A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The surprising discovery of a lavish seventh-century burial in southeastern England
Little did I realize, as I stood in the rain at the Prittlewell site near Southend in Essex, that my decision to shift our first trench to one side to make room for the dirt we were digging up would put me smack on top of one of the most important Anglo-Saxon burials ever found--one whose sumptuous grave goods would rival in elegance and significance those found in 1939 within the undisturbed Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk.
The Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) had been commissioned in the closing months of 2003 to evaluate the site in advance of a road-improvement project. As the senior archaeologist with the service, I knew from earlier tomb discoveries in the area that the site was within a Roman and Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Over the years, the landscape had been whittled away by a railway line, then a road, leaving only a narrow, 600-foot-long wedge of land, divorced from its original setting. Finding intact remains would be highly unlikely.
Once part of a pleasant valley that attracted settlers in prehistoric, Roman, and Early Saxon periods, the area afforded water, fertile soil, and shelter from the exposed Thames estuary to the south. By the sixth and seventh centuries, settlers throughout England had begun burying their high-status dead in elaborate tombs within mounds, along with a rich array of personal possessions, weapons, and equipment for feasting and entertainment. The only intact tombs of this kind that have been found to date and excavated using modern techniques are the Sutton Hoo burial and now Prittlewell.
The ground conditions at the site offered us no clue to what lay beneath the sandy soil, which had a featureless, desiccated gray appearance, thanks to one of the driest years on record. This was unfortunate, because we depend on color and textural differentiation to put together the three-dimensional jigsaw beneath our feet. It wasn't until the second day that we discovered an unusually large vertical-sided pit with a noticeable dark fill along its edges.
As we began to remove the compacted sand and gravel from the pit, a bright splash of green broke the surface. As the soil was gently brushed away, it became clear that the object was a copper-alloy bowl lying on its side. Decorated with inlaid enameled mounts and cruciform strips on its underside, this rare, beautifully made object was still hanging from an iron hook attached to what was once a wooden wall. We soon found three more vessels, including a stunning "Coptic" flagon and bowl from the eastern Mediterranean, still miraculously hanging from hooks. It was now evident that the pit had been a deep, timber-walled underground room. We had, by incredible good fortune, uncovered an intact Anglo-Saxon burial of the highest status.
Ian Blair is senior archaeologist with the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS). Visit the website at www.molas.org.uk, where you can also find the booklet The Prittlewell Prince: The Discovery of a Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial in Essex.