Medieval female burial site found near Harpole is “the most significant ever discovered” in the UK

Archaeologists don’t often bounce with excitement, but the Museum of London’s archeology team couldn’t help themselves on Tuesday as they unveiled an “exhilarating” find made on the final day of an otherwise barren dig in the spring.

“This is the most significant early medieval female burial ever discovered in Britain,” said the head of the excavation, Levente Bence Balázs, almost jumping with exhilaration. “It’s an archaeologist’s dream to find something like this.”

“I was looking through a supposed waste pit when I saw the teeth,” added Balázs, his voice filled with emotion at the memory. “Then two golden objects appeared from the earth and glittered at me. These artifacts have not seen the light of day for 1,300 years and being the first person to see them is indescribable. But even then, we didn’t know how special this discovery would be.”

What Balázs had found was a woman buried between 630 and 670 AD, a woman buried in a bed next to an extraordinary necklace of 30 pieces of finely worked gold, garnets and semi-precious stones. It is, by a country mile, the richest necklace of its type ever discovered in Britain and reveals craftsmanship unprecedented in the early medieval period.

Buried with the woman was also a large ornately decorated cross, buried face down, another unique and mysterious feature of the tomb’s secrets, and with very unusual depictions of a human face in delicate silver with blue glass eyes. Two vases were buried next to her, also unique in that they still contain a mysterious residue yet to be analysed.

“This is a discovery of international importance. This discovery marked the course of history and the impact will become stronger the more we investigate this discovery deeper,” said Balázs. “These mysterious discoveries pose many more questions than they answer. There is still so much to find out about what we found and what it means.”

So much of April’s dig was inauspicious. The small, isolated Northamptonshire village of Harpole, whose name means ‘dirty pool’, was previously known only for its annual scarecrow festival and its proximity to one of the worst motorway service stations in the UK.

There were no ancient churches near the excavation or other burial sites. But thanks to developer-funded archeology practice, homebuilders at the Vistry Group commissioned a search of the area they were building on.

“I’ve been working for Vistry for 19 years and so I’ve interacted a lot with archaeologists,” said Daniel Oliver, regional technical director at Vistry. “I’m used to Simon [Mortimer, archaeology consultant for the RPS group] calling me with great excitement about pot shards. Beside him, Mortimer visibly stiffens in protest, and Oliver quickly adds, “Pot shards are very exciting, obviously.”

“The day the team discovered Harpole’s treasure, I received five missed calls from Simon on my phone,” Oliver said. “I knew then that it was about more than pot shards. As exciting as pot shards are.

The woman—and she is a woman, though only the crowns of her teeth remain—was almost certainly an early Christian leader of considerable personal wealth, possibly an abbess and princess. Lyn Blackmore, specialist on the Museum of London’s archeology team, said: ‘Women have been found buried next to swords, but men have never been found buried next to necklaces. Experts agree that she must have been one of the first women in Britain to ascend to a high position in the church.

Devout as it clearly was, her tomb is evidence of a changing era in which pagan and Christian beliefs were still evolving. “This is a fascinating burial of combined iconography. The bling of the burial has a distinctly pagan flavor to it, but the tomb is also heavily dressed in Christian iconography,” Mortimer said.

Vestry renounced his rights to the treasury, which now belongs to the state. The team hope it will be exhibited locally once conservation work is complete, a painstaking effort that will take at least another two years.

Oliver is wary of where the real dig site is. It has not been rebuilt, but it has likewise not been marked. “We don’t want people to come with metal detectors,” he said. “That would be a bit much.”

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