LONDON (AP) — A 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace found at the site of a new housing development marks the grave of a powerful woman who may have been an early Christian religious leader in Britain, archaeologists said Tuesday.
Experts say the necklace, discovered with other items near Northampton in central England, is part of the most important early medieval burial of a woman ever found in the UK
The woman is long gone – some tooth enamel is all that remains. But scientists say her long-buried treasure will shed new light on life in 7th-century England, a time when Christianity battled paganism for people’s loyalty.
The items are “a clear statement of wealth and Christian faith,” said Lyn Blackmore, a senior finds specialist at Museum of London Archaeology, who made the discovery.
“She was extremely pious, but was she a princess? Was she a nun? Was she more than a nun—an abbess? … We don’t know,” Blackmore said.
The Harpole Treasure – named after the village where it was found, about 60 miles northwest of London – was excavated in April by archaeologists working with property developer Vistry Group on a neighborhood of new homes.
On one of the last days of the 10-week excavation, site manager Levente-Bence Balázs noticed something glistening in the dirt. It turned out to be a rectangular gold pendant with a cross motif inlaid with garnets – the centerpiece of a chain that also included pendants made from gold Roman coins and ovals from semi-precious stones.
“These artifacts haven’t seen the light of day for more than 1,300 years,” Balázs said. “To be the first person to actually see it — it’s just indescribable.”
Researchers say the burial took place between 630 and 670 AD, the same period as several other burials of high-ranking women found across Britain. Previous high-status burials have tended to be male, and experts say the change may reflect women gaining power and status in England’s new Christian faith.
The kingdom of Mercia, where the Harpole Treasure was found, converted to Christianity in the 7th century, and the woman buried there was a believer, perhaps a faith leader. In the tomb, a large and ornate silver cross was placed on her body. It is decorated with small, amazingly well-preserved images of human heads with blue glass eyes, which may represent the apostles of Christ. Clay pots from France or Belgium were also found, containing remnants of an unknown liquid.
Within a few decades, as Christianity became more widespread in England, the custom of burying people with their luxury goods died out.
“Burying people with lots and lots of bling is a pagan idea, but obviously this is heavily entrenched in Christian iconography, so it’s that period of pretty rapid change,” says Simon Mortimer of archaeological consultants RPS, who worked on the project.
The Harpole discoveries will help fill gaps in knowledge about the era between the departure of Britain’s Roman occupiers in the 5th century and the arrival of Viking raiders nearly 400 years later. Experts say it is one of the most important Saxon finds since the 7th-century ship burial found in the 1930s at Sutton Hoo, about 100 miles to the east.
Once archaeologists have completed their work, the objects are intended to be displayed in a local museum.
Property developers in Britain routinely need to consult archaeologists as part of their planning process, and Mortimer said the practice has yielded some important finds.
“We’re now looking at places we wouldn’t normally have looked at,” he said, and as a result “we’re finding really unexpected things.”
“The magnitude of the wealth will change our view of the early Middle Ages in that area,” he added. “The course of history has shifted somewhat because of this find.”