The Science Behind the Prittlewell Princely Burial, Southend-on-Sea

We look at the science used to uncover the Prittlewell Princely burial in Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: June 2019

Uncovering the Burial

In 2003, archaeologists from The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) began excavating an area in Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, that was marked for a road-widening scheme. The area was known to be in the vicinity of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and archaeologists soon realised that they were uncovering a Saxon grave dating back to the 6th century CE. Given the number of rare, valuable objects found in the grave, it was possible the burial chamber belonged to a king or prince from one of the ruling families of the Kingdom of East Saxons.

It has taken 15 years of careful work by scientists for the true extent of the grave’s importance to come to light. Until the excavation, the site was known to locals as a bit of verge next to the A127 and the local Aldi… that’s if they noticed it at all! The grave’s occupant was nicknamed the Prince of Prittlewell and the King of Bling, after the valuables found in the grave.

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Science and Archaeology

Archaeology is usually a slow and painstaking process and the Prittlewell Princely Burial was no exception. Thankfully, the area was relatively dry as the ground is free-draining sandy soil, although the wooden chamber and its occupant did decay naturally.

Over 40 people made up a team of researchers, all experts in fields including soil since, engineering, scientific dating and Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Researchers made good use of 21st century technology, using CT scans, soil micromorphology, mass spectrometry and portable x ray machines. Although some artefacts had eroded completely, they were digitally recreated using CT scans and microscopic analysis of soil samples.

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Establishing the Prince’s Identity

A number of interesting finds have been uncovered that suggest the identity of the Prittlewell Prince. A gold belt buckle and sword imply the deceased was an aristocrat. Golden crosses were found over the area of the deceased’s eyes, which suggests he may have been an early Christian. It’s impossible to say, however, whether he himself was a Christian or if those burying him were, especially as the burial tomb itself and presence of grave artefacts suggest a pagan burial.

It was initially thought that the grave was that of King Saebert, who was Saxon king of Essex from 604 CEto 616 CE… but carbon dating indicates that construction of the chamber took place between 575 CE and 605 CE, which was at least 11 years before Saebert’s death. Archaeologists have since suggested the deceased may have been Prince Seaxa of Essex, who was Saebert’s brother. It is unlikely if we will ever know the true identity of the Prittlewell Prince, even with all the scientific tools available to us!

Permanent Exhibition

A permanent exhibition showcasing the burial’s finds opened at Southend Central Museum in May 2019. If you can’t visit in person, why not take a virtual tour of the burial chamber on MOLA’s Prittlewell Princely website?

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