Elite early medieval burial uncovered in Northamptonshire

‘This is an exciting find which will shed considerable light on the significance of Northamptonshire in the Saxon period.’

The 7th-century grave of an elite woman who had been laid to rest with stunning grave goods – among them a necklace made of gold, garnets, and Roman coins – has been unearthed in Harpole, Northamptonshire.

Reconstruction of the Harpole burial. IMAGE: © MOLA/Hugh Gatt

The discovery was made by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), with support from Archaeological Consultants, RPS, ahead of a Vistry Group housing development just outside Northampton.

It has been described as the ‘most significant’ early medieval female burial ever discovered in Britain, and the assemblage of grave goods has been named the ‘Harpole Treasure’.

‘When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant. However, we didn’t quite realise how special this was going to be,’ said MOLA Site Supervisor Levente-Bence Balázs.

Collection of pendants from the necklace. IMAGE: © MOLA/Andy Chopping

Dated to c.630-670 AD, the necklace comprises at least 30 items, including pendants made from Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass, and semi-precious stones, as well as gold beads.

A rectangular pendant made of red garnets set in gold and bearing a cross motif forms its centrepiece. It is thought the pendant may have originally been one half of a hinged clasp.

Though a few similar necklaces have been discovered in other regions of England, notably the Desborough Necklace, also from Northamptonshire, none are as ornate as the Harpole example.

Reconstruction of the necklace (right). IMAGE: © MOLA/Hugh Gatt

Other grave goods include two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish. X-rays of blocks of grave soil also revealed a large and ornately decorated cross featuring unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver, leading to suggestions that the burial may be that of a devout, high-status woman – perhaps an abbess, local royalty, or both.

The finds are currently undergoing conservation and analysis by MOLA Conservators. It is hoped that, should organic residues be detected, the research will shed light on how these artefacts were used in life or as part of a burial ritual.

Human face cast in silver found on the cross feature. IMAGE: © MOLA

Liz Mordue, Archaeological Advisor for West Northamptonshire Council, said: ‘This is an exciting find which will shed considerable light on the significance of Northamptonshire in the Saxon period.’

The Harpole Treasure, which is currently going through the Treasure process (see www.finds.org.uk/treasure), will be featured in the next series of Digging for Britain on BBC Two.

For more information about this incredible discovery, see: