Riches and ritual uncovered in England

Archaeologists from MOLA were excavating the site in Northamptonshire when they uncovered a group of some 30 pendants, other grave goods, and fragments of tooth enamel in a grave.

A remarkable early medieval necklace, with gold, garnets, glass, and semi-precious stones, has been discovered in a high-status burial in Northamptonshire, England.

The pendants found in a high-status early medieval grave in Harpole, Northamptonshire. Image: © MOLA (Hugh Gatt)

Archaeologists from MOLA were excavating the site at Harpole, Northamptonshire, on behalf of Vistry Group and archaeological consultants RPS ahead of a housing development, when they uncovered a group of some 30 pendants, other grave goods, and fragments of tooth enamel in a grave. The find has been dated to AD 630-670, a time when the site was part of the kingdom of Mercia.

Other than the fragments of enamel, no skeletal remains survived, but the team believe that it is most likely a female burial, as this is the context in which most similar necklaces from this period have been found. Still, the example from Harpole is, according to MOLA, the richest of its kind. 

A Bronze Age round barrow (in which no human remains were found) that was excavated near a natural spring in Overstone. Image: © MOLA

The necklace featured a variety of pendants, including some with coloured glass and semi-precious stones set in gold, and some coins of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (r. AD 379-395) with fittings attached. The glittering centrepiece is a large pendant with garnets set in gold arranged into a cross motif; it may have been half of a hinge-clasp, repurposed into a pendant.

Blocks of soil have been lifted from the site for micro-excavations in a laboratory. X-rays of one block, which contains wood and silver, revealed the outline of what must be a very large silver cross mounted on wood, with depictions of human faces at the end of two of its arms. So far, a garnet in the centre of the cross has been uncovered. The silver cross and its substantial size suggest that the owner could have been an early Christian leader, possibly an abbess or royalty, or both. As Christianity spread across southern and eastern Britain during the late 6th and 7th centuries, related material appeared in high-status burials like this.

The lavish necklace, this cross, and two decorated copper pots and a shallow copper dish that were also unearthed, have led archaeologists to describe this as the most significant early medieval female burial found in Britain. Research and conservation of the finds, which the Vistry Group say will be given to the nation, continues.

X-ray revealed a large cross in a block of soil from Harpole that is being micro-excavated. Image: © MOLA

Elsewhere in Northamptonshire, MOLA archaeologists have been excavating at Overstone ahead of another housing development, by Taylor Wimpey and Vistry Group. Here, they have unearthed a ritual centre around a natural spring, an area that appears to have been in use for more than 2,000 years.

The first sign of ritual activity comes in the form of a Bronze Age round barrow, or burial mound, built c.2000-1500 BC. Yet, curiously, archaeologists found no human remains, only five empty urns. Simon Markus, project manager at MOLA, said, ‘The fact no human remains were placed within the barrow suggests it may have had a more symbolic rather than functional use. It seems very likely this landscape was already a highly significant place for local ancient communities, and those pre-existing associations led people in the Bronze Age to pick this site for the construction of a ritual monument.’

Later, during the Roman period, a stone building with an underground room was erected and decorated with painted plaster. Archaeologists have interpreted this unusual building as a shrine associated with the spring. No votive offerings that might be expected have been found, but from the bottom of large Roman tanks (in which water from the spring was collected for activities like grain-processing) a well-preserved leather shoe, tree blossom, pine cones, and walnut shells have been recovered.