Side-by-side images of necklace reconstruction and layout (all images © MOLA)

In the unassuming village of Harpole in the center of England’s Northamptonshire county, archaeologists made the discovery of a lifetime when they came across the burial site of an elite woman dating back to between 630 and 670 CE. Earlier this spring, in an excavation project orchestrated by the British construction company Vistry Group, a team of archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) examined a future housing development site only to find the minute remains of a woman on a bed accompanied by an extravagant gold necklace glimmering in the soil.

“I was looking through a suspected rubbish pit when I saw teeth,” Levente-Bence Balázs, leader of the dig, regaled during an interview with the Guardian. “Then two gold items appeared out of the earth and glinted at me. These artefacts haven’t seen the light of day for 1,300 years, and to be the first person to see them is indescribable. But even then, we didn’t know quite how special this find was going to be.”

In fact, it may be the most significant Early Medieval woman’s burial ever found in Britain, according to a MOLA statement.

Collection of pendants from the necklace (© MOLA and Andy Chopping)

The necklace is comprised of 30 beads and pendants made from gold, glass, garnet, Roman coins, and other precious stones. The central pendant is a large rectangular crucifix motif made from red garnet set in golden designs, with rows of gold spirals filling the windows of negative space. Such an elaborate piece would only be bestowed upon someone of utmost importance.

Other treasures from the grave site include two decorated pots, a shallow copper dish, and, upon an x-ray discovery of the area, an ornate cross accessorized with cast silver depictions of human faces. Such findings led the archaeologists and other field experts to conclude that the person who was buried possessed great power, wealth, and religious influence — she was “a very devout, high status woman such as an abbess, royalty, or perhaps even both,” MOLA said.

According to the museum, a few similar necklaces from this time period have previously been discovered in other regions of England, but none compare to the intricacy and preciousness of the one unearthed in Harpole. Simon Mortimer, an archaeology consultant on the project, described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery.

A reconstruction of the Harpole burial (image by Hugh Gatt)

The collection of precious objects, now known as the “Harpole Treasure,” is undergoing extensive conservation efforts and analysis to better understand their importance and use during the final rites of their high-profile owner.

“This woman probably belonged to the first generation of English Christians in this part of England,” Francis Young, a historian of religion who was not involved in the excavation, told the Washington Post. “This is people wanting to show off their newly acquired identity as Christians.”

Young mentioned that abbesses held property rights and were key characters in the spread of Christianity by enlisting missionaries for conversion efforts throughout the countryside. “It’s essentially about missionaries going out and persuading the local warlord, or king, that adopting Christianity is a good option to him,” Young elaborated. “Often, it will not be directly persuading him, but persuading his wife.”

Early next year, the Harpole Treasure will be featured in BBC Two’s Digging for Britain series, where viewers will be able to appreciate the history and conservation of this one-of-a-kind discovery.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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