Face-to-face with the Trumpington bed burial teenager

A facial reconstruction of the early medieval teenager who was laid to rest in a bed burial in Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, has been carried out by forensic artist Hew Morrison for a new exhibition, ‘Beneath Our Feet: archaeology of the Cambridge region’, at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

The distinctive burial was first discovered among a small cluster of 7th-century graves on the edge of Trumpington, during excavations conducted by Cambridge Archaeological Unit between June 2010 and May 2011 (see CA 343). Aged around 16-18 years old when she died, the young woman was found on the remains of the bed with an elaborate array of grave goods, including an ornate gold and garnet cross. Oxygen and strontium isotope analysis of her teeth – conducted as part of a larger project by Dr Sam Leggett, Dr Alice Rose, and Dr Emma Brownlee – has revealed that she most likely spent her early childhood in southern Germany, probably near the Alps, before moving to England sometime after she turned seven. This is in keeping with burial practices associated with this part of the Continent, where a large number of bed burials from this period have been discovered. In contrast, only 18 other bed burials (usually containing the remains of women) are known from Britain.

Image: Hew Morrison © 2023

Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis revealed that the Trumpington woman’s diet changed along with her new surroundings. Instead of the protein-rich diet she had been consuming on the Continent, once in Britain she seems to have adopted local eating customs, which were primarily plant-based.

Describing her probable origins, Sam Leggett said: ‘it seems that she was part of an elite group of women who probably travelled from mainland Europe, most likely Germany, in the 7th century, but they remain a bit of a mystery. Were they political brides or perhaps brides of Christ? The fact that her diet changed once she arrived in England suggests that her lifestyle may have changed quite significantly.’

While the motivation behind the Trumpington teenager’s travels remains a mystery, we can piece together possibilities for what she looked like in life. Although aDNA analysis has not been undertaken, meaning that the colour of her eyes and hair remains unknown, it is possible to discern how her facial features may have appeared by combining skull measurements and average tissue-depth data for Caucasian females. Describing his reconstruction, Hew Morrison said: ‘It was interesting to see her face developing. Her left eye was slightly lower, about half a centimetre, than her right eye. This would have been quite noticeable in life.’

For more information about the exhibition, see https://maa.cam.ac.uk/whats_on/exhibitions/beneath-our-feet-archaeology-cambridge-region and p.62 of this issue, and watch out for our review in a future issue of CA.