In 2003, Museum of London archaeologists excavated an exceptionally rich chamber grave (4m square and 1.5m deep) in the previously well-known but poorly excavated early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Prittlewell, Essex. Dubbed the ‘Prittlewell Prince’ and the ‘King of Bling’ upon discovery, it was provisionally attributed to the East Saxon ruler, Saebert. After nearly 16 years of intense research by a team of specialists, the publication is now out. Moreover, key finds go on display at Southend Museum from this weekend.

I can’t wait to read the publication and see the exhibition in due course. I also hope at some point to visit the site of the excavation: a rare example of grave for which its burial mound had long gone and no evidence survived, and yet a mound was ‘recreated’ as a present-day landmark to make the discovery site a tangible place in the historic environment.

When exploring the results of this work in future, I’m particularly fascinated to learn more about the details of the chamber and finds analysis, as well as the overall interpretation of the date, including the political and religious significance of the grave. I’m also wondering how the neo-Pagan communities involvement in the project and objecting to the road scheme after the discovery is narrated in the report (as well as other aspects of the project’s public engagement). The Prittlewell grave is a choice early Anglo-Saxon burial discovery, but also a fascinating case study in the public archaeology of death for the UK.

Here, I wish to celebrate the publication and the years of detailed research by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) by reflecting on the story as reported today in the media. I haven’t yet read the archaeological reports.

Digital resources

First, I want to note the excellent social media engagement by MOLA: check out MOLA’s Twitter thread here. This is built off their website for the discovery and the chamber here. Further info can be gained by visiting the Prittlewell finds conservation and research page. There is also a popular publication of 108 pages as well as the full report.

I have to celebrate the revised artist’s reconstruction which I’ve cheekily appropriated for this blog post. Without it, so little of this grave would be comprehensible to a general audience, building as it does on the initial reconstruction that made the front page of The Sun in 2003!

Let’s now discuss a selection of the media write-ups.

 

Media Stories

“Hidden Secrets about Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial Revealed” – Historic England

This finds-focused press release celebrates the amazing work done by MOLA and HE’s role, together with Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, as funders. The discovery of a lyre, painted woodwork, the labour involved to build the chamber, and the potential early date of c. AD 580-605 (from radiocarbon dates and the gold coin) for the burial are the focus, emphasising the role of scientific techniques in yielding these results. Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of HE, is given the first quote, describing the results as ‘extraordinary insight into early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and culture’, which is notably rare in trying to regard the rich grave as a snapshot onto the period, rather than the focus on identity and religion. Yet the report concludes by suggesting that, rather than Saebert, it was perhaps the burial of Seaxa, his brother. The burial is attributed to an ‘adult or adolescent’ or a ‘male’ based on the height of the coffin he was c. 5ft 8 inches tall (and the fact that the teeth suggest the person was older than 6 years old). The gold foil crosses ‘show he was a Christian’.

“New Research Questions Famed Burial of ‘First’ Christian Anglo-Saxon King’ – National Geographic

The National Geographic story takes the date-change as the key narrative and the shift in the presumed identity of the occupant not being Saebert, King of Essex. Sue Hirst is quoted about the amazing discovery of a lyre from amidst the organic matter. The additional detail was made that the garnets from the lyre likely came from India or Sri Lanka and the copper flagon from Syria, emphasising the international connections of the find. The gold coin from Merovingian ‘France’ shows how the ‘deceased had access to an extensive overseas trade network’.

The NG article makes clear that his identity remains a ‘mystery’, but the ‘weapons in the tomb suggest a man, possible an adolescent’. The belt buckle and garter buckles indicate he was c. five foot-eight. Hirst argues that he was ‘clearly a Christian’ given the gold foil crosses ‘placed across his eyes’, regarding this as a ‘personal statement of Christianity’.

 

“Southend Burial Site ‘UK’s Answer to Tutankhamun'” – BBC News

The link to the famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun is appropriate on multiple grounds: the lack of a clear prominent indication as to the location of such a rich grave, the presence of an architectural space (chamber), and the unexpectedly intact nature of the burial deposit, and of course the royal attribution. The Tutankhamun parallel is therefore assertive and rhetorical, establishing Prittlewell a royal status as part of the interpretation of the grave’s character and wealth. It is also rhetorical within British archaeology, since it asserts a status to Prittlewell equivalent to Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, which was already afforded the King Tut analogy.

BBC News subsequently refer to the grave as a discovery of an Anglo-Saxon ‘prince’ and the ‘oldest example of a Christian Anglo-Saxon royal burial’. Described as a ‘man of princely lineage’, the burial chamber and artefacts are described, the result of a ‘carefully choreographed burial rite’. The ‘best guess’ is that it is the tomb of Seaxa and the items included are called ‘fit for a prince’, from a time when Christianity was ‘just creeping in’ to the British Isles. The funeral customs are seen as ‘pre-Christian beliefs and traditions’. The gold buckle might have been made for the funeral (can’t wait to hear more about the arguments for this in the publication) and reflects a very high status burial. The best and oddest quote comes from Sophie Jackson, director of research at MOLA: ‘there’s a lot of debate about whether he was a full-fledged hairy beast Saxon warrior, or younger’. She then usefully speculates that the wealth attributed to the individual might have been aspirational: ‘Had he died before he could really prove himself?’

 

“Britain’s equivalent to Tutankhamun found in Southend-on-Sea” – The Guardian

The Guardian likes the Aldi association and the King Tut connection, describing the grave as of a ‘rich, powerful Anglo-Saxon man’. Sophie Jackson, is pegged as responsible for the King Tutankhamun analogy and that it was ‘one of the most significant archaeological discoveries we’ve made in this country in the last 50 or 60 years’. Sue Hirst is quoted as stating it was ‘remarkably early’ for the adoption of Christianity, and might link to Seaxa’s association with Aethelbert of Kent. This shifts perceptions of Essex in the period, says Hirst: “What it really tells us,” said Hirst, “is that the people in Essex, in the kingdom of the East Saxons at this time, are really at the forefront of the political and religious changes that are going on.”

Jackson gives a quote straight out of Martin Carver’s 1998 and 2005 publications on Sutton Hoo: “It was a significant communal effort,” said Jackson. “You’ve got to see this burial chamber as a piece of theatre. It is sending out a very strong message to the people who come and look at it and the stories they take away from it. It says ‘we are very important people and we are burying one of our most important people’. These quotes are the strongest hint that archaeological interpretations of Prittlewell might be aware and responding to scholarship of the last few decades.

 

“Inside ‘British version of Tutankhamun’s tomb’ discovered between a pub and an Aldi” – The Independent

The Independent again focuses on the association with an Aldi and a pub, before addressing the painstaking work on the high-status finds of far-flung provenance, the early date, Christian association and the possible identity of the deceased as Seaxa, and Dr Simon Keynes (Cambridge) provides a quote that this find ‘transform[s] … understanding of the [Anglo-Saxons’] early history’, ‘casting light on … burial customs, during the period of… conversion to Christianity in the late sixth and early seventh centuries’. It reveals the ‘material realities’ of the elite. Links are made to Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. Note: this is the only news report I’ve read so far who have gone outside of MOLA for commentary on the find, and rather than ask an early medieval archaeologist, they of course approach a Cambridge historian.

 

“All hail the Aldi Prince: Anglo-Saxon royal burial site unearthed near Essex store is ‘Britain’s Tutankhamun’ – The Telegraph 

So The Telegraph goes with a headline intended as humorous and picking up the King Tut link – i.e. royal undisturbed ‘chamber’. The connection to Aldi and a pub presumably offers a quotidian and working class angle that must be highly amusing for the middle-class readership of the Torygraph. The article itself is behind a paywall so I couldn’t read on.

 

Found next to an Aldi, the ‘UK’s answer to Tutankhamun’s tomb’: Burial site thought to belong to Anglo-Saxon Prince Saexa is uncovered in Essex in one of Britain’s ‘most significant archaeological finds EVER’

Finally, we come to the Mail Online. Yep, Tut obsessed once more! Apparently it was discovered ‘on land on land between and pub and an Aldi supermarket’, which sounds like a old sea-shanty to me! It contains one particularly meaningless sentence: “The Anglo-Saxons were Pagans, but the Christian items found in the chamber suggest the religion was still important in England 1,400 years ago.” The ‘very idea of a burial chamber is Pagan’, it is claimed, while the grave represents a ‘transitional moment before Christianity took over’.

Still, all the key info is here, and in addition to the rich range of photographs, the Mail Online includes its own annotated version of the artist’s reconstruction, which helps even further to explain the grave.

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Discussion

All the articles are supported by lavish photographs of the artefacts during excavation, following conservation, and the vivid revised artist’s reconstruction of the burial chamber. The Guardian  and Mail Online are perhaps the best all-round in visual terms and I like the effort the latter went into with their own annotated version of the artist’s reconstruction of the chamber grave.

The narrative is consistent – the hook of Tutankhamun is near-universally popular. This is a good example of a well-crafted press release picked up and retained by all main media outlets. The Tut analogy has validity to a degree. However, as usual, it validates a focus on ‘treasure’. For Prittlewell, I was actually delighted that the word ‘treasure’ rarely appeared anywhere (for the Mail Online, for example, only as the heading for their annotated grave reconstruction). This is very positive, but the connotations should be deftly avoided at all costs in the narrative. Of course, there is also something overtly nationalistic about claiming that the UK has something equivalent to the tomb of a New Kingdom pharoah!

The ‘unpromising’ modern context – roadside, pub and Aldi – also are played out throughout the media, bringing the wonderous to the weary, but also allowing a barely concealed snobbery towards Essex to the fore.

Context is largely lacking throughout these ‘discovery-style’ stories which focus on the grave in isolation. None of the papers contextualise the grave in relation to the cemetery from whence it came, or indeed Essex, or SE Britain more generally, with the exception of brief mentions to Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire hoard in a few venues. Other princely graves – the obvious parallels being Snape, Taplow and Broomfield, don’t even get mentioned, let along the broader funerary culture of the period.

The scale of the chamber’s construction is addressed, but not its meaning or significance beyond ‘labour’. It is argued that the ‘idea’ was ‘pagan’. Oddly, a burial mound is presumed by the BBC, but of course no evidence survived of this. Likewise, evidence of choreography and monumentality are given little attention beyond the focus on the time taken to build the chamber itself beyond comments by Jackson.

Grave-goods are described in detail, but their broader functions and significance beyond the gold-foil crosses are hardly addressed. Possible associations with feasting, martial and hunting practice and peripatetic rulership are not considered. This is one of the strangest things about the story as reported in the media.

Notably, the term ‘warrior’ isn’t used beyond the BBC News story, and here Sophie Jackson rightly raises the interesting question of whether he had been old enough at death to wield weapons in battle. The valid issue of an aspired identity, and theatrical display involved in the construction and consignment of the grave, is usefully mentioned by Jackson, even if the implications are not taken forward. This is an important point, and as with the general downplaying of ‘treasure’, it is to be commended that the press releases seem to have downplayed the martial dimensions of the grave, even if they don’t go so far as to question the status and gender of the occupant.

Surprisingly, the argument that the occupant of the grave is considered to be a single individual – a Christian royal adolescent/adult male – is swallowed whole, despite the survival of only a few traces of teeth that cannot be aged or sexed. The link to an historical personage is unquestioned, if conceded to be a ‘guess’. The BBC News seem to see grave-goods as ‘pagan’, the Mail Online says that chamber-graves are ‘Pagan’. Yet it has to be noted that some bizarre intellectual somersaults are required to make this stick for princely graves: if it is the earliest dated thus far is regarded as unquestionably ‘Christian’. Maybe religious labels just don’t work here and we should desist!

The royal necrophilia (myopic honouring of dead historical elite personages) of public mortuary archaeology is a problematic dimension, and one I’ve criticised elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, all reports seem happy to pinpoint a named identity on the dead as a royal East Saxon: ‘Prince Seaxa’. This in itself, no matter how tenuous, helps to substantiate the Tutankhamun analogy, but I find it troublesome to see the passion to tag every burial with an historical personage. Even if a warrior status isn’t played on much (bar for the BBC article, and yes, this is odd and interesting), the royal Christian and male adolescent/adult identity of the occupant is unquestioned. I wonder if the published reports will be quite so emphatic, and whether non-historical personages might be entertained for the occupant. Indeed, I wonder if the presence of multiple occupants (maybe of different ages and genders) can be so assuredly ruled out?

In summary, despite the detailed excavation and battery of scientific techniques applied to analysis and conservation, plus some brief sense that Professor Martin Carver’s interpretation of the varied wealthy princely graves at Sutton Hoo has been factored in to considering chamber graves as an elite performance, the interpretation of the chamber is that of a single male royal, Christian elite personality in death. Such an inference wouldn’t have been out of place if published in 1883 – the year the Taplow mound was dug, or indeed 1939 – the year Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo was excavated. The focus is upon “who was he?” rather than a host of other exciting questions the dating, contents, architecture and location of this grave poses.

Having criticised recent simplistic inferences of personal social identity from grave-goods and a chamber-grave from the 10th-century Viking world of Birka (the ‘female warrior’ in chamber grave Bj581), I would be remiss to point out that we seem to be languishing in a similar interpretative cul-de-sac for late 6th/early 7th-century England by regarding death as a reflection of life when considering the Prittlewell Prince. I await the published reports with interest, and I celebrate the superb work of MOLA in getting this into print. But in terms of media stories, we seem stuck in a 2-century old rut with princely graves of the early Anglo-Saxon period.

The difference is that while there is a long tradition of equating social identity with burial wealth in Viking-period archaeology, we have long past this simple equation in early Anglo-Saxon burial archaeology. Another difference is that, at least for  Bj581 there was osteological data and aDNA analysis! For this grave, a male identity is ascribed without any of this!

It will be interesting to see whether the published reports are able to muster up a more nuanced interpretation or they stick to the weapons = man/Christian artefacts = Christian belief/ grave-goods/chamber-grave = pagan high-status burial, and thus their combination equates with an elite burial on the cusp of Christian conversion. I’d be interested to see how they handle the royal necrophilia…

Postscript

Newsthump hits the mark, yet again…

MOLA responds to criticisms of their Tut analogy.

The Times came up with this fabulous take:

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