Anglo-Saxon king's tomb discovered

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent
05 February 2004

Archaeologists have unearthed the spectacularly rich tomb of a Dark Age Anglo-Saxon king - the most important discovery since the Sutton Hoo ship burial 65 years ago.

Excavations at Southend-on-Sea revealed the intact tomb of an early seventh century Saxon monarch - almost certainly either Saeberht or Sigeberht, both kings of Dark Age Essex.

Saeberht - England's second Christian king - died around AD617. His kingdom included London and St Paul's Cathedral was almost certainly founded in his reign.

His uncle was the king of Kent responsible for the introduction of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England. Sigeberht was murdered in 653 AD because "he was too ready to pardon his enemies". The tomb and its contents were discovered in almost perfect condition. The spectacular grave goods were found still "hanging" from iron pegs which had been hammered into the walls of the tomb.

Originally the burial chamber had been lined and roofed with planks, but the wood has long since disintegrated, allowing the tomb to fill up with earth.

The grave goods - designed to enable the king to live well in the next world - include a 75cm diameter copper cauldron, a 35cm hanging bowl from northern England or Ireland and an exquisite 25cm diameter copper bowl, probably from Italy.

There is also a 30cm high flagon, almost certainly from the Byzantine Empire, two gold foil crosses, an iron-framed folding stool, a sort of mobile throne, a gold reliquary which would probably have contained a bone fragment from a saint, four glass vessels, two drinking horns, the king's sword and the remains of his shield, two gold coins from Merovingian France, the remains of a lyre, and several iron-clad barrels and buckets, presumably for alcoholic drink.

The king's skeleton has not survived due to the acidic nature of the soil.

The royal tomb is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain. It dates from the same period as the great Sutton Hoo ship burial, found in Suffolk in 1939, which contained the body of a king of East Anglia.

The excavations have been carried out by the Museum of London Archaeological Service and the objects will be on display at the Museum till 17 February and then from 21 February at Southend-on-Sea's Museum.