Excavations at a residential site in the UK reveal important 7th-century treasures

LONDON (AP) – A 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace found on the site of a new housing estate marks the grave of a powerful woman who may have been one of the first Christian religious leaders in Britain, archaeologists said Tuesday.

Experts say the necklace, discovered along with other items near Northampton in central England, is part of the most significant early medieval burial of a woman ever found in the UK

The woman is long gone: a little tooth enamel is all that’s left. But scientists say her long-buried treasure will shed new light on life in 7th-century England, a time when Christianity was battling paganism for people’s allegiance.

The objects are “a clear statement of wealth and Christian faith,” said Lyn Blackmore, a finds specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology, which made the discovery.

“She was extremely devoted, but was she a princess? Was she a nun? Was she more than a nun, an abbess? … We don’t know,” Blackmore said.

The Harpole Hoard, named after the village where it was found, about 60 miles (96 kilometres) northwest of London, was unearthed in April by archaeologists working with property developer Vistry Group in a neighborhood of new homes.

On one of the last days of the 10-week excavation, site supervisor Levente-Bence Balázs noticed something glittering in the earth. It turned out to be a rectangular gold pendant with a cross motif, inlaid with garnets, the centerpiece of a necklace that also contained pendants made from gold Roman coins and ovals of semi-precious stones.

“These artifacts haven’t seen the light of day in more than 1,300 years,” Balázs said. “Being the first person to actually see it — it’s just indescribable.”

The researchers say the burial took place between AD 630 and 670, the same time period as many other high-ranking women’s graves that have been found in Britain. Previously high-ranking burials were mostly men, and experts say the change may reflect women’s gaining power and status in England’s new Christian faith.

The Kingdom of Mercia, where the Harpole hoard was found, converted to Christianity in the 7th century and the woman buried there was a believer, possibly a religious leader. A large ornate silver cross was placed over her body in her grave. It is adorned with surprisingly well-preserved tiny likenesses of human heads with blue glass eyes, which may represent Christ’s apostles. Terracotta pots from France or Belgium have also been found, containing residues of an unknown liquid.

Within a few decades, as Christianity spread more widely in England, the practice of burying people with their luxury goods died out.

“Burying people with lots of bling is a pagan idea, but that’s obviously strongly tied to Christian iconography, so it’s that period of pretty rapid change,” said Simon Mortimer of archaeological consultants RPS, who worked on the project.

Harpole’s findings will help fill the gaps in knowledge of the era between the departure of Britain’s Roman occupiers in the fifth century and the arrival of Viking raiders nearly 400 years later. Experts say it’s one of the most significant Saxon finds from the 7th-century ship burial found in the 1930s at Sutton Hoo, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) to the east.

Once the archaeologists have finished their work, the plan is for the items to be displayed in a local museum.

Property developers in Britain must regularly consult archaeologists as part of their planning process, and Mortimer said the practice has yielded some important finds.

“Now we’re looking at places that we normally would never have seen,” he said, and as a result “we’re finding really unexpected things.”

“The extent of the wealth will change our view of the early medieval period in that area,” he added. “The course of history has been changed slightly by this discovery.”

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