Excavations in Northamptonshire in the UK have uncovered a rich female burial dating to the early medieval period.
The collection of grave goods – dubbed the ‘Harpole Treasure’ after the name of the local parish – was discovered by a team from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and has been dated to AD 630-670. The most spectacular feature of the burial is a necklace with at least 30 pendants and beads made of gold, garnets, Roman coins, glass, and semi-precious stones, with a rectangular pendant with cross motif, made of red garnets set in gold, at the centre. A few similar necklaces have been found previously in the UK but none as ornate as this: the Harpole necklace has been described as the richest of its type ever uncovered in Britain.
The other grave goods are still being investigated, but they are known to include two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish. Additionally, X-rays of a block of soil lifted from the grave have revealed a large, ornately decorated cross featuring unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver, perhaps indicating that this individual may have been an early Christian leader. The soil blocks are currently being micro-excavated, and the rest of the finds are also undergoing conservation and further examination.
The skeleton itself has fully decomposed, except for some small fragments of tooth enamel, but the style of burial and the objects accompanying it suggest that the grave belonged to a high-status woman, perhaps an abbess, a member of the royalty, or both. This find represents the most significant female burial from this period ever discovered in Britain, and will doubtless shed more light on both the role of women and the importance of Northamptonshire in this period. See the latest issue of our sister-magazine, Current Archaeology 395, for more information about this spectacular discovery.