A 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace found on 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 on Tuesday.
Experts say the necklace, which was unearthed along with other items near Northampton in central England, is part of the most important early medieval burial of a woman ever found in Britain
The woman is long gone – some tooth enamel is all that remains. But scientists say their long-buried treasure trove will shed new light on life in 7th-century England, a time when Christianity was battling paganism for people’s allegiance.
The items are “a clear testament to wealth and Christian faith,” said Lyn Blackmore, a senior finds specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology, who made the discovery.
“She was extremely religious, 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 north-west of London – was unearthed in April by archaeologists working with property developer Vistry Group in a neighborhood of new homes.
On one of the final days of the 10-week excavation, site manager Levente-Bence Balázs noticed something glistening in the dirt.
“When the first glimmers of gold emerged from the ground, we knew this was something significant,” Balázs said, according to the BBC. “However, we didn’t realize how special it was going to be.”
It turned out to be a rectangular cross-motif gold pendant studded with garnets – the centerpiece of a necklace that also included pendants of Roman gold coins and ovals of semi-precious stones.
“These artifacts have not seen daylight for more than 1,300 years,” Balázs said. “Being the first to actually see that – it’s just indescribable.”
Researchers say the burial took place between AD 630 and 670, the same period as several other graves of high-ranking women found across Britain. Previous high-ranking burials were mostly men, and experts say the change may reflect women’s rising power and status in England’s new Christian faith.
The kingdom of Mercia where the Treasure of Harpole was found converted to Christianity in the 7th century and the woman buried there was a believer, perhaps a leader of the faith. A large and ornate silver cross was placed on her body in the tomb. It is adorned with tiny, remarkably well-preserved images of human heads with blue glass eyes, possibly representing Christ’s apostles. Clay pots from France or Belgium were also found, containing residues of an unknown liquid.
Within a few decades, as Christianity spread in England, the practice of burying people with their luxuries died out.
“Burying people with lots and lots of jewelry is a pagan notion, but obviously that’s heavily influenced by Christian iconography, so it’s this time of pretty rapid change,” said Simon Mortimer of archaeological consultants RPS, who worked on the project .
Harpole’s discoveries will help fill in gaps in knowledge about the time between the departure of the Roman occupiers of Britain in the 5th century and the arrival of Viking invaders almost 400 years later. Experts say it is one of the most significant Saxon finds since the 7th-century ship burial found at Sutton Hoo, some 100 miles to the east, in the 1930s.
A handful of similar necklaces from the same period have previously been found in other regions of England, but none are as ornate as the “Harpole Treasure”, experts at the BBC have said. The closest parallel is the Desborough Necklace, found in Northamptonshire in 1876 and now in the British Museum collections.
Once the archaeologists have finished their work, the items will be displayed at a local museum.
Property developers in the UK are routinely required 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 that we wouldn’t normally have looked at,” he said, and as a result, “we’re finding really unexpected things.”
“The level of wealth will change our view of the early Middle Ages in this area,” he added. “The course of history was nudged a little by this find.”