Medieval necklace found near Northampton ‘of international importance’

The 1,300-year-old necklace was found in an early medieval burial site in Northamptonshire

Archaeologists have found a ‘one-in-a-lifetime’ gold necklace dating from 630-670 AD and described as the richest of its kind ever found in Britain.

The jewels, found near Northampton, include at least 30 pendants and beads made from Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semi-precious stones.

The 1,300-year-old object was spotted in a grave believed to be that of a high-ranking woman, like royalty.

Experts hailed the discovery over the summer as being of international significance.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeology (Mola) found the necklace during excavations before a housing estate in Harpole, west of Northampton.

“When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the ground, we knew it was something big,” said Levente-Bence Balazs, who led a team of five from Mola.

“However, we had no idea how special it was going to be.

“We are fortunate to be able to use modern methods of analyzing the finds and surrounding burials to better understand this person’s life and last rites.”

Uncovered necklace

First glimpses of the necklace are carefully revealed by archaeologists

The rectangular pendant with a cross motif forms the centerpiece of the necklace and is the largest and most complex element.

Made of red garnets set in gold, Mola scholars believe it was originally half a hinged clasp before it was repurposed.

The burial also contained two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish.

However, x-rays taken from blocks of earth lifted from the tomb also revealed an elaborately decorated cross, with highly unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver.

Mola restorers said the large ornate piece suggested the woman may have been an early Christian leader.

Curator Liz Barham is working on the burial

Curator Liz Barham was one of many working on the burial finds

Experts said the skeleton had completely decomposed except for tiny fragments of tooth enamel. However, the combination of burial finds suggested that it was a very pious woman of high rank, such as an abbess, royalty, or possibly both.

Harpole's funeral reconstruction

An artist’s impression shows what the high-ranking woman’s grave may have looked like

A handful of similar necklaces from this era have already been discovered in other parts of England, but none are as ornate as the ‘Harpole hoard’, experts added.

The closest parallel is the Desborough necklace, found in Northamptonshire in 1876 and now in the collections of the British Museum.

Simon Mortimer, RPS Archeology Consultant, said: “This find is truly a once-in-a-lifetime find – the kind of thing you read about in textbooks and not something you expect to come out of the ground in front of you.

“It shows the fundamental value of developer-funded archaeology. Had they not funded this work, this remarkable burial may never have been found.”

Chronology of the medieval period:

• 410 AD: end of Roman rule over Great Britain

• 5th-6th centuries: Inhabitants of modern Germany, southern Scandinavia and the Netherlands settle in southern and eastern Great Britain

• Late 6th to 7th century: Christianity gradually spreads in southern and eastern Britain and begins to appear in elite burials

• 640-680 AD: The Harpole Treasure, a high-ranking burial, is buried in Northamptonshire

• 793 AD: A Viking raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne, off the coast of present-day Northumberland, marks the start of Viking raids on Britain.

• 899 AD: King Alfred the Great dies

• 1066 AD: William the Conqueror defeats Harold and becomes King of England, ending the early medieval period

Conservators continue to examine and preserve the finds, which will be donated to the Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre.

Liz Mordue, Archaeological Advisor for West Northamptonshire Council, said: “This is an exciting find which will shed considerable light on Northamptonshire’s significance in Saxon times.”

The finds will be featured on BBC Two’s Digging for Britain in January, with Professor Alice Roberts getting an exclusive look at the objects and deepening the ongoing conservation and analysis.

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