The site at Harpole, a village four miles west of Northampton, had been a very straightforward excavation for the small team from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). Working ahead of a new housing development by Vistry Group, and supported by archaeological consultants RPS, they had already carried out geophysical surveys of the whole area, and in March and April 2022 they moved on to targeted excavation of the features identified by this preliminary work. For some weeks, they had been uncovering Iron Age and Roman remains: fairly typical domestic evidence, including ditches, pits, a couple of enclosures – not the main focus of a settlement, but traces of very everyday activity on the fringes of occupied areas. As the project drew to its end, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual – and then, on the penultimate day of digging, everything changed.
On 11 April, Site Supervisor Levente-Bence Balázs was overseeing the investigation of what was thought to be an interesting rubbish pit-type feature containing organic remains, but as the team carefully scraped back layers of soil, they found two gold items and pieces of human tooth enamel. It was quickly apparent that this was not a rubbish pit, but a grave. The archaeologists had uncovered the first hints of a discovery that would completely change perceptions of the site’s significance: the 1,300-year-old burial of a woman who had been laid to rest in ostentatious style, accompanied by the richest necklace of its type ever found in Britain. It was, Project Manager Paul Thompson said, ‘an exhilarating day’.
Reconstructing the Harpole Treasure
Now that all of the elements of the necklace have been recovered, it is possible to piece together the original appearance of the item, which has been dubbed the Harpole Treasure. Fortunately, the grave had been dug particularly deep, meaning that it had not been disturbed by ploughing over the years, and MOLA have been able to reconstruct the necklace’s likely design based on the position of each of its 30 components in the ground. These include nine oval pendants made from colourful glass and semi-precious stones set in gold, and eight late Roman coins. These were all issues of Theodosius I (r. 379-395), which MOLA finds specialist Lyn Blackmore notes are very rare in England, with only a handful noted in the most-recent survey (2010). The Harpole coins are in exceptionally good condition, suggesting that they had not circulated widely as currency. Instead, they may have been recovered from a hoard before being incorporated into the necklace, or carefully curated and passed down as heirlooms. It is also possible that they are later copies; analysis to determine this has not yet been done.
All of the coins bear the same design, with Theodosius’ profile on the obverse, and a motif depicting two seated emperors with a winged figure of Victory between them on the reverse. Because of how the clasps were fitted when the coins were turned into pendants, we can see which side was intended to be the ‘front’ on the necklace – and, interestingly, it is the reverse of the coins that was selected to face forwards. This might be because the imagery of the emperors, whose heads appear to be encircled by haloes, and the ‘angelic’ winged figure, were thought to be more appropriate for the religious theme of the necklace as a whole.
The wearer’s beliefs are expressed most clearly by the jewellery’s centrepiece: a roughly square gold pendant with red garnets forming a cross design. Like the coins, this was a repurposed piece: it appears to be half of a hinged clasp, not unlike a daintier version of the famous Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. On either side of this was a large, biconical bead made from wound gold wire, while ten smaller ones were interspersed through the rest of the necklace. Altogether, when new and sparklingly clean, this would have been a visually arresting piece of jewellery, flashing with colour and gleaming precious metal: an unmistakeable sign of both the status and the piety of its wearer.
As for the necklace’s date, it is thought to have been made c.AD 630-670, when Harpole lay within the early medieval kingdom of Mercia. There are a small number of parallels from Britain, the closest being the Desborough Necklace: another Northamptonshire discovery, it was found just 20 miles from Harpole in 1876 and is now held by the British Museum. Although the Desborough design was much simpler – albeit with more (37) components than the Harpole Treasure – it too was hung with a number of pendants, and included biconical gold beads and a central cross.
Laid to rest
The Harpole necklace was not the only unusual aspect of the burial. A number of iron fittings were found, spaced in a rectangular arrangement around the edge of the grave-cut, suggesting the presence of a long-decayed wooden frame. It may be that the burial’s occupant had been laid on some kind of bed or bier, and it is hoped that analysis of organic remains from the grave (which include traces of possible textile or leather) might reveal whether she had been given some kind of bedclothes or other covering. Bed burials are a particular phenomenon of the mid- to later 7th century, and are particularly associated with graves of elite women, some of whom were also interred with crosses intended to be worn on the person. Around 14 bed burials are known to-date; most of them fall into two distinct clusters, with five known in Wiltshire/Dorset and six in East Anglia, but there are single outliers in Derbyshire and Yorkshire (this last being the Street House burial; see CA 281).
Interpretation of the woman’s other grave goods is ongoing, but her status in life is already clear from such objects as a shallow copper bowl and two pots with incised decoration. The ceramics are thought to have been made in Francia (modern-day France or Belgium), and traces of residue inside them suggest that they had once held some kind of liquid – it is hoped that scientific analysis will reveal what this might have been.
Remaining in the laboratory, MOLA conservators are also currently working to tease apart blocks of soil that were lifted whole from the grave. One of these has already given up surprising secrets, as X-rays revealed that it contained a large and elaborately decorated cross. This artefact measures 30cm from top to bottom, and it is adorned with smaller cross motifs (an 8cm-wide example can be seen at its centre, with 4cm-wide ones at the end of each arm), as well as unusual human faces cast in silver. It is not known who these faces were meant to represent, but one of them has been micro-excavated so far, revealing it to have blue glass eyes. The cross had been placed face-down on the woman’s chest, and the MOLA team are excited to learn, once it has been fully removed from its surrounding soil, whether it is an equal-armed cross or shaped more like a crucifix. The latter design would invite comparisons with the ‘great cross’ that was found folded among the contents of the Stafforshire Hoard. Its size might suggest that it was not intended to be worn, but could have been carried in some kind of procession, and we will bring you more news about this object as its conservation progresses.
As for the woman with whom these splendid objects had been buried, very little of her physical form remained. Her skeleton had completely decomposed, other than fragments of tooth enamel, but her sex has been determined because, in other examples where human remains do survive, bed burials and necklaces are associated with biologically female individuals. As so few bed burials are known, and fewer still have been excavated under modern archaeological conditions, the Harpole woman and her artefacts represent an invaluable addition to this intriguing class of finds.
The richness of her grave goods speaks to another early medieval phenomenon that is still poorly understood. The late 6th and early 7th centuries were a time in which princely male burials flourished – see, for example, Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1, and the lavish graves at Taplow and Prittlewell (CA 352). A generation later, it was the turn of women to have their status expressed through luxurious burials. The mid- to late 7th century saw an apparent rise in elite female burials, prompting questions about gender roles in early medieval society, and the position of women in particular. It is hoped that analysing the Harpole finds could help to illuminate these apparent social changes.
This was a time of profound religious change, too: the Harpole woman lived and died around the time that Mercia officially converted to Christianity in AD 655. She was clearly someone of high social status, at least locally, and a woman of devout Christian faith. Given the presence of the large, ornate cross, might she also have been an early religious leader within the community – an abbess, local royalty, or both?
In this light, it might seem surprising that the area around her grave was completely unremarkable. Unlike the bed burial at Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, where a young woman with a gold-and-garnet cross had been interred within a small group of graves associated with a settlement (see CA 343), or the Street House burial, which was part of a larger cemetery, the Harpole woman appears to have been buried in complete isolation. There was no sign of any mound or other grave marker (although this could have been lost to the plough), and MOLA’s survey of the entire site has revealed no hint of any church, other structures, or cemetery in the immediate area. The burial’s position may have been carefully chosen, though: while this is not the highest spot in the landscape, Paul Thompson said, when seen from below, natural contours in the hillside guide the eye to its location.
The Harpole finds are undergoing the usual legal process according to the 1996 Treasure Act, after which it is hoped they might be acquired by a local museum (Vistry Group has waived any claim to the objects). Conservation is expected to take a couple of years, but the potential for this burial to add to our understanding of early medieval England and the re-emergence of post-Roman Christianity, is already clear. The artistry of the necklace, in particular, provides an invaluable complement to the male grave goods of Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1, and the mostly martial contents of the Staffordshire Hoard, bringing intriguing insights from the female sphere.
Given the care with which the Harpole woman had been laid to rest, and the valuable items that were chosen to accompany her, she was surely a respected person within her community – but in the years after her death, she was eventually forgotten, and the location of her grave lost to history for 1,300 years. One wonders if she would be pleased that, now that her burial has been rediscovered, its significance means that she is important once more, with her status and story being restored as research progresses.
Lyn Blackmore is a Senior Finds Specialist (Pottery and Finds) at MOLA.
Paul Thompson was MOLA’s Project Manager on the Harpole excavation.