Archaeologists don’t often get excited, but the Museum of London’s team of archaeologists could hardly contain themselves on Tuesday as they unveiled a “intoxicating” discovery made on the final day of an otherwise fruitless spring dig.
“This is the most important early medieval female burial ever discovered in Britain,” said excavation director Levente Bence Balázs, almost bouncing with excitement. “It’s an archaeologist’s dream to find something like this.”
“I was looking through a suspected garbage pit when I saw teeth,” added Balázs, his voice shaking at the memory of emotion. “Then two golden objects emerged from the earth and glared at me. These artifacts have not seen the light of day for 1,300 years, and being the first person to see them is incredible. But even then we didn’t know how special this find would be.”
What Balázs found was a woman buried between AD 630 and 670 – a woman buried in a bed next to an extraordinary 30-piece necklace of intricately worked gold, garnets and semi-precious stones. It is by far the richest necklace of its kind ever discovered in Britain and reveals a level of craftsmanship unparalleled in the early Middle Ages.
Also buried with the woman was a large, ornate cross, buried face down, another unique and mysterious feature of the tomb’s mysteries, and with highly unusual depictions of a human face in delicate silver with blue glass eyes. Two pots were buried next to her, which are also unique as they still contain a mysterious residue that has yet to be analyzed.
“This is a find of international importance. This discovery kick-started the course of history, and the impact will be stronger as we examine this find more closely,” said Balázs. “These mysterious discoveries raise so many more questions than they answer. There is still so much to discover about what we have found and what it means.”
So much about the April dig was unfavorable. The small, remote Northamptonshire village of Harpole, whose name means ‘dirty pond’, was previously known only for its annual scarecrow festival and its proximity to what is arguably one of Britain’s worst motorway service stations.
There were no ancient churches near the excavation or other burial sites. But thanks to the practice of developer-funded archaeology, the home builders of the Vistry Group commissioned a search of the area they were building on.
“I’ve worked for Vistry for 19 years, so I’ve had a lot of contact with archaeologists,” said Daniel Oliver, Vistry’s regional technical director. “I’m used to Simon [Mortimer, archaeology consultant for the RPS group] calls me about pot shards in great excitement.” Beside him, Mortimer stiffens in visibly protesting, and Oliver quickly adds, “Pot shards are of course very exciting.”
“The day the team discovered the Harpole treasure, I had five missed calls from Simon on my cell phone,” Oliver said. “I knew then that there was more to this than broken potsherds. As exciting as potsherds are.”
The woman – and it is a woman, although only her crowns of teeth remain – was almost certainly an early Christian leader with considerable personal wealth, perhaps both an abbess and a princess. Lyn Blackmore, a specialist on the Museum of London’s archeology team, said: “Women have been found buried next to swords, but men have never been found buried next to necklaces.” Experts agree that she must have been one of the first women in Britain to ever reached a high position in the church.
As devout as she was, her grave testifies to a changing era when pagan and Christian beliefs were still in flux. “This is a fascinating burial with combined iconography: the grave decorations have a distinctly pagan flavor but the tomb is also heavily influenced by Christian iconography,” Mortimer said.
The sacristy has renounced its rights to the treasure, which now belongs to the state. The team hopes that it will be displayed on site once the conservation work is complete – an arduous undertaking that will take at least two more years.
Oliver is wary of where the actual dig site is. It’s not built over, but it’s not marked either. “We don’t want people coming with metal detectors,” he said. “That would be a bit much.”