A Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial Chamber Found in Essex

A new-ish Anglo-Saxon burial chamber found at Prittlewell in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, in southern England has all of the markings of a valuable find, both in terms of quality and quantity of the grave goods and of historical significance.

The male body was placed within a wooden coffin in a timber room. The burial most likely dates to the late 6th century (575-605 CE). It was first discovered in 2003 in remarkably good condition.

MOLA Prittlewell Burial Chamber Drawing

Artefacts from the burial were studied at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and the most impressive items are now on permanent display at Southend Central Museum in Southend-on-Sea. MOLA has also created an interactive website for the find.

Just some of the items discovered include a gold belt buckle, two Frankish gold coins, a beautiful sword, iron-bound buckets, a huge metal cauldron, latticed glass beakers, a tall iron candelabrum, a folding iron stool, a basin and a flagon made from copper alloy, a silver spoon, a painted wooden box, and an Anglo-Saxon lyre.

MOLA Prittlewell Blue Glass Decorated Beaker

Incidentally, the wooden box is so far the only surviving example of painted Anglo-Saxon woodwork!

MOLA Prittlewell Painted Wooden Box

MOLA The Guardian Prittlewell Gold Copper Item Collage

There are two interesting implications for the burial. Firstly, two gold foil crosses were likely placed on the body’s eyes. If the burial can indeed be placed at its earliest possible date, it makes the connection to Christianity remarkable because it would predate Augustine’s mission to convert the British in 597. A royal connection has been surmised (Seaxa, a younger brother of king Sæbert of Essex, whose mother Ricula was Æthelbert of Kent’s sister) but not confirmed.

(King Æthelbert of Kent married a Merovingian Christian princess called Bertha in 580, so Roman Christianity was known to Anglo-Saxons to some degree by the end of the 6th century, but to my knowledge we had previously not known of other converts outside their court prior to 600.)

Secondly, although Essex has earlier been seen as an Anglo-Saxon backwater of sorts, this rich burial chamber suggests otherwise. Indeed, some of the luxury items come from the near-by continental Europe (the Frankish gold coins), but others have much more far-reaching origins (the Byzantine or Syrian copper alloy flagon, for example).

Having studied Anglo-Saxons myself and witnessed Erik’s research on the side, I keep being amazed at how much paraphernalia is extant from the Roman period and early middle ages onwards. Not only that, but how much of it is still being discovered! If you tour any of the major museums of Roman history in Germany, for example, you will see massive (massive!) amounts of metalwork, gold, silver, glass, and pottery. And what’s on display doesn’t even account for the remnants in storage.

People from old cultures had as large incentives as we do today to dress up and surround themselves with ornate household goods—after all, we are humans who like their stuff, right? Their ability to do so naturally depended on the resources available in the area and era, and—despite what most of us seem to have been taught—early history is full of times when our predecessors were able to produce items on a massive scale and the richest in those societies did have the wherewithal to go all out.

Like the Staffordshire helmet, the Prittlewell burial will be of immense importance to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon history and culture. I’m so delighted it was found!

Images by MOLA; collage of the gold and copper alloy items by MOLA via The Guardian.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Staffordshire Helmet Reconstructed

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest and perhaps the most magnificent find from Anglo-Saxon England. The hoard dates from the 7th century and comes from the Kingdom of Mercia. It was found in 2009 by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, and is now owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation.

The vast majority of items in the hoard are war gear, especially sword fittings. Among the items, all of which are of exceptionally high quality, is a helmet. Two copies of a reconstruction completed in 2018 are now available for public viewing, one in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, England) and the other in The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England).

And it’s utterly breathtaking!

Twitter Staffordshire Hoard Helmet on Model Sm

Potteries Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

The so-called Staffordshire Helmet is very rare—only five other Anglo-Saxon helmets are known—and looks exquisite: the gold filigree with red accents make an arresting combination, and the dyed crest adds to the wearer’s height.

Birmingham Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

As Erik pointed out, ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed northwestern barbarians as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. On the basis of the Staffordshire Hoard alone, whatever else they were, there’s absolutely no basis in calling Anglo-Saxons technologically unskilled!

Visit The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for more.

Found via Express & Star on Twitter.

Images: Staffordshire Helmet worn by model via Staffordshire Hoard on Twitter. Side view via Staffordshire Hoard. Front view via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

An End and a New Beginning for Bede’s World

Bede’s World, a small museum in Jarrow, Tyne & Wear, Northumbria, dedicated to the Venerable Bede and 7th-century England, shut down its operations in February 2016.

Bedes World Main Entry

Bedes World Entrance Inside

In addition to indoor exhibits, the museum includes several replica wattle and daub buildings, modeled on structures excavated in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and built with original materials and contemporary methods. On the grounds there is also a herb garden and a working farm with a small collection of rare breed animals resembling those that lived 1,300 years ago.

Bedes World Collage

The museum issued the following statement:

“It is with great regret that the Trustee Board took the decision for Bedes World [sic] to cease operation from Friday 12 February 2016 due to a lack of funds.

“Steps are being taken to put the company into administration through the appointment of an Insolvency Practitioner.

“The Trustee Board have made arrangements for the immediate care of the farm animals and the security of the site.

“The Board would like thank all staff, volunteers and stakeholders for their hard work and dedication to Bedes World. [sic]”

Fortunately, only a few weeks afterwards better news surfaced: a new operator was found to run the site. At this writing it isn’t clear what their plans for Bede’s World are, though. (Follow this link to read the statement by Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle, the new operator.)

Found via Anne Bennett and BBC.

Images: Bede’s World main entrance, outside view via Bede’s World. Other photographs by Eppu Jensen

New Beowulf Adaptation: Return to the Shieldlands

ITV Studios is producing a new Beowulf adaptation. Named Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, the mini-series puts a modern spin on one of the oldest poems in Old English. According to Esquire Network:

“Based on the complex protagonist of a classic poem written between the eighth and tenth century, Beowulf takes place in a mythological place, The Shieldlands, and challenges the notions of good and evil, heroes and villains, and the rule of law against one’s moral code. The drama stars Kieran Bew (DA VINCI’S DEMONS), in the lead role Beowulf; multi-award- winning actor William Hurt (DAMAGES); acclaimed actress Joanne Whalley (WOLF HALL); Ed Speleers (DOWNTON ABBEY) and David Ajala (BLACK BOX).”

IMDB Beowulf Return to the Shieldlands
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, ITV via IMDB

Beowulf: RttS started airing in U.K early January 2016, and Esquire Network is bringing it to U.S. January 23. Location work for the production was shot in the north east of England, in county Durham and Northumberland; 13 episodes have been produced so far. The show has a very perfunctory Instagram account and a more active Facebook page. There’s also a behind the scenes piece with live action clips:

Beowulf Behind The Scenes The World Revealed with Kieran Bew and Ed Speleers via Esquire Network

Beowulf: RttS definitely holds some promise. Apart from being inspired by Actual History(TM) and Anglo-Saxons / Old English to boot, it sounds like there’s some gender-bending (International Business Times reports a “new female thane”); in addition, photos include not just white men among the cast (see MedievalPOC and Farawaysite.com).

IMDB Beowulf Return to the Shieldlands2
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, ITV via IMDB

While I’m excited about the recent resurgence of genre films and tv productions in general, I’m discouraged by the apparent lack of quality control that comes with trying to ride the trend to make a quick buck. (Vikings, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, or 2015 Fantastic Four, anyone?)

Sadly, it sounds like Beowulf: RttS might be one of them: according to U.K news site Metro, viewers criticize the series for its “unconvincing CGI, stilted dialogue and unrealistic action sequences” and as “a blatant rip-off ” of Game of Thrones. I can add to the list some decidedly silly costuming and a peculiar combination of plausible and fanciful in the sets and props. I’m torn whether to give it a shot or not – on one hand, it’s based on Beowulf, for crying out loud; on the other, WTF is going on with the design!?

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.