An elaborate and stylish necklace discovered at an early-Christian burial site dating back to the 7th century AD was revealed to the press on Tuesday by scholars at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).
Dubbed the “Harpole Treasure,” the necklace is unique because it likely belonged to a powerful female religious leader during a time when Christianity was beginning to take root in England and women were playing a vital role in spreading new religious practices.
The necklace recovered from the gravesite near Northampton in central England contains a prominent centerpiece designed with red garnets arranged in a cross motif. Surrounding the cross are 30 dangling pendants, eight of which are Roman gold coins and the rest unspecified cabochon-cut stones set in gold bezels.
MOLA specialists released a comparison image, which shows the necklace in its current state alongside a computer-generated rendering of what it looked like when it was brand new.
The Harpole Treasure, which dates to a period between 630 and 670 AD, was discovered on the next to the last day of an eight-week dig that was a routine part of the planning process required by property developers in the UK. The project was funded by the Vistry Group, which had been planning a housing development in the area. The treasure takes its name from the village where it was found.
“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, said in a statement.
A MOLA site supervisor, who believed he was sorting through an ancient rubbish pit, happened upon the necklace by accident.
At first, Levente-Bence Balázs came across the crowns of two teeth and then he saw a glint from the rectangular pendant that formed the centerpiece of the necklace.
“In 17 years of excavating sites, this was the first time I’ve found gold,” he told CNN. “It’s not just the artifacts, it’s the sheer magnitude of the find.”
The teeth and jewelry signaled to Balázs that he had discovered a burial site. Upon further excavation, the scientists were able to confirm that the jewelry was part of a “bed burial” ritual, where women of high status were buried in their beds along with valuable possessions.
In this case, the woman was surrounded by two decorated clay pots crafted in France or Belgium and a shallow copper dish. Also found near the body was an ornate silver cross cast with the likenesses of four human faces. This likely would have been placed on the devout woman’s chest during the burial.
MOLA’s senior finds specialist Lyn Blackmore told CNN that later Christian graves did not include jewelry because the practice of burying the dead with their valuables was frowned upon by the Christian Church.
All of the items unearthed at the Harpole site are being meticulously analyzed by MOLA conservators, who are hoping to find clues regarding how the objects were used in life or during burial rites.
British TV network BBC Two will be highlighting the Harpole Treasure on its series called Digging for Britain. The episode is set to air in January of 2023.
Credits: Images courtesy of the Museum of London Archaeology.