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A chunk came out of the coffin after visitors put a child inside it Image

No, It’s Not a Cot: 13th Century Coffin Smashed in Photo Attempt at Priory Museum


In the UK, some careless and one might say foolhardy visitors to the Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, Essex caused damage to an 800-year-old stone sarcophagus when they placed their child into it, presumably in order to take a photograph, as reported by the local Southend Echo.

The sandstone casket is the only one surviving at the Priory and was described as “a very important artifact and historically unique to us as we don’t have much archaeology from the priory,” by Claire Reed, conservator for the council’s museums and galleries service.

The nonsensical act, left staff "shocked and upset" at the "unbelievable incident" according to the BBC who also reported on it.

Having accidently smashed the coffin, the family then rapidly left the scene, presumably out of embarrassment and to escape culpability, leaving the damaged artifact to be discovered by museum staff. Details of what had taken place were revealed later by CCTV footage.

A corner section fell off the center of the coffin

A corner section fell off the center of the coffin (Credit: Prittlewell Priory Museum)

Obviously Fragile

The recording showed the sarcophagus was dislodged from its support when a family member lifted the child over the protective barrier. This jolting movement broke off a corner of the stonework completely. The artifact was obviously fragile as it already had a large crack through its middle, as reported by the Southend Echo.

In a statement made to the Southend Echo, Ann Holland, executive councilor for culture, stated:

“Unfortunately, there was an incident at Prittlewell Priory last week. The museum’s conservator is currently assessing the damage to the coffin and will carry out the repair using materials and techniques suited to the object.”

The Significance of the Sarcophagus

The coffin is believed to be around 800-years-old and originate from the early days of the priory that was founded in the 13 th century by monks affiliated with the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras. When the coffin was found in 1921, it contained a skeleton which is believed to be the remains one of the head monks of the priory, which was home to up to 100 members at its peak.

The Prittlewell Priory is reported to have been the longest continuously occupied building in the Southend area. According to Lovesouthend, it was partially destroyed in 1536 due to the orders of someone else who thought himself above the normal rules of society, King Henry VIII. At this time, Henry was bent on dissolution or suppression of the monasteries and other such religious houses, having gained the authority to do so through an act of parliament called the ‘Act of Supremacy’ which made him head of the Church of England. Through this he was able to enact laws which dissolved the religious houses, appropriated their incomes and liquidated their assets, much of the proceeds going to fund his war-mongering.

The remains of the Cluniac Priory of St Mary's date from the 13th Century and now house the museum

The remains of the Cluniac Priory of St Mary's date from the 13th Century and now house the museum (CC BY 2.0)

The coffin survived this episode, presumably being safely buried at the time, although it was already in three pieces when it was uncovered in the 1920s. Since then, the sandstone casket had been treated with care, "and nothing like this has ever happened before", Claire Reed told the BBC.

Damage Done

The initial thoughts from the museum staff concerning the cost of the repair were that it would be expensive, due to the age of the artifact and suitable repair materials that would be required, however, subsequent estimates by the council are that it will be under $130 (100 GBP).

“My priority is to carefully carry out the treatment needed to restore this significant artifact so it can continue to be part of the fascinating story of Prittlewell Priory,” Reed commented.

"It is repairable, and that's the good thing," Reed said, adding reasonably, "You can put all the risk assessments in place but you really don't expect people to try to get into the artifacts."

However, the fact is that it will never be quite the same again.

The section to the right of the crack was intact before the incident (Image: Prittlewell Priory Museum)

The section to the right of the crack was intact before the incident (Image: Prittlewell Priory Museum)

It seems to be a hazard of the times that the overwhelming compulsion to get that quirky photo, usually seeking to impress or amuse your friends on social media, overshadows common sense and indeed, common decency and respect. Are these photographs really so valuable that the risk of damaging invaluable artifacts is so easily overlooked? Call me old fashioned, but I beg to differ.

It’s not just careless snapping that is detrimental to preservation of our past. Last month, Ancient Origins published an article, regarding an ancient quarry site in Pembrokeshire, Wales that had been used to provide stones for Stonehenge and is now being ‘damaged and looted’ by visitors. People seem blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions.

In a final dig at public which goes beyond thoughtlessness or carelessness, there was the damage caused by graffiti on the artifacts in Mesa Verdi last month.

I guess, as Mrs Reed philosophically put it, ‘accidents do happen’ and such damages have been ever-present over the millennia. But it sure does seem to be lamentable when archaeologists painstakingly uncover and clean artifacts, museum staff treasure them and a photo op puts them in such peril.

Although the coffin can be repaired and will soon be back on show, from now on the council plans to keep the coffin "completely enclosed" thus reducing access and enjoyment for thousands of future visitors.

With more and more people no longer being satisfied with enjoying an experience and having memories but feeling the need to document and publicize themselves in every experience they have, these ‘accidents’ are becoming more commonplace. Sharing is good but so is caring.

Unfortunately, the perpetrators seem to have become a little less keen to go public now and have yet to make themselves known. Still, I wonder if they got the shot.

Top image: A chunk came out of the coffin after visitors put a child inside it Image: Prittlewell Priory Museum

By Gary Manners

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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