‘An archaeologist’s dream’: UK unveils medieval burial site with treasure trove

Britain Medieval Treasure
An early medieval gold and gemstone necklace is displayed during a photo call, in London, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. Archaeologists say a 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace found during construction of a housing development marks the grave of a powerful woman who may have been an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat or early Christian religious leader in Britain. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) Kin Cheung/AP

‘An archaeologist’s dream’: UK unveils medieval burial site with treasure trove

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The Museum of London Archaeology team unveiled what they are calling “an archaeologist’s dream:” the burial site of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon woman, in what has given archaeologists a window into the United Kingdom’s medieval past.

The unusual amount of treasure, relative to an early Christian burial, suggests she held a position of power, the Guardian reported. The heavy religious symbolism suggests she was a respected Christian leader, challenging previous assumptions that such positions were almost exclusively held by men at the time — around 630-670 A.D.

A necklace she was buried with is the most ornate and expensive uncovered in the U.K., made up of 30 pieces of gold, silver, and semiprecious stones. The immense wealth and historical implications are leading some experts to declare that the finding is the most important archaeological find in England since the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo burial site in 1939.

“This is a find of international importance. This discovery has nudged the course of history, and the impact will get stronger as we investigate this find more deeply,” Levente Bence Balazs, the leader of the dig, said. “These mysterious discoveries pose so many more questions than they answer. There’s so much still to discover about what we’ve found and what it means.”

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“This is the most significant early medieval female burial ever discovered in Britain,” he added. “It is an archaeologist’s dream to find something like this.”

The Harpole Treasure, as it is being called, contains Roman coins, pottery from contemporary Francia, and a large silver cross adorned with small human heads with blue glass eyes, which researchers believe may represent Christ’s apostles, the Associated Press reported. Aside from the eye-catching treasure, however, the burial is significant for what it means for historians’ understanding of early Anglo-Saxon Britain between the abandonment of Rome and the Viking invasions — a time with scant historical records.

The treasure is “a definite statement of wealth as well as Christian faith,” Lyn Blackmore, a senior finds specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology, told the Associated Press. “She was extremely devout, but was she a princess? Was she a nun? Was she more than a nun — an abbess? … We don’t know.”

The burial site itself represents the turbulent time period the woman lived in, where Christianity and Paganism were battling for the hearts and minds of the island’s inhabitants. The woman was buried in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia during the century of its gradual conversion to Christianity. The burial itself is a combination of Pagan and Christian practices; early Christianity generally frowned upon burials with great wealth, archaeologist Simon Mortimer explained — such practices were typically limited to Pagan extravagance. The Harpole Treasure, however, is one of the most lavish found in England, yet is characterized by overtly Christian imagery.

“This is a fascinating burial of combined iconography: the burial bling has a distinctly Pagan flavor, but the grave is also heavily vested in Christian iconography,” Mortimer said.

Balazs originally suspected that the site was simply a garbage pit until he saw the glitter of gold.

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“I was looking through a suspected rubbish pit when I saw teeth,” Balazs added, his voice catching with emotion at the memory. “Then two gold items appeared out of the Earth and glinted at me. These artifacts 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.”

Unfortunately, the subject of the burial has decomposed completely; all that remains are the crowns of her teeth. Despite the physical absence, the unknown woman has and will continue to help historians reach a much greater understanding of a period largely absent from historical records.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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