The necklace, thought to have belonged to a pious medieval woman, almost certainly an aristocrat, sheds new light on the spread of early Christianity in medieval Europe and offers a glimpse of the role played by elite women in its creation of England’s Christian identity, experts say.
The jewel, which has been dated between 630 and 670 AD, was discovered at a burial site near Northampton this year, and archaeologists on Tuesday announced the details of the find. The necklace contains 30 pieces of jewellery, including four garnets set in gold, five glass pendants, eight gold Roman coins and 12 pearls, all arranged around an intricate rectangular pendant with a cross motif.
“It wasn’t just one or two items. That would have been incredible in itself,” Paul Thompson, who led the dig, told the Washington Post. “We have here the only complete example of this type of necklace excavated according to modern archaeological standards. … It’s an asymmetrical arrangement of the gold coins and the gems set in gold that we’ve never seen before.”
The centerpiece of the item is a red garnet crucifix pendant that archaeologists believe originally formed half of a hinged clasp before being repurposed into wearable jewelry.
The artifacts, which also include two decorated pots and a shallow copper bowl, were named Harpole Treasure after the name of a nearby village.
The identity of the buried woman is not known, but it is believed that she was either an abbess or a member of the Saxon royal family – if not both. Her skeleton, found beneath the site of a future housing development, was completely decomposed except for tiny fragments of surviving enamel, officials at the Museum of London Archeology, which led the excavation, said.
Archaeologists also identified a second ornate cross deeper in the ground using X-ray technology. This item features at least four human faces cast in silver arranged around the crucifix – a most unusual detail.
Experts have hailed the find as particularly significant evidence of the role of elite women at the time. “This woman probably belonged to the first generation of English Christians in this part of England,” Francis Young, a historian of religion who was not involved in the dig, told The Post. “These are people who want to show off their newfound identity as Christians.”
“We know these people from deeds, from literary sources, from hagiographies, but very often we don’t have much material evidence of their existence,” he said, adding that these aristocratic women played a central role in the spread of new religious practices: “There’s a kind of soft power exercised by these queens.”
Abbesses at this time had their own lands and property rights, Young said, and were therefore able to create and run monastic sites where Christians could be deployed to proselytize the people of the surrounding countryside. “It’s basically about missionaries going out and convincing the local warlord or king that adopting Christianity is a good option for them. Often it will not convince him directly, but his wife.”
“Christianity offered women the opportunity to gain independence and power of their own by enabling them to run monastic houses. So we’re seeing an increase in elite women using Christianity as a means of elevating their status,” Emma Brownlee, archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, told The Post. “In this funeral we see a particularly beautiful example of this process.”
Conservators continue to examine the artifacts, paying particular attention to traces of organic remains found both around the burial site and on the surface of the artifacts themselves – suggesting the woman’s body was buried on a softly furnished bed. Excavators have already discovered iron fittings and stains from a wooden bed frame at the site.
“Bed burials are a fairly rare form of burial, in England exclusively women, probably Christian women, at the time of conversion,” Brownlee added. “The ritual of burying someone in a bed was most likely imported into England as part of the Christianization process, and some women buried in beds were likely women who migrated to England from continental Christian areas as part of the conversion process.”
A number of similar necklaces from this era have been previously discovered in England, the archaeologists say, but none are as elaborate as the Harpole Treasure. The closest equivalent is the late 7th-century Desborough Necklace found in Northamptonshire in 1876 and preserved in the British Museum.