The recent and much-publicised research into a Saxon-era royal tomb is exciting – very exciting. But why must we always link such finds to big discoveries overseas? Surely we should be thinking about what they can tell us about our own history?
I can remember researching the Prittlewell burial for my book Britain AD and I published a reconstruction of what the grave chamber would have looked like. At the time, I can remember being forcibly struck by its close resemblance to another very elaborate ‘royal’ burial, also in Essex, beneath a huge burial mound at Lexden, near Colchester. Both burials were in effect within timber-lined rooms or chambers, where the body was surrounded by the person’s most prized possessions and furniture.
The Prittlewell burial featured some bronze Christian crosses, which were absent from the Lexden tomb, for the simple reason that it pre-dated Christ by about 10-15 years (assuming, that is, that Christ was born in AD 1, which is very doubtful). The Lexden royal burial dates to about 10-15 BC, at the very end of the Iron Age. The recent, in-the-news research demonstrates that the Prittlewell burial took place between AD 575-605 and the bones are probably those of Seaxa, the brother of Saebert, king of the East Saxons (i.e. Essex), who predeceased him a few years earlier. And yet the Prittlewell tomb resembles a very much earlier Iron Age one so closely. What was going on? History teaches us that after the Iron Age we were invaded by Roman troops and then incoming hoards of Angles and Saxons took over southern Britain and founded England. So why hadn’t royal tombs changed?
The problem with reconstructing British history and prehistory (i.e. anything pre-Roman) from the top down is that it draws attention away from the ordinary people who provided the wealth that bought the bling that symbolised the status of royalty. We tend to think that wine was introduced by the Romans, but royal Iron Age tombs such as Lexden, and another at Welwyn, Hertfordshire were packed with ceramic amphorae, early bottles full of wine from the Mediterranean. Conspicuous consumption then, as now, was a way of displaying prestige. But the money raised by levies and indirect taxation that paid for these things, came from the hard work of ordinary farmers, craftsmen and labourers. And modern archaeology is transforming our knowledge about them.
The results of numerous excavation over the past fifty years have shown how the population of Iron Age Britain rose steadily. By the time the Romans invaded in AD 43 the landscape was much like it is today, with roads (and no, the Romans didn’t ‘give’ us paved roads), fields, villages and even larger town-like settlements. Most of the important people in Roman times were British, with British (i.e. Celtic) names. Nearly all of the farms and rural settlements of Roman Britain had Iron Age antecedents. When the last few Roman troops withdrew around AD 410, the Dark Ages didn’t start. The population didn’t decline. True, many towns were abandoned, but this had started to happen before the Roman authorities withdrew and reflects the fact the Roman-style towns weren’t particularly well-suited to the British way of life. Certainly big changes did take place in post-Roman times: most significantly we started to speak an early form of English, but this happened naturally; most people probably spoke more than one language, and gradually one became more important than others.
The changes in post-Roman times did involve people moving around, which is why the period is known as the Migration Period in Europe. But the basic population remained the same. We see little evidence for the abandonment of farms and rural settlements. I have just finished researching a book on the Fens, where there is no evidence that people came in from outside. Instead, a highly complex landscape continued to be successfully farmed and managed in traditional ways. And I say ‘successfully’ because this was the source of the great wealth that ultimately gave rise to some of the finest cathedrals in Europe: at Ely, Peterborough and Lincoln. Such continuity would explain why and how Lexden and Prittlewell are so closely similar; essentially they belonged to the same culture.
So is Prittlewell ‘Britain’s Tutankhamun’? I think not. Indeed, if you had suggested such a thing to Seaxa, the man buried there, he would probably have said something very Anglo-Saxon back to you. And I’d have to, wholeheartedly, agree.
Francis Pryor is an archaeologist, author and former member of the Time Team crew. His latest book is The Way, The Truth And The Dead, available now