UK Archaeologists REVEAL ‘One of Most Significant Anglo-Saxon Discoveries’ Ever

UK Archaeologists REVEAL 'One of Most Significant Anglo-Saxon Discoveries' Ever
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UK Archaeologists REVEAL ‘One of Most Significant Anglo-Saxon Discoveries’ Ever

Analyzed by scientists, artifacts gathered from a well-preserved burial site in Prittlewell, near Southend, Essex, located between a pub and a supermarket, will go on public display on 11 May.

The new research published today by MOLA archeologists, funded by the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England, explores the internationally significant collection, including artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon princely burial chamber that have not yet been identified.

A small plot of land in Prittlewell, Essex was excavated by MOLA archeologists in 2003. The discovery of a well-preserved burial chamber decorated with rare and precious objects amazed archeologists but many of the secrets of the burial chamber lay hidden beneath centuries of earth and corrosion, only to be revealed as conservatives and archeological specialists started their meticulous work.

Drinking vessels in situ within the burial chamber
Drinking vessels in situ within the burial chamber

Sophie Jackson, MOLA’S Director of Research & Engagement, said: “This is one of the most significant Anglo-Saxon discoveries this country has seen and because of the meticulous attention to detail given when excavating and recording the Prittlewell princely burial, a team of specialists has been able to reveal new elements of the burial chamber, details about the man buried and insights into Anglo-Saxon traditions that we never thought possible.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “This burial chamber was an exciting discovery in 2003 and over the years it has slowly been giving up its secrets. The range of exquisite objects discovered here, now around 1400 years old and some of them representing the only surviving examples of their kind, are giving us an extraordinary insight into early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and culture.”

Previously concealed objects and facts that have been revealed include:

Anglo-Saxon musical instrument

The lyre (Old English hearpe) was the most important stringed instrument in the ancient world; this is the first time the complete form of an Anglo-Saxon lyre has been recorded.

The wooden lyre had almost completely fallen apart from a soil stain in which fragments of wood and metal fittings were preserved in their original positions. Micro-excavation in the conservation laboratory revealed that the instrument was made of ash-based maple with tuning pegs.

Using Raman spectroscopy specialists determined that the garnets in 2 of the lyre fittings are almandines, most likely from the Indian sub-continent or Sri Lanka. Extraordinarily, this treasured lyre had been broken in two at some time during its life and put back together using iron, gilded copper-alloy, and silver repair fittings.

A reconstruction drawing of the Anglo Saxon lyre featuring the delicate repair work and garnet fittings
A reconstruction drawing of the Anglo Saxon lyre featuring the delicate repair work and garnet fittings

1400-year-old colour painted box

This unique find is the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. Originally lifted by archaeological conservators in a block of soil, detailed micro-excavation in the lab exposed hidden fragments of a painted maple-wood surface believed to be from a box lid.

The design includes a yellow ladder-pattern border that resembles the borders seen on Anglo-Saxon gold and-garnet jewelry, as well as two elongated ovals, one in white and one in red with cross-hatching perhaps representing fish scales.

Unique 1400 year old painted wooden box, the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork
Unique 1400-year-old painted wooden box, the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork

Britain’s earliest Anglo-Saxon princely burial

Scientific dating has revealed the burial most likely dates to the late 6th century, making this the earliest of the dated Anglo-Saxon princely burials. During the excavation it was not known whether collecting enough organic material to date the burial would be possible but sufficient material was collected in the lab from items such as a drinking horn to secure radiocarbon dates by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry.

The modeled radiocarbon date for the burial was narrowed to AD 575-605 and further refined by coins to date after AD 580. This is a remarkably early date for the adoption of Christianity, as attested by the presence of Christian symbols within the grave.

The fittings on the two drinking horns provided vital organic material for successful radiocarbon dating. They gave date ranges for the death of the animal whose horns were used
The fittings on the two drinking horns provided vital organic material for successful radiocarbon dating. They gave date ranges for the death of the animal whose horns were used

An Anglo-Saxon prince?

The new dating evidence again throws the identity of the man buried into question. We can be certain that it was a man of princely or aristocratic lineage from the items in the chamber but earlier suggestions that this could be the burial of the Christian King Siebert (died about AD 616) must now be ruled out.

Experts believe it’s possible that he was the kin of King Saebert, perhaps his brother Seaxa, although there is no way to know for sure. However, analysis of items found within the coffin has revealed exciting new details about the man.

The presence of weapons and a triangular gold belt buckle reveal that this was a man, and the gold foil crosses, amongst other items, show he was a Christian. Tiny fragments of tooth enamel, the only remains of the skeleton to survive, reveal that he was older than 6.

From the position of the tooth fragments, gold crosses probably placed over his eyes at one end of the coffin, with a gold belt buckle in the middle and garter buckles to fasten his footwear at the other end, we can now estimate that he was about 1.73m (5ft 8in) tall, indicating he was an adult or an adolescent. Placed with his head to the west, he may have been buried with a gold coin in each hand, with one hand on his chest and the other lying by his side.

113 person-days to build a chamber fit for a prince

The original chamber timbers decayed, leaving only stains and impressions of the structure in the soil for archaeologists to investigate. Back in the lab specialists managed to find more evidence, including mineral-preserved wood surviving on iron wall hooks, from which they skilfully recreated the chamber design.

A detailed reconstruction of the timber structure of the Prittlewell princely burial chamber based on organic evidence on items within the chamber
A detailed reconstruction of the timber structure of the Prittlewell princely burial chamber based on organic evidence on items within the chamber

Working with engineers, the team calculated the resources needed to construct the chamber. Requiring about 113 person-days’ work, the chamber represents a huge investment in skilled labour, as well as materials.

Led by archaeological experts from MOLA, the work was funded by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England. The research was undertaken by leading experts in a range of specialisms, including Anglo-Saxon art and artifacts, ancient musical instruments, ancient woodworking, engineering, and soil science.

The team left no stone unturned, using a range of techniques – from soil micromorphology and CT scans to Raman spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy and mass spectrometry – in their quest to reconstruct and understand the chamber as it would have been on the day of the burial.

For the first time objects from the Prittlewell princely burial will go on permanent display at Southend Central Museum. Open to the public for free from Saturday 11 May 2019, the new permanent gallery features some of the chamber’s most impressive items, including a gold belt buckle and gold-foil crosses made especially for the burial, a Byzantine flagon and basin, an ornate drinking horn, a decorative hanging bowl, and colored glass vessels.

One of two rare blue glass decorated beakers. The two were almost certainly made as a matching pair and discovered in tact within the burial chamber
One of two rare blue glass decorated beakers. The two were almost certainly made as a matching pair and discovered intact within the burial chamber

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Jessica Saraceni has been a part of Histecho Since 2018, drawn to the site for its quirky character and through Articles about the Mysteries of earth and human behavior. previously, she was an assistant editor and Research fellow at Archaeology magazine, where she gained an appreciation for the field work. A master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental science from the Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio. She enjoys all forms of exercise; reading works by her favorite author, Haruki Murakami; and playing with her sons.