Archaeologists have discovered a stunning 1,300-year-old necklace made of gold, garnets and other semi-precious stones at a dig in central England that is earmarked for a housing development.
The necklace and other precious items, dubbed the Harpole Treasure after the local Northamptonshire parish where they were unearthed in April, also revealed a powerful role played by some women in Anglo-Saxon England.
The jewel was buried with a high-status woman who died between AD 630 and 670, according to researchers at the Museum of London Archeology who excavated the treasure. The find also included a relatively large silver cross, two decorated pots and a shallow copper bowl.
The Anglo-Saxon jewelry suggested it was the woman powerful and extremely pious herself, perhaps an early Christian leader, princess or abbess.
The ornate gold necklace (left) is the centerpiece of the Harpole treasure found in central England by researchers at the Museum of London Archeology. The artifact is shown with its reconstruction. Recognition: MOLA/Hugh Gatt
The burial site is considered the most significant burial from a unique period of English history when pagan and Christian beliefs mixed and women held powerful positions in the early church.
About a dozen other high status female burials, known as bed burials, have been discovered elsewhere in England. In some cases, the tombs contained similar necklaces.
Few of these tombs predate the 7th century AD, when burials of men of high status were more common, and as Christianity took hold later tombs seldom contained valuable items, being decorated with ornate jewelry such as the Necklace burials were frowned upon by the early Christian church, said Lyn Blackmore, a senior finds specialist at MOLA.
“The Harpole Treasure isn’t the richest (bed burial) in terms of number of artifacts, but it is the richest in terms of investment of wealth … and it has the highest amount of gold and religious symbolism,” she said at one news briefing.
X-rays of blocks of earth removed from the burial site revealed an ornate but filigree cross cast in silver and mounted on wood. The artifact also had unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver.
Organic material found in the tomb is believed to include fragments of feathers and textiles such as leather, and further investigation should reveal the type of bed burial and whether it had a ceiling or canopy. The two pots are Frankish in style, Blackmore said, suggesting they may have come from present-day France or Belgium. The archaeologists hope molecular analysis will allow them to identify the remains in the pots; To date, their analysis has ruled out myrrh.
The skeleton itself was completely decomposed except for tiny fragments of tooth enamel, but the necklace and other features of the burial convinced archaeologists that its occupant was female, Blackmore said.
Opulent gold wealth
The discovery was made on April 11 but was made public for the first time on Tuesday.
The necklace is the most eye-catching of its kind found in large Britain, with 30 pendants and beads of gold, garnets, glass and semi-precious stones, strung together with Roman coins. The striking artifact was found on the penultimate day of an eight-week excavation, said Levente-Bence Balázs, the MOLA site manager, who first saw the treasure glistening in the ground.
He was digging up what was thought to be a rubbish pit when he came across the crowns of two teeth, suggesting some kind of burial. Then he saw the rectangular pendant that formed the center of the necklace.
“In 17 years of digging, this was the first time I’ve found gold. It’s not just the artifacts, it’s the sheer size of the find,” he said.
The excavation work was funded by housing company Vistry Group, which says it has renounced all rights to the artifacts, which now belong to the state.
The first residents of the housing development are due to move into their homes in two weeks and are still unaware of the treasure that lies beneath their community, said Daniel Oliver, regional technical director at Vistry West Midlands. Nothing has been built on the exact location of the burial, which will not be made public, he added.
The area where the burial site was found was otherwise unremarkable, with no mounds or other features marking the grave. Archaeologists working at the site said they have thoroughly surveyed the area and are confident there is nothing else to be found.
Officials of the Museum of London Archaeology said it would It took at least two years to study the finds, but hoped that Harpole’s treasure would eventually be put on public display.