Buried between a pub and a supermarket, archaeologists have unearthed an incredible burial chamber that’s being touted as Britain's answer to Tutankhamun’s tomb. Granted, it’s perhaps not got the glitz and glamour of the Egyptian pharaoh's tomb, but this chamber is already proving to be one of the biggest archaeological discoveries ever unearthed from the Anglo-Saxon era, offering unprecedented insight into the period's people, craftsmanship, and culture.
The ancient burial chamber was first discovered in 2003 during some roadworks near Southend in Essex, UK. After years of painstaking work, archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have now revealed that the chamber most likely belonged to a young Anglo-Saxon prince from the late sixth century CE, making this the earliest known Christian Anglo-Saxon burial.
“This is one of the most significant Anglo-Saxon discoveries this country has seen and because of the meticulous attention to detail given when excavating and recording the Prittlewell princely burial, a team of specialists has been able to reveal new elements of the burial chamber, details about the man buried and insights into Anglo-Saxon traditions that we never thought possible,” Sophie Jackson, MOLA’S Director of Research & Engagement, said in an emailed statement.
The age of the grave was worked out through modeled radiocarbon dating, which suggested the burial occurred between 575 and 605 CE. This was later confirmed by coins from the chamber that date to 580 CE.
Only a few fragments of tooth enamel have survived the centuries of corrosion, nevertheless, a team of 40 archaeologists was able to piece together his story thanks to the many artifacts that were strewn across the chamber. Among the most interesting discoveries in the grave were a gold belt buckle, a Byzantine flagon, an ornate drinking horn, a decorative bowl, vibrant blue glass vessels, and gold Christian crosses. The researchers note that this actually surprisingly early for a prince to practice Christianity in England.
One especially important find was the crumbling remains of an Anglo-Saxon lyre, an ancient harp-like stringed instrument. Although most of the instrumented had decayed, a specialized spectroscopy technique was used to determine it had been decorated with garnet gemstones, most likely from the Indian subcontinent or Sri Lanka.
Judging by the size of his coffin, the researchers concluded he was a young man or teenager, about 1.73 meters (5 feet 8 inches) tall. The grandiosity of his burial suggests that this man was of princely or aristocratic lineage, but there’s no way of discerning his precise identity, for now at least. Earlier suggestions that this tomb once belonged to King Saebert, the first East Saxon king to convert to Christianity, who died in 616 CE, have now been ruled out. Instead, experts suspect it may be a relative of King Saebert, such as his brother Seaxa.
“This burial chamber was an exciting discovery in 2003 and over the years it has slowly been giving up its secrets,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England. “The range of exquisite objects discovered here, now around 1,400 years old and some of them representing the only surviving examples of their kind, are giving us an extraordinary insight into early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and culture.”