Lyn Blackmore, Ian Blair, Sue Hirst, and Christopher Scull (eds)
Review Carly Hilts
In 2003, an excavation by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) discovered a spectacular Anglo-Saxon burial chamber at Prittlewell, near Southend-on-Sea. Packed with a diverse range of objects ranging from a folding stool and elaborate drinking vessels to an armoury of weapons and a lyre, this late 6th-/early 7th-century grave contained everything that a member of the East Saxon elite could have wanted to accompany him into the afterlife. Remarkably, the burial was undisturbed and was so well preserved that metal vessels could still be seen suspended from the chamber walls. Nothing like it had been seen since the discovery of the celebrated Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939 – and its potential for shedding new light on the Anglo-Saxon period was hugely exciting.
Since then, expert analysis of the burial and its contents has indeed yielded a vast array of new information – the result of which is this absorbing monograph, which is packed with insights from the scientific studies that have been undertaken on the finds. Some of these revelations are breathtaking: by examining stains left in the soil by long decayed timbers, the project team have been able to reconstruct a detailed picture of how the wood-lined burial chamber may have originally looked, conjuring complex arrangements of crossbeams and timber uprights from discoloured stripes of earth.
The grave goods are also discussed in impressive detail, accompanied by illustrations that really allow the objects to shine. As well as photographs of the artefacts in the ground, and interesting X-ray images of some of them taken during the post-excavation analysis, we are also treated to colour photographs showing some of the finds after conservation – some of them, such as the bright-blue glass beakers, are truly stunning.
The objects that were included in the burial were clearly selected to say something about the individual’s identity, social roles, and relationships – though, as the dead do not bury themselves, we can glean just as much information about the beliefs and aspirations of those who buried him. Through these finds, the monograph’s authors raise fascinating questions of identity and ideology, as well as exploring thought-provoking topics such as whether the arrangement of the burial chamber might help understand how the dwellings of the living were furnished, and the East Saxons’ cultural and commercial connections with continental Europe.
As for the individual who was laid to rest amid this Saxon splendour, his body had been reduced to a few fragments of tooth enamel – yet from these paltry clues, the researchers are able to establish the age of the deceased at the time of his death (despite his apparently exalted status, he was a young adult or even an adolescent), and deduce his likely height by examining the placement of objects within his coffin.
Two of these objects, a pair of tiny gold crosses, are explored in depth as they hint at the ‘Prittlewell Prince’ being a practising Christian. The ostentatious splendour of his surroundings would not have been incompatible with such beliefs – rather, this burial seems to be referencing his ancestral traditions while enthusiastically embracing the new beliefs that were taking hold in Anglo-Saxon England at this time.
Other sections paint a vivid picture of this wider context, detailing the historical background of the region’s Anglo-Saxon past, and the conversion of the East Saxons. We are also guided through the broader scope of the site itself – the chamber burial formed part of a larger Anglo-Saxon cemetery that was excavated in 1923 (though these earlier diggers missed the princely grave); as a mounded burial in a field of flat graves, it would have been an eye-catching monument within a site that continued to be used for interments long after this burial was created.
The monograph ends with a catalogue of all the artefacts, followed by appendices exploring topics including soil morphology, glass, iron, precious metals, wood, plant remains, animal bone, and human remains. Taken as a whole, it is a densely detailed and impressively comprehensive reference, and a book with something for everyone: the accessibly written discussions and summaries provide wonderful insights into the burial for the casually interested, while finer scientific detail is available in spades for those who want to dig deeper.