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Saxon Burial

Crossing Over
A Saxon tomb set for a Christian king

A bit of tooth is all that remains of the man, but his well-preserved seventh-century grave at Prittlewell in Essex, England, suggests that the interred may have been Saeberht, the first East Saxon king to convert to Christianity.
"He's the only obvious candidate," says Ian Blair, senior archaeologist of the Museum of London Archaeology Service and the excavation's director. "We'll probably never know for sure, but it's tempting to suggest he's our man."

The tomb, unearthed during a routine archaeological evaluation prior to road construction, was likely preserved as dirt and sand sifted through its roof timbers over time. "The chamber was intact and undisturbed, with items still on the walls where they were hung 1,400 years ago," says Blair. Objects within the burial room indicate that the deceased, whom archaeologists dubbed the Prince of Prittlewell, was a contemporary of a pagan king buried about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast at Sutton Hoo. (Excavated in 1939, Sutton Hoo remains the most elaborate Anglo-Saxon tomb complex ever found.)
During the seventh century
A.D. much of Britain was divided into small kingdoms, and Christian missionaries sent from Rome were converting the rulers of these kingdoms with some success. The Prittlewell artifacts suggest a royal who straddled the two worlds, pagan and Christian, carrying elements from both to the grave. While most of the goods conjure the chest-thumping, mead-swilling life celebrated in the epic poem Beowulf—a lyre, gaming pieces, and drinking horns, plus hints of wealth in gold coins and a belt buckle—this Saxon was also equipped for a Christian death. A cross etched into a silver spoon, a flagon embossed with a figure resembling a saint, and a pair of gold-foil crosses point to a Christian conversion.
Bolstering the theory that the convert was King Saeberht of Essex are native crafts such as blown-glass jars identical to jars found at other Saxon graves, including Sutton Hoo. Exotic items like the French coins, eastern Mediterranean bowl and flagon, and iron folding stool from Italy or Asia Minor may have been gifts from one notable to another.
Artifact conservation is currently under way, and traces of textiles and wood have already been found in the sands that for centuries kept the tomb intact. Says Blair, "You can never completely predict what may lie buried beneath your feet."
—Jennifer S. Holland

Web Links

The Prince of Prittlewell Burial
The Museum of London Archaeology Service has put together this informative website that gives an overview of the Prince of Prittlewell burial site.
The Sutton Hoo Burial
The United Kingdom National Trust website has extensive information on the Sutton Hoo burial site, including a virtual tour.
The Anglo-Saxons                                   
Want a quick and easy introduction to the Anglo-Saxons? This BBC overview for kids (and adults) is a great place to start learning, and includes a helpful time line and map.

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Blair, Ian, Liz Barham, and Lyn Blackmore. "My Lord Essex." British Archaeology (May 2004),10-17.

Museum of London Archaeology Service. "The Prittlewell Prince: The Discovery of a Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial in Essex." (July 2004).


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