Dig Unearths Find That 'Has Nudged the Course of History'

Medieval grave held gold, jewels, and perhaps one of the first female early Christian leaders in Britain
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 7, 2022 10:10 AM CST
This Medieval Grave Is an 'Archaeologist's Dream'
The necklace, at left, next to a depiction of what it may have looked like 1,300 years ago.   (MOLA/Hugh Gatt)

On one of the last days of an otherwise unexciting 10-week dig in Britain's Northamptonshire in April, Levente-Bence Balazs spotted teeth. Then the dig leader saw gold. What Balazs, of the Museum of London Archaeology, suspected to be a rubbish pit was, in fact, a grave dating back 1,350 years, "a find of international importance," inside of which lay the remains of a woman who may have been both a princess and an abbess, making her one of the first female leaders of the early Christian church in Britain. "This is the most significant early medieval female burial ever discovered in Britain," Balazs said at a Tuesday press conference, per the Guardian. "It is an archaeologist's dream to find something like this."

The woman, fully decomposed apart from tooth fragments, was buried in a bed in what's now the village of Harpole between AD630 and AD670—and with treasure. The glinting gold turned out to be from a 30-piece necklace made from Roman coins, garnets, and semiprecious stones, with an intricate centerpiece. "It is, by a country mile, the richest necklace of its type ever uncovered in Britain and reveals craftsmanship unparalleled in the early medieval period," per the Guardian. "These artifacts haven't seen the light of day for 1,300 years, and to be the first person to see them is indescribable," said Balazs, who also found a silver cross buried facedown, depicting a human face with blue glass eyes, and two pots from France or Belgium, containing residue still to be analyzed, per CBS News.

"This discovery has nudged the course of history, and the impact will get stronger as we investigate this find more deeply," said Balazs, per the Guardian. "There's so much still to discover about what we've found and what it means." Heritage consultant Simon Mortimer of RPS Group said the "once-in-a-lifetime discovery—the sort of thing you read about in textbooks" showed the "fundamental value of developer-funded archaeology," per the BBC. Homebuilding company Vistry Group had ordered the excavation ahead of a housing development. "Had they not funded this work, this remarkable burial may never have been found," Mortimer said. Vistry gave up any right to the treasure, which is to be donated to the Northamptonshire Archaeology Resource Centre, per the BBC. (More discoveries stories.)

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