LONDON (AP) – A 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace found on the site of a new housing development marks the grave of a powerful woman who may have been an early religious leader in Britain, archaeologists said on Tuesday.
Experts said the necklace, uncovered with other items near Northampton in central England, is part of the most significant early medieval burial of a woman ever found in the United Kingdom (UK).
The woman is long gone – some tooth enamel is all that remains. But scientists said her long-buried trove will shed new light on life in 7th Century England.
The items are “a definite statement of wealth”, said senior finds specialist at Museum of London Archaeology Lyn Blackmore, which made the discovery.
The Harpole Treasure – named for the village where it was found, about 96 kilometres northwest of London – was unearthed in April by archaeologists working with property developer Vistry Group on a neighbourhood of new houses.
On one of the last days of the 10-week dig, site supervisor Levente-Bence Balázs noticed something glinting in the dirt. It turned out to be a rectangular gold pendant, inlaid with garnets – the centrepiece of a necklace that also contained pendants fashioned from gold Roman coins and ovals of semiprecious stones.
“These artefacts haven’t seen daylight in more than 1,300 years,” Balázs said. “To be the first person to actually see it – it’s just indescribable.”
Researchers said the burial took place between 630 and 670 AD, the same period as several other graves of high-ranking women that have been found around Britain. Earlier high-status burials were mostly men, and experts said the change could reflect women gaining power and status.
The Harpole discoveries will help fill in gaps in knowledge about the era between the departure of Britain’s Roman occupiers in the 5th Century and the arrival of Viking raiders almost 400 years later. Experts said it’s one of the most significant Saxon finds since the 7th-Century ship burial found in the 1930s at Sutton Hoo, about 160 kilometres to the east.
Once archaeologists have finished their work, the plan is for the items to be displayed in a local museum.
Property developers in Britain routinely have to consult archaeologists as part of their planning process, and Mortimer said the practice has yielded some important finds.
“We are now looking at places we would never typically have looked at,” he said, and as a result “we are finding genuinely unexpected things”.
“The scale of the wealth is going to change our view of the early medieval period in that area,” he added. “The course of history has been nudged, ever so slightly, by this find.”