Archaeology is about much more than treasure-hunting but, inevitably, popular attention tends to be drawn towards rich and magnificent finds. Within an early medieval context, the ‘Princely’ burials of the Mid Saxon period are particularly notable in this context. The Sutton Hoo Mound 1 ship-burial is deservedly famous and the most impressive example, but the ship-burial at Snape is equally of note. Another prime example of a ‘Princely’ burial, more recently found and therefore less well-known, is found in Essex at Prittlewell – subsequently, its occupant has been nicknamed `The Prittlewell Prince’.
The Prittlewell site is notable for its relatively recent excavation, in contrast to the Antiquarian excavations at Snape – it was only excavated in 2003.
The excavation is a primary example of how much luck is involved in archaeological digs, and how much we must be missing beneath our feet. The burial was found as part of roadworks in 2003, through the process of ‘rescue archaeology’, through which sites are excavated before their future potential damage by construction. Although the area has previously been identified as a Roman and Anglo-Saxon cemetery, the ultimate outcome came as a bit of a shock. Ian Blair recounts that finding the burial was ultimately a happy accident caused by shifting the location of the trench to make way for excavated soil (Blair 2005, 25).
2019 saw the publication of a further report on the site, drawing together over a decade’s worth of extensive research.
The burial itself comprises of a sunken wooden-lined chamber, roughly 4 metres square, in which a wood coffin lay. This marks a substantial amount of labour and expenditure put into the ceremony of burial, and is subsequently interpreted as a sign of high status. it is, however, not alone, and forms part of a broader graveyard.
There is a particularly magnificent website of the burial available that visually illustrates its layout as it would have been seen at the time of burial, including the original placement of the items – https://www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org/museum
With over 100 artefacts associated with the burial, Prittlewell stands in sharp contrast to the (admittedly previously excavated and probably looted) Snape. However, like Sutton Hoo, acidic soil has led to a complete erosion of any osteo-archaeological remains – with no body, we are left with only the associated artefacts to make judgements of who was buried here.
There are a remarkable number of feasting vessels – 22, of which 13 are drinking vessels. Mirrored also at Sutton Hoo, this seems to be part of a common vocabulary of leadership, symbolic of a capacity to provide gifts and food/drink to loyal supporters. Think Beowulf, long-halls, epic poetry around fire etc etc.
A set of thin gold-foil crosses were found within the coffin – these are traditionally interpreted to have been laid over the eyes of the dead man, presumably as part of a religious ceremony/ last rites.
Perhaps the most unique find of the burial, an iron folding stool is present. This is broadly accepted to be Continental in origin (Italian?), and marks a strong connection with the wider world. Was this a gift? The result of trade? A symbol of religious authority? It’s possible that the artefact represents a gifstol – a ceremonial symbol of a royal dispensation of reward and justice (https://www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org/museum). A Coptic Bowl, normally assumed to have originated from Egypt, further suggests an international connection. Perhaps it arrived in England through the Emporia?
It is clear, from both the quantity and quality of grave goods, that this is not the burial of a normal individual. If we contrast it with the near-contemporary ‘final-phase’ burials, which feature few items, the wealth of Prittlewell is all the more susbtantial.
The items included appear to be deeply symbolic, with the grave as an act of performance of status – international items and items of leadership. It seems likely this is the burial of a royal individual
Providing a date for the burial is complex. It was originally assumed, partially on the strength of parallel with other ‘Princely’ burials, that Prittlewell came from the first half of the 7th century. As such, it has been suggested that either Sæberht or Sigeberht II, early to mid 7thC kings of Essex, may fit the bill (see the Wikipedia page here for a brief adequate summary) However, the 2019 publication suggests a radio-carbon date of 575-605 (https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/new-secrets-from-prittlewell-reconstructing-a-burial-chamber-fit-for-a-prince.htm). This potentially pushes back the timeframe for ‘princely’ burials, and means the individual still proves anonymous.
An interesting contrast arrives in regard to religion. The frequency of burial goods within the burial suggests a Pagan origin, while the gold-foil crosses appear to be explicitly Christian. It has been suggested that a possible explanation for this contrast lies in different stages or areas of the burial – a Christian treatment of the contents of the coffin, and a Pagan treatment of the surrounding burial. Perhaps, like Raedwald, whoever was buried here had mixed both Paganism and Christianity into a hybrid – perhaps they were hedging their bets. Is it, instead, evidence of competing traditions among those who buried the body?
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