Men have often been given the central position in many structures of society throughout history, in life, and death. Contrary to this, a recent archaeological excavation in Northamptonshire — which did not initially appear promising as the burial site was not located near any churches or ruins — has proven that women were not wholly dismissed and that some were held with profound commemoration.
In the village of Harpole, archaeologists discovered human teeth, shortly followed by the glint of gold from a fabulous necklace, and its wearer: the skeletal remains of a significant female. The discovery of the burial has changed our impression of the status of women in death.
The excavation team: Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and Archaeological Consultants RPS found this early medieval grave that consisted of a 1,300-year-old ornate necklace that has been hailed as a ‘truly once-in-a-lifetime discovery’ by one archaeologist, who worked on the excavation.
The woman is believed to have been buried between 630 and 670 AD. In the grave with her was an elaborate 30-piece necklace that included gold, garnets, Roman coins, and semi-precious stones. It has been said that the artifact is the most valuable necklace ever found in Britain. As well as this clear indicator of status, the grave also contained a large, decorated cross that was buried face-down, and it featured peculiar depictions of human faces out of silver with blue glass eyes. As stated by the leader of the dig, ‘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’. But what exactly makes this discovery, now known as the Harpole Treasure, so significant to history?
MOLA tells us that this incredible necklace is ‘the most ornate of its kind ever found.’ The chain tells us a lot: the gold was intricately wrought, and a lot of time and investment went into making it. This suggests that the female wearer was a woman of importance. The necklace's centerpiece is a large rectangular pendant with a cross motif. The Christian iconography, alongside the sheer size of the accompanying silver cross, suggests the woman buried here may have been an early Christian leader. She may have been an abbess or, more likely, very devout royalty.
This essential new burial site further confirms findings that there was an increase in investment in female burial furnishings between the 660s and the 680s AD, a most ‘intriguing and significant development’ for the period in Britain. This was a time when Britain was amidst a widespread but gradual conversion to Christianity. The first papal envoy, Augustine of Canterbury, came to Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons in Britain, arriving in Kent in 596 AD, only around thirty to seventy years before the Harpole woman’s burial.
It was in the previous fifth and sixth centuries that Anglo-Saxon furnished burial rites were a means by which families established their position. Items selected for burial represented the social identities, relationships, roles, and obligations. Later, in the seventh and early eighth centuries, we see the accumulation of landed wealth in female hands according to the same findings. Around half of the Kentish charters that pre-date 760 AD ‘are for women or women's foundations.’ As well as this, six out of twenty-two early charters from Mercia and the West Midlands were also for women, few of whom, as far as we know, were royal.
Moreover, it seems there was a correlation between landed wealth in female hands, particularly widows, and the elaborate nature of their furnished burials. If we consider the fact that this was a time of gradual change toward Christianity among Anglo-Saxons in Britain, as we touched upon earlier, it could be argued that female landowners employed a method of philanthropy and charity for churches and family-founded monasteries. This would be a mutual relationship as these wealthy female investors would be noted for their Christian virtue, as reflected in their burials. So, it could be said there was a tripartite system of family, wealth, and investment in the rise of Christianity that allowed the plucky new continental Roman faith to take a foothold in the kingdoms of Britain.
While this is what we can take away from the new burial evidence at Harpole, a further archaeological investigation will provide more answers to our burning questions. Currently, however, this evidence shows a unique period of religious reverence for the fairer sex.
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