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The oldest known Christian burial site in England yields precious artifacts

BURIAL
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Included among the treasures were the first complete remains of an Anglo-Saxon lyre ever discovered.

The excavation of a tomb believed to hold the remains of an Anglo-Saxon prince has yielded a wealth of treasures, including an ornamented lyre, painted woodwork and a gold belt buckle. Archaeologists believe, based on several Christian symbols discovered at the site, that it may be the oldest Christian burial site in England.

The tomb dates back over 1,400 years, and although the identity of the man buried there is unknown, researchers believe he may have been a relative of King Sæberht, the first known East Saxon king to have converted to Christianity. The team from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) came to this conclusion based on the aristocratic quality of the goods found in the tomb.

In a statement, Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said:

“The range of exquisite objects discovered here, now around 1,400 years old, and some of them representing the only surviving examples of their kind, are giving us an extraordinary insight into early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and culture.”

The tomb was discovered in 2003 near Prittlewell, Essex, and the items excavated from the site have since become known as the Prittlewell princely burial collection. The excavations, conducted by MOLA, revealed an elaborate burial chamber, which they have digitized for virtual study. The digital tomb is shown in an artistic representation, but they offer “hotspots” which, when selected, allow visitors to see photographs of the artifacts.

The centerpiece of the chamber is a large ash-wood coffin, of which only fragments of wood and iron fittings have survived. Little is left of the deceased besides tooth enamel, which told archaeologists not much more than that the deceased was older than six years. However, the size of the coffin, as well as the placement of his belt buckle and other metal pieces from his clothing, allowed the team to determine he was about 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 meters) tall, suggesting he was an adolescent or adult.

MOLA was able to determine the man’s Christianity from two thin gold-foil crosses found at the head of the coffin. These were most likely laid over the deceased man’s eyes as part of the burial ceremony. Two gold coins were found where his hands would have rested, suggesting they were placed in his palms.

The team also discovered a copper-alloy flagon, which was decorated with medallions bearing the image of St. Sergius, a 4th-century Roman Christian soldier said to have been martyred for his faith. This is a rare example of early Christian saint veneration, which also could be a sign of an early devotion.

The gold found in the belt buckle and the foil crosses suggest that the man was wealthy. Further signs of a possible regal lineage were found in an iron folding stool which could have been a “gifstol,” a seat from which a ruler would dispense rewards or rest upon while settling disputes among his followers, and a finely crafted horn-handled sword.

The expensive sword suggests his royalty, but it is likely he was an experienced warrior, as there were two spears and a shield found to be hung on the back wall. Although he may have been a hardened soldier, he may have had an artistic side, based on the lyre found stored in the tomb.

The lyre is an important discovery, as it is the first example of a complete Anglo-Saxon lyre ever to have been unearthed. While the wood, determined to be maple, was mostly decayed, archaeologists were able to learn much of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. The lyre was found to have been broken and repaired. From the expensive materials used in the repair work, it can be inferred that this lyre held personal value to the deceased and it also reinforces the idea that he was wealthy.

Southend Central Museum in Southend-on-Sea, which co-sponsored the excavations and research, is preparing to display much of the collection on May 11. Museum curatorial manager Ciara Phipps said in a statement:

“The long-awaited return of the Prittlewell princely burial collection is a hugely exciting and significant moment for Southend Museums Service and the town. The finds, now on permanent display at Southend Central Museum, highlight the richness of this community’s heritage and have deepened our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Essex.”

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