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‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ find of 1,300-year-old necklace dazzles historians

Left: A reconstructed necklace of gold and semiprecious stones, dating to 630-670 AD, was found at a burial site near Northampton in England. Right: A rendering of what the necklace is believed to have looked like then. (Courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology)

LONDON — A 1,300-year-old necklace beaded with gold and semiprecious stones has been discovered in an early-Anglo Saxon burial site under a construction project in central England. The location is being hailed as the most significant female burial site from the era discovered in Britain.

“This find is truly a once-in-a-lifetime discovery — the sort of thing you read about in textbooks and not something you expect to see coming out of the ground in front of you,” archaeologist Simon Mortimer, who worked on the excavation, said in a statement announcing the find.

The necklace, believed to belong to a devout medieval woman, almost certainly an aristocrat, shines new light on the spread of early Christianity through medieval Europe and offers a glimpse into the role played by elite women in forging England’s Christian identity, experts say.

The jewelry piece, dating to between 630 and 670 AD, was discovered at a gravesite near Northampton this year, and archaeologists announced the details of the find Tuesday. The necklace contains 30 trinkets, including four garnets set in gold, five glass pendants, eight Roman gold coins, and 12 beads, all set around an intricate rectangular pendant marked with a cross motif.

“It wasn’t just one or two items. That would have been incredible in its own,” Paul Thompson, who managed the excavation, told The Washington Post. “We have here the only complete example of this type of necklace excavated in modern archaeological standards. … It’s an asymmetrical set-out of the gold coins, and the precious stones mounted in gold, which we haven’t seen before.”

The item’s centerpiece is a crucifix pendant formed of red garnets and believed by archaeologists to have originally formed half of a hinged clasp before being repurposed into wearable jewelry.

The artifacts, which also contain two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish, have been dubbed the Harpole Treasure, after the name of a nearby village.

The buried woman’s identity is not known, but she is thought likely to have been either an abbess or member of Saxon royalty — if not both. Her skeleton, which was found under the site of a future housing development, was fully decomposed apart from tiny fragments of surviving tooth enamel, said officials at the Museum of London Archaeology, which led the excavation.

Archaeologists also identified deeper in the soil a second decorated cross with the help of X-ray technology. That item features at least four human faces cast in silver and set around the crucifix — a highly unusual detail.

Experts have hailed the find as particularly significant evidence of the role played by elite women at the time. “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 Post. “This is people wanting to show off their newly acquired identity as Christians.”

“We know about these people from deeds, from literary sources, from hagiographies, but very often we don’t have much material evidence for their existence,” he said, adding that these aristocratic women played a central role in spreading new religious practices: “There is a form of soft power exercised by these queens.”

Abbesses at the time had their own land holdings and property rights, Young said, and so were able to create and lead monastic sites where Christians could be deployed to convert the people in the surrounding countryside. “It’s essentially about missionaries going out and persuading the local warlord, or king, that adopting Christianity is a good option to him. Often, it will not be directly persuading him, but persuading his wife.”

“Christianity provided a way for women to gain independence and power in their own right, by enabling them to run monastic houses, so we see an increase in elite women using Christianity as a means of increasing their status,” Emma Brownlee, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, told The Post. “In this burial, we’re seeing a particularly fine example of that process.”

Conservators continue to examine the artifacts, paying particular attention to traces of organic remains that have been found both around the burial site and on the surface of the artifacts themselves — suggesting the woman’s corpse was buried on a softly furnished bed. Excavators have already discovered iron fittings and staining from a timber bed frame at the site.

“Bed burials are quite a rare form of burial, in England exclusive to women, probably Christian women, in the conversion period,” Brownlee added. “The ritual of burying someone in a bed was most likely imported into England as part of the Christianization process, and some women buried in beds were likely women who migrated from continental Christian areas into England as part of the conversion process.”

A number of similar necklaces from this era have been discovered in England before, the archaeologists say, but none are as ornate as the Harpole Treasure. Its closest equivalent is the late-7th-century Desborough Necklace, which was found in Northamptonshire in 1876 and is held in the British Museum.