New research questions famed burial of ‘first’ Christian Anglo-Saxon king

It was long suspected that the spectacular Prittlewell burial belonged to the first Christian leader of the Kingdom of Essex. The reality is more confusing— and intriguing.Friday, May 10, 2019

By Roff Smith
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It was hailed as one of the most exciting archaeological finds in Britain in decades: an undisturbed Anglo-Saxon burial chamber chanced upon during a road widening project near Prittlewell, in Essex. At the time archaeologists dated it to the early- to mid-seventh century A.D. and—given the presence of Christian crosses among the grave goods —speculated that it may be the tomb of King Saebert of Essex, who is believed to be the first of the local Saxon kings to convert to Christianity.

That was in 2003. In the years since, the tomb has slowly been yielding up its secrets to a team of 40 specialists at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Using a battery of sophisticated techniques—from CT scans to soil micromorphology—experts in a wide range of fields from engineering to Anglo-Saxon art have created a detailed reconstruction of the burial chamber and its artefacts, laid out just as they were on the the tomb's occupant was set to rest.

A summary of new research, published today on a website dedicated to the burial, includes revised dates for the burial of the “Prittlewell Prince” that rule out King Saebert as the tomb’s owner—but open up intriguing new questions about early Christianity in this part of Saxon England.

Tiny samples yield big results

One of the most captivating finds in the Prittlewell burial was the remains of a lyre - the first complete Anglo-Saxon example that's ever been found. The instrument's wooden frame had almost completely decayed, leaving little more than a lyre-shaped stain in the soil to which metal fittings and a few fragments of wood still clung.

More than a decade of exacting research has enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the Prittlewell burial chamber in detail.

To preserve the precious find, the stained soil was carefully lifted out in a block and transported back to the lab for further examination. Brittle though it was, it still yielded some fascinating historical details. "It's astonishing what you can learn just from patches of discoloured earth and a few bits of organic matter," says Sue Hirst, an Anglo-Saxon burials expert at MOLA and one of the specialists involved with the project. CT scans and micro-excavation revealed the complete outline of the lyre in detail. It was made of maple, with a hollow sound box and tuning pegs made of ash. Two ornamental copper discs inlaid with garnets rivetted the yoke to the arm.

"The detail was such that we were even able to see where the instrument had been broken and repaired at some point," says Hirst. "While from the presence of a few animal hairs indicated that it had been stored in an animal skin bag."

Raman spectroscopy identified the chemical composition of the garnets in the lyre's copper fittings, suggesting they came from either the Indian subcontinent or Sri Lanka. Together with a copper flagon from Syria and gold coins from Merovingian France that were also found in the tomb, it's obvious that the deceased had access to an extensive overseas trade network.

King Saebert gets ruled out

Since most of the organic material rotted away in the Prittlewell tomb's acidic soil, obtaining radio carbon dates was always going to be tricky, says Hirst. But thanks to a process called accelerator mass spectroscopy—which requires only tiny amounts of material for testing—high-precision radiocarbon dates were able to be obtained from a drinking horn and a wooden cup. They revealed that the Prittlewell burial actually occurred sometime between 575 and 605 A.D., too early for it to have been the tomb of King Saebert, who died in 616 and is traditionally believed to have been the first of the local Saxon kings to have adopted Christianity.

Archaeologist excavating the Prittlewell princely burial (c) MOLA

Exactly who this early Christian nobleman was will remain a mystery, at least for now. Thanks to the acidity in the soil, all that remains of the skeleton are a few fragments of tooth enamel. The style of clothing buckles and the presence of weapons in the tomb suggest a man, possibly an adolescent. Judging by the relative position of tooth fragments, the gold foil crosses which had been placed over his eyes, the belt buckle on what would have been his waist, and the garter buckles where his shoes once were, researchers estimate he stood about five foot-eight.

"Other than that all we can say for certain is that whoever this was he was of high status and clearly a Christian," says Hirst. "The gold foil crosses he had placed across his eyes are clearly a personal statement of Christianity. We know that [St. Augustine of Canterbury, considered the founder of the English Church,] came over from Rome in 597 to convert this part of Britain, but the preponderance of evidence suggests this tomb dates in the 580s or 590s.”

One possibility, says Hirst, is that this could be Saebert's brother Saexa, and that Christianity came to the area a few years earlier, informally, via Aethelbert, King of Kent, and his Christian wife Bertha. Aethelbert's sister Ricole married Sledd, King of Essex and father of Saebert and Saexa. "But this is all just speculation," says Hirst. "We've taken this as far as we can with the money and technology we have. There is still much to learn, but that will be for later researchers to try to find out."

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