everyone we've spoken to, everyone who visits here - and we're doing park stalls as well in Southend, to do outreach - for them it's not just the archaeology that was found here and is now somewhere else, it's the site itself."

Bailey agreed. "They've taken out the so-called treasures", he said, "you know, the gold crosses, coins, jars, bits and pieces - they've taken that out, but the actual Saxon king has dissolved into the soil. So he's actually still down there, and it's a very sacred site for a lot of people."

"Whether or not people regard it as a sacred site", said Tugwell, who calls herself a pagan, "they stand there and they go, wow! This was here! Wow!"

The protestors realised that people may have known about the excavation, but the reality of the grave having been there, between the road and the railway cutting at the junction of Priory Crescent and Eastern Avenue, had often not sunk in.

"They can't get over the fact that something happened in Southend", said Tugwell. "They do this in school, and it happened in Egypt, it happened in London. Things never happen in Southend!"

"All the locals know about Priory Park, all the trees and the road an'stuff an'that", said Bailey, "and then they say, where is this Saxon burial site, where is this king, you know? We're going, it's there! They're going, what, there? We're going, yeah, right there in the yellow cordon!"

"It's not just me", said Tugwell, "it's these teenagers, you know, they're yobs, and they go, oh wow, he was really here! I saw a Time Team about that!"

"You catch their imagination most when you say it was on television", she continued. "They go, oh, it was on television, it must be important. And you explain they found all this other stuff like the lyre and the stool, and things like, this means it must have been a power base for this man, and Prittlewell was important. You explain that it was a great moment in our culture, we were switching from pagan to Christianity. And they start looking at their garden, and thinking, what was it like? What was it like where I live 1,300 years ago?"

"It's really important. It's been happening to people because of here. It's...", she hesitates, reaching for the word. "It's externalities, it's things you can't quantify. It's, you know, we need x y z, lots of economic growth and that's why we're putting a road through Southend. But you can't quantify people's feelings."

Understanding history breeds respect. "You look around where you're living", Tugwell continued, "and if you know why things are the way they are, it does give it a sense of meaning, and you value it more. You plant trees, and you wouldn't graffiti, you wouldn't litter, and it just makes everything so much more important if you know why things are there."

"Anglo-Saxon history should be covered in schools a lot more", she added, "from a local point of view. Because that's where young minds can anchor this knowledge about their history, from landmarks they see every day as they go past on the bus on the way to school, or shopping or whatever."

At the back of the hut was a makeshift kitchen, with pots and pans hanging from their handles on the wall, as bowls, cauldrons and a Coptic flagon hung on the walls of the burial chamber. A small black dog played with the shoes by the door.

"The actual land is important", said Tugwell. "If you build a road over that you're denying the people here a sense of history, a sense of where things come from. It's not just about taking things out of the ground and preserving them somewhere else, and then tarmacing over it."

Adrian Harris, though born in London, has lived in the area all his life. For the past few months he's been working on his PhD (on eco-paganism, at Winchester University) from Camp Bling. Like Tugwell, he imagines the site in the seventh century.

"In terms of where we are now, it's of absolutely major cultural significance", he said. "Surely, historically, this was a key moment of transformation in our culture."

He had just entered the hut, having walked down the camp from his house.

"I had a strange moment", he said. "I was chatting to somebody up in my bender, and saying, well, presumably there would have been a village near here, and I suddenly thought, well actually they might well have lived in something a little bit like I'm living in, just here. I had a bit of a chill at that moment."

"For some of us", he explained, "being here is a sacred practice. Paganism is very much about the spirit of place, the genius loci. The genius loci of this place is bound up with the king who was buried out there."

An occasional siren rose above the traffic noise. I had heard the protestors had dug a tunnel (when eviction comes, nothing delays the final moment like a good tunnel). Where was it?

"Any digging that has gone on", replied Harris, "has taken place in an area that has already been compromised by other previous work".

How did they know that?

"Because you can see..." began Tugwell, but Bailey interrupted.

"We can't really discuss tunnel positions or tunnel designs", he said. "It is our most important defence. We didn't even dig a compost toilet on site because of the archaeology. We found a way of having an extensive tunnel network in a way that doesn't disturb the archaeology."

Asmall part of the camp site has been excavated. For now, only if the roadworks go ahead will we find out if there are any more rich Anglo-Saxon graves at Prittlewell. For some, however, it may be that knowledge of the one is enough.

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