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“Once-in-a-lifetime” 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace discovered within internationally significant female burial

RPS is delighted to have supported the discovery of what is believed to be the most significant female Early Medieval burial ever discovered in Britain.

07 December 2022 | 4 min read

RPS is delighted to have supported the discovery of what is believed to be the most significant female Early Medieval burial ever discovered in Britain.

The necklace, dated to 630 – 670 AD, is part of an elite female burial containing other intriguing grave goods that are still being investigated.

Archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) have uncovered an astonishing 1,300-year-old necklace in Northamptonshire. The discovery was made during excavations that took place ahead of a Vistry Group housing development, supported by Archaeological Consultants, RPS.

This necklace is the richest of its type ever uncovered in Britain with at least a staggering 30 pendants and beads made of Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semi-precious stones. It was found as part of a high-status female burial containing other intriguing grave goods that are still being investigated. The collection of finds has been dubbed the ‘Harpole Treasure’, based on the name of the local parish. Experts believe this is the most significant female burial from the era ever discovered in Britain.

MOLA Site Supervisor, Levente-Bence Balázs, who led a team of 5 that made the discovery says: “When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant. However, we didn’t quite realise how special this was going to be. We are lucky to be able to use modern methods of analysis on the finds and surrounding burial to gain a much deeper insight into the life of this person and their final rites.”

A rectangular pendant with a cross motif forms the centrepiece of the necklace and is the largest and most intricate element. Made of red garnets set in gold, MOLA specialists believe it was originally half of a hinged clasp before it was re-used.

The burial also contained two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish. However, x-rays taken on blocks of soil lifted from the grave revealed a further tantalising find - a striking and elaborately decorated cross, featuring highly unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver. The soil blocks are currently being micro-excavated by MOLA Conservators, but this large and ornate piece suggests the woman may have been an early Christian leader.

The skeleton itself has fully decomposed (with the exception of tiny fragments of tooth enamel). However, the combination of grave goods suggest this was a high status woman such as an abbess, royalty or perhaps even both.

RPS Archaeology Consultant Simon Mortimer says: “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. It shows the fundamental value of developer-funded archaeology. Vistry's planned development provided a unique opportunity to investigate this site. Had they not funded this work this remarkable burial may never have been found.”

Painstaking work is being undertaken by MOLA Conservators to examine and conserve the finds. This includes identifying and recording traces of organic remains within the burial and on the surface of the artefacts. It is possible the deceased was placed on a bed within the grave and traces of soft furnishings may be found. Analysis could also detect residues that show how artefacts were used in life or in the burial ritual.

Surprisingly, the area surrounding the elite burial was completely unremarkable. One other burial was present nearby but did not contain any high-status grave goods nor has been firmly dated. Having surveyed the entire site, archaeologists are confident there is nothing else to find.

A handful of similar necklaces from this time have previously been discovered in other regions of England, but none are as ornate as Harpole. The closest parallel is the Desborough necklace, found in Northamptonshire in 1860 and now in the British Museum’s collections.

Daniel Oliver, Regional Technical Director at Vistry West Midlands says: “Vistry are pleased to confirm that these internationally important artefacts will be gifted to the nation and any rights to the Treasure have been waived. We are very conscious of the legacy that we leave amongst the communities that we build. Having personally seen this Treasure on site I couldn’t be more excited to see how much more has been learned already – it is amazing.”

The Harpole Treasure will be featured in BBC Two’s Digging for Britain, where Professor Alice Roberts will be getting an exclusive look at this extraordinary find and delving deeper into the ongoing conservation and analysis. The new series of Digging for Britain starts on BBC Two in early January 2023.

Liz Mordue, Archaeological Advisor for North Northamptonshire Council concludes: “This is an exciting find which will shed considerable light on the significance of Northamptonshire in the Saxon period. It also serves as a reminder of the importance of archaeology in the planning and development process.”

About RPS

Founded in 1970, RPS, A Tetra Tech Company (RPS) is a leading global professional services firm of 5,000 consultants and service providers. Operating in 125 countries, working across six continents we define, design and manage projects that create shared value to a complex, urbanising and resource-scarce world.

RPS delivers a broad range of services in six sectors: property, energy, transport, water, defence and government services and resources. Services provided across RPS' six sectors cover twelve service clusters: project and program management, design and development, water services, environment, advisory and management consulting, exploration and development, planning and approvals, health, safety and risk, oceans and coastal, laboratories, training and communications, creative and digital services.

RPS stands out for its clients by using its deep expertise to solve problems that matter, making them easy to understand. Making complex easy.

For further information, please visit www.rpsgroup.com.