Evening Echo
March 2, 2006

Southend's Saxon king was a sophisticated Essex man

Tantalising Christian link in treasure trove

Stunning finds from the Saxon burial
Stunning - left, project conservator Liz Barham with a drinking horn and inset, an amazing saucer brooch
Main picture: LUAN MARSHALL

ROBERT HALLMAN, an archaeologist who lives in Hadleigh, goes to the labs where the Prittlewell finds are still being analysed

There are many people who can only see the future by tearing down the past, putting up monstrosities of buildings, covering anything green with concrete and that notion even includes the seafront.

There is more to the future than pollution and concrete. Let's not forget the past.

As part of a group of amateur archaeologists, I recently had the good fortune to be allowed behind the scenes and the laboratories at the Museum of London to appreciate the work of the specialists there in connection with last year's early 7th century Prittlewell finds.

It's a long-winded process, saving the items found in the chamber tomb, not least because of the quantity, but mainly because of the time it takes to stabilise some of the fragile objects.

Some spectacular finds have alreay been exhibited at Southend Museum, but there is so much more to come. Conservators mentioned 60 items they have lifted from the soil, but identified objects in just one block in the lab raised that number to 110. We are at the very birth of Christianity in Britain. The tantalising curiosity is that Christian influence.

The finds have been compared to those of Sutton Hoo, but in Sutton Hoo there was no Christian association. Here, among the Prittlewell finds, which, as in some Egyptian tombs, also cater extensively for the deceased's afterlife, we find the material things that might come in useful, or that would enhance the owner's standing.

Tubs, buckets, bowls, cauldrons of various sizes point to that. Those still in positions where they were hanging preserved a substantial amount of wood where the rims touched the chamber walls, proving that those walls had been clad in planks. Ceiling beams under the weight of soil had collapsed into the chamber. The folding stool is unique to Britain and only known from images of kings.

With four wooden mugs and two drinking horns with beautiful rim work that was first noticed in X-ray images, the social future is not forgotten. Did our man intend to sup with friends old or new in the hereafter?

There was a sword, but also a lyre and 57 gaming pieces and two dice. And of course those beautifully crafted and coloured pairs of glass vessels.

Then why the Christian symbolism? The phrase hedging your bets comes to mind.

Three embossed medallions on a Coptic flagon may represent eastern European saints. Two small gold coins from different centuries, one at least from a Parisi moneyer, feature crosses in their reverse designs. Among the finds there may yet be a hint at the identity of the tomb's owner. Few names have come down to us from his time. Is it the first Christian king of Essex? his sons were pagan, which makes such a burial unlikely.

Perhaps it is Sigeberht Sanctus, who was murdered in 653? He brought St Cedd down here as Bishop of Essex. Perhaps we'll never know.

If Southend ever was concerned about its kiss-me-quick image, this former sophisticated Essex Man ought to disprove all that.

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