MOLA conservator Liz Barham studieds the hanging bowl (c) MOLA

Prittlewell princely burial secrets revealed in new research

MOLA team
09.05.2019

Today, we’ve published two new books with research revealing previously hidden insights into the Prittlewell princely burial and the man buried.

In 2003 our archaeologists excavated a small plot of land in Prittlewell, Essex. They discovered an astonishingly well-preserved burial chamber adorned with rare and precious objects; however, many of the burial chamber’s secrets lay concealed beneath centuries of earth and corrosion and have only been revealed now.

The research, led by MOLA and funded by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England, explores the internationally significant collection, including hitherto unidentified artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon princely burial chamber.

Over 40 leading experts in a range of specialisms, including Anglo-Saxon art and artefacts, ancient musical instruments, ancient woodworking, engineering, soil science and scientific dating undertook the research, in their quest to reconstruct and understand the chamber as it would have been on the day of the burial and recover crucial evidence to date the burial.

The team left no stone unturned, using a range of techniques - from soil micromorphology and CT scans to Raman spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy and mass spectrometry. Highlights from the research include:

A 1400-year-old colour painted box

Unique 1400 year old painted wooden box the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork (c) MOLA
Unique 1400 year old painted wooden box, the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork (c) MOLA

This unique find is the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. Originally lifted by archaeological conservators in a block of soil, detailed micro-excavation in the lab exposed hidden fragments of a painted maple-wood surface believed to be from a box lid. The design includes a yellow ladder-pattern border that resembles the borders seen on Anglo-Saxon gold-and-garnet jewellery, as well as two elongated ovals, one in white and one in red with cross-hatching perhaps representing fish scales.

A long-lost Anglo-Saxon musical instrument

A reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon lyre featuring the delicate repair work and garnet fittings (c) MOLA
A reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon lyre featuring the delicate repair work and garnet fittings (c) MOLA

The lyre (Old English hearpe) was the most important stringed instrument in the ancient world; this is the first time the complete form of an Anglo-Saxon lyre has been recorded. The wooden lyre had almost entirely decayed save for a soil stain within which fragments of wood and metal fittings were preserved in their original positions. Micro-excavation in the conservation lab revealed that the instrument was made of maple with tuning pegs made of ash. Using Raman spectroscopy specialists determined that the garnets in two of the lyre fittings are almandines, most likely from the Indian sub-continent or Sri Lanka. Extraordinarily, this treasured lyre had been broken in two at some time during its life and put back together using iron, gilded copper-alloy and silver repair fittings.

The full research is published in a MOLA monograph The Prittlewell princely burial Excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003, priced £35 and a popular book The Anglo-Saxon princely burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, priced £15.

For the first time objects from the Prittlewell princely burial will go on permanent display at Southend Central Museum. Open to the public for free from Saturday 11 May 2019, the new permanent gallery features some of the chamber’s most impressive items.

You can also explore the burial chamber, its artefacts and the research unravelling its secrets for yourself, with our interactive online chamber at www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org

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