King of Bling? Southend’s famous Anglo-Saxon burial revealed

The story of an Anglo-Saxon grave hit the press on 30 April, likening the occupant to an Essex Tutankhamun. (At the time of discovery, the Sun newspaper dubbed him the Bling King!)

Why is this significant? Why were so many people needed to study what was in effect a single trench whose longest side was 15 metres? And why did it take them so long?

An excellent article in SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries, explains …

The single answer to those questions is the quality of what was found. This was the first Anglo-Saxon chamber grave, an underground plank-lined room filled with treasures, to be excavated in modern times. The interest of the remains was matched by the expertise of the excavation: so not only were there metal vessels hanging on the walls and gold on the body (including two tiny crucifixes on the eyes, and a coin on each hand), but also more fragile things, like the traces of a decayed lyre and a painted wooden box, that demanded lengthy and expensive conservation work followed by study of things that have few if any parallels.

Picturing the lyre, for example – for some, I imagine, worth the whole project on its own – involved 3D CAT-scanning to unpick the locations of metal fittings, thus determining which lay on which side of a musical instrument of which very little physical structure survived. The lyre’s form was betrayed by stains in the earth, and scraps of wood preserved around corroding metal revealed a maple-wood sound box and ash-wood tuning pegs. The body itself had all but vanished: only fragments of tooth enamel were found, in a soil sample in a lab long after the dig was over, the last vestiges of an ancient smile.

The variety of objects brought in a matching range of specialists. Everything had a story to be discovered and told, from a Byzantine silver spoon bearing the scratched names of three previous owners (but not its last, apparently) to sperm-whalebone gaming pieces, originally thought to have been made from deer antler and matched to the correct animal by ZooMS (zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry).

Intimations of Christianity led to early theories that the man might have been Saebert, an East Saxon ruler who converted to Christianity and died between AD 616 and 618, or possibly Sigeberht II (murdered in 653). After much research taking in artefacts styles and radiocarbon dating, however, it was determined that the man must have died before these two, though not by long – around 580–600. If he wasn’t a king – notwithstanding the Saxon King, a pub which opened near the site in 2014 – he was certainly of aristocratic or princely lineage, and possibly related to Saebert. The only plausible known candidate, say the archaeologists, is Seaxa, a brother of Saebert, though they emphasise this can be no more than a guess.

But there was an additional reason why the quality of the finds, and the large resources needed to conserve and study them, added to the report’s delay. The dig fell into a local road-planning mess. The original fieldwork was required ahead of road alterations in the normal process of heritage management and development planning. One of four trial excavations – the first, as it happened – by chance fell over part of the grave. The developer, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, was obliged to pay for the research. But the council struggled to get the development underway. And objectors to an already controversial road project were given added vim by the archaeological discovery.

It rolled on until eventually the plans were dropped – the grave need never have been found. But who then would pay for the conservation, now there was no road project? In the end funding came from Historic England and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, and work began in 2012 – after a delay that was ‘unfortunate in several respects’.

In 2006 I visited a road protest camp set up at the site. There was immense local pride in the discovery. It wasn’t so much about the bling that gripped the media, as that at some distant time in the past, there’d been someone in Southend who mattered – someone with more power and charisma than councillors, politicians or engineers who were deciding how to reshape Prittlewell. The camp had many local visitors. ‘They can’t get over the fact that something happened in Southend’, one of the protestors told me. ‘They do this in school, and it happened in Egypt, it happened in London… Things never happen in Southend!’ ‘They’ve taken out the so-called treasures,’ another said, ‘you know, the gold crosses, coins, jars, bits and pieces – but the actual Saxon king has dissolved into the soil. He’s actually still down there, and it’s a very sacred site for a lot of people.’

Objects from the burial chamber are now on display at Southend Central Museum, and MOLA(Museum of London Archaeology) who are responsible for the whole project, have created an introductory website. Perhaps out there, between the pub and the museum, there still remains a bit of the Anglo-Saxon aristocrat, ‘gone to earth’ beside the road and the railway.