Image of a drinking horn, which was a luxury item and tells us about the status of the man buried here.
Detail of a drinking horn, which was a luxury item, telling us that the man buried here was of a high status. The horn also provided archaeologists with enough material to radiocarbon date the burial to the late 6th century. © MOLA
Detail of a drinking horn, which was a luxury item, telling us that the man buried here was of a high status. The horn also provided archaeologists with enough material to radiocarbon date the burial to the late 6th century. © MOLA

Hidden Secrets about Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial Revealed

Archaeologists have made exciting discoveries about the Prittlewell Anglo-Saxon princely burial in Essex.

Previously hidden secrets and insights into a high status burial in Prittlewell, Essex have been painstakingly reconstructed by a team of over 40 archaeological experts from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). The new research has been funded by Historic England and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. It explores the nationally significant collection, including until now unidentified artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon burial chamber.

In 2003 archaeologists from MOLA excavated a small plot of land in Prittlewell, Essex. The discovery of a well-preserved burial chamber with rare and precious objects astounded them, but many of the burial chamber’s secrets lay concealed beneath centuries of earth and corrosion. Over the years since, as conservators and archaeological specialists carried out their meticulous work, the burial has slowly been giving up its secrets.

What have archaeologists discovered?

A long-lost 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 entirely decayed except for a soil stain within which fragments of wood and metal fittings were preserved in their original positions.

Micro-excavation in the conservation lab revealed that the instrument was made of maple with tuning pegs made of ash. Using Raman spectroscopy specialists determined that the garnets in two 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.

1,400-year-old painted woodwork

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 yellow ladder-pattern border resembles those seen on Anglo-Saxon gold-and-garnet jewellery. There are also two elongated ovals, one in white and one in red with cross-hatching perhaps representing fish scales.

13 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 evidence to skilfully recreated the chamber design.

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.

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 it would be possible to collect enough organic material from the artefacts found to date the burial. Archaeological specialists have since managed to collect enough material in the lab from items such as a drinking horn to secure radiocarbon dates by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry. The modelled radiocarbon date for the burial was narrowed to AD 575-605 and further refined by coins to a date after AD 580. This is a remarkably early date for the adoption of Christianity, proven by the presence of Christian symbols within the grave.

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 1,400 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.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England

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 Saebert (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.

Analysis of items found within the coffin has revealed exciting new details. 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 six. 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 5ft 8in tall, suggesting he was an adult or an adolescent. 

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.
Sophie Jackson, MOLA’S Director of Research & Engagement

See the objects at Southend Central Museum

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 coloured glass vessels.