The Prittlewell Prince & the Rayleigh Paupers Above One of the better preserved of the many simple cremation urns recovered by Essex archaeologists recovered from the Rayleigh cemetery.
In October 2003, excavating at Prittlewell just outside Southend in Essex, archaeologists discovered the richest Anglo-Saxon burial since Sutton Hoo (CA 190). It lay in a cemetery of at least 34 burials, many rich with gravegoods, including three females buried with jewellery such as a rock crystal and an amber necklace, and no less than 19 males with weapons, including six with swords. The principal burial - dubbed 'the Prince of Prittlewell' - was placed in a wooden chamber 4m square and 1.5m high. The deceased had been dressed in clothes with gold braid and buckles, two gold-foil crosses appear to have been sewn to his garments, and two gold coins found at his waist had perhaps been placed in a purse. Lying nearby was a shield with iron fittings and a sword with iron blade and decorated handle. Elsewhere in the grave was equipment for the feast. Two bronze bowls, a bronze flagon and a bronze cauldron hung on the chamber walls. On the floor were glass vessels, wooden tubs, drinking horns with decorated gold rims, a folding stool, a lyre, and gaming pieces. The assemblage has been dated to c. AD 600-650. Is this the burial of an Early Anglo-Saxon king, perhaps King Saeberht of Essex, laid to rest alongside the kinsmen and warriors of his retinue?
Certainly the discoveries at Prittlewell reveal the emergence of a powerful aristocracy by the early 7th century AD. But what of the people they ruled? By chance, just a year after Prittlewell, a mere five miles away at Rayleigh, another Anglo-Saxon cemetery was excavated. The contrast could hardly have been greater, for here, instead of jewels, swords, bronzes and a glitter of gold, there was little more than handmade pots, fragments of iron, and a scatter of beads.
Essex County Council's Field Archaeology Unit was excavating beneath the playing fields of a former school. They found a cremation cemetery of 145 burials, most comprising a handmade pottery vessel filled with the burnt remains of the deceased and placed in a small burial pit. Some pots were plain, but around half were decorated with complex combinations of bosses, stamps and incised lines. Probably these designs made symbolic reference to lineages and kinship groupings.
Careful collection and sifting of the contents of the cremation vessels produced a range of artefacts intermixed with the mass of small fragments of burnt human bones. There were melted glass beads - perhaps worn by the deceased when they were placed on the funeral pyre. There was also ironwork - the remains of buckles, knife blades, and chatelaines (belt-chains). The buckles and blades could have been used by either sex, the beads and chatelaines were probably worn by women. Weapons would usually identify men, but only two spearheads were found, one on the surface, the other in a rubbish pit with a collection of possible pyre debris including iron artefacts and perhaps shield fittings. The absence of shield bosses, swords and axes - generally only found in inhumation graves - implies a low-status agricultural community.
All of the burials contained cremated artefacts and remains except one shallow pit. This produced a necklace of 114 assorted beads, a copper ring, and a small iron knife-blade. The pit had been disturbed and no body survived, but the absence of a cremation urn and the unburnt condition of the beads (which were found as originally arranged on the necklace) perhaps indicate a solitary female inhumation burial.
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