Prittlewell princely burial reconstruction (c) MOLA

Tut Tut? Why compare Prittlewell’s princely burial to King Tutankhamun’s tomb?

Sophie Jackson

Recently the latest research findings relating to a remarkable Anglo-Saxon burial chamber discovered in Prittlewell, Essex, made headlines around the world. Sophie Jackson, our Director of Research and Engagement labelled the discovery Britain’s "equivalent of Tutankhamun's tomb",  sparking lively social media debate and articles questioning the comparison in Huffpost and The Guardian. So, why compare the Prittlewell chamber to the tomb of King Tutankhamun? Sophie explains in this blog…

In early May I was lucky enough to travel down to Southend Museum’s stores to see some of the artefacts from the ‘Prittlewell Princely Burial’ just before they were due to be put on display.  As well as an opportunity to talk to Museum staff about plans for the opening, journalists were invited to find out about the meticulous archaeological conservation, investigation and research that had taken place since the original discovery in 2003.  It is difficult to convey just how much knowledge and insight has been retrieved and reconstructed from the most ephemeral remains of this very rare, previously undisturbed early Anglo-Saxon burial chamber – but this was one of the main aspects of this research that we wanted to get across to the press and public.

In order to convey the significance of the discovery I went on record saying that it was Britain’s ‘equivalent of Tutankhamun’s tomb’. What did I mean by this? I hoped to express what an incredible survival this was, the excitement (the wonderful things!) of the moment of discovery and the whole strange thing of human beings in some societies at certain points in history wanting to bury their elites with the most valuable artefacts, for all the complex reasons that we love to debate. There was also gold, a (possibly) young prince, an intact burial and previously unknown chamber (thankfully no sign of a curse as yet). So I used ‘Tutankhamun’ as shorthand – drawing on the many cultural references and emotions it holds for us.

In so doing I offer a shared frame of reference so that not just those with academic backgrounds or prior archaeological knowledge would be able to quickly get a sense of the importance of this discovery, and be encouraged to read on. I think the story would have gained a lot of traction without the mention of Tutankhamun, but if it has boosted the coverage and helped others to get a sense of what this discovery is all about then I am very pleased. Our aim, after all, is to share this incredible new information with anyone who can learn from and enjoy it. We want people to visit Southend Central Museum, see the artefacts on display (for free) and read the information panels which put the discovery in context. We want people to learn more about the contents of the burial chamber and context of the burial at this intriguing moment in English history and perhaps get a copy of the popular book, academic monograph or have a go with the free digital interactive chamber experience. 

And it’s also great that this has prompted so much debate. We want archaeologists to question traditional presentations of archaeology and archaeological ‘storytelling’ and think about how we can and should present our work to the wider world. As surely this is ultimately our aim.

This press campaign was about getting people started on a journey to find out more, share with them the fascinating new knowledge gained through over fifteen years of research by over forty experts, and ensure that  the outputs made thanks to support from Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Historic England, have as wide an impact as possible.