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The Harpole Treasure: the find of a lifetime

We spoke with RPS’ Deputy Operations Director, Simon Mortimer, and Vistry’s regional technical director, Daniel Oliver to learn about the significance of the Harpole Treasure find, and the value they both place on developer-funded archaeology as a route to discover these hidden treasures.

08 February 2023 | 6 min read
Simon Mortimer

UK

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Nudging the course of history

“I knew it was a find that would nudge the course of history. If only just a little”.

The words of RPS’ Deputy Operations Director, Simon Mortimer—an archaeologist who’s just had the find of his life.

Funded by our client, Vistry Group, Simon and colleagues from our Archaeology team assisted archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) in uncovering an astonishing 1,300-year-old necklace in Northamptonshire. Discovered within an internationally significant female burial, the gold and gemstone necklace is the richest of its kind ever found.

Now dubbed the ‘Harpole Treasure’, the necklace is made up of at least 30 pendants and beads made of Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass, and semi-precious stones. The discovery was made on the last day on-site, where it had been walked over hundreds, if not thousands of times, as an unremarkable pit.

The woman was also buried with a large decorated cross, another unique and mysterious feature of the grave's secrets. The cross itself featured highly unusual depictions of human faces in delicate silverThe sheer size of the cross suggests the woman buried may have been an early Christian leader.

We caught up with Simon, and Vistry’s regional technical director, Daniel Oliver to learn about the significance of this find, and the value they both place on developer-funded archaeology as a route to discover these hidden treasures.

 

RPS and Vistry: A decade-long relationship

Simon has worked with Vistry’s Daniel Oliver for the best part of a decade.

Over the course of those years, Simon and Dan have built an extraordinary working relationship. But where they had their first get-together was perhaps less so.

Enter Dan: “It was at a local Harvester. It was probably the least exciting venue we’ve been to, but an incredibly informative meeting. I understood in-depth what Simon did and the multi-disciplinary services available to us through RPS.

“Archaeology is such a specialist area—maybe more so than some of the other-ologies. What Simon does is invaluable to us, providing robust advice around archaeological risks to cost and programme before we buy sites, and then managing discharge of conditions on our behalf.

“We always know Simon will protect our interests—frequently by telling us things that we need to know but don’t always want to hear. Ten years on this is something we’re reaping the rewards of, time and time again across numerous projects between RPS and Vistry”.

Simon adds: “I’m certain that developer-funded archaeology is a misunderstood but priceless process, something that has been really highlighted with this find. 

“In the case of the Harpole Treasure, the MOLA team had no reason to suspect that anything of real value was buried in the area. They were in Harpole because of the routine practice of developer-funded archaeology. Here, as part of the planning process developers are required to assess sites (through desk-based research and non-intrusive survey), and to fund trenching and further digs if necessary.

“The process allows certainty for all parties—rather than what used to happen with rescue archaeology, where archaeologists rushed to a site when machinery unearthed artefacts.

“The Harpole Treasure is the perfect example of how developer-funded archaeology has revolutionised our understanding of the past. Found on the last day, it completely changed the perception of the site’s significance.”

A personable service

Dan describes the events on that day: “I was stuck in a meeting, but I checked my phone to see five missed calls from Simon. When we eventually did speak, I could just feel the enthusiasm and excitement and knew this was going to be massive.

“The fact that we’ve built up such a rapport and relationship over the years means there’s a lot of trust between us, as friends and as client and consultant. So, with Simon talking with such elation about the significance of the discovery, I knew this was an opportunity we’d never experienced before and more than likely were never going to experience again. I got to the site as quickly as I could.

“Being one of the first people in thousands of years to be able to hold this jewel was an indescribable feeling.

“Clients aren’t typically on site when artefacts are found—but this was different. Simon went out of his way, for me, on behalf of Vistry, to be fully involved in the discovery process. It goes beyond a working relationship, and the personable service and attention to detail is something I’d love to highlight about Simon and the team at RPS.”

Necklace layout with artefacts
© MOLA (Hugh Gatt)

Trust, likeability and reliability

What has been the key to the success of the relationship between RPS and Vistry?

Dan answers: “For me, it comes down to three key factors: trust, likeability, and doing a great job, every time. Simon and the team have those three factors in absolute abundance. I work across the UK, and I’m always keen to speak with Simon about what other disciplines RPS has that could be of benefit to Vistry up and down the country.

“This is evidenced in our last two big pieces of work, where we’ve used RPS planners, engineers, and the housing development team, all off the back of my relationship with Simon. The proof, they say, is in the pudding”.

International importance

Finally, what has it been like for Dan and Simon to be at the centre of such a huge story?

Simon’s most surreal moment came while he was making some toast, when he took a call from the New York Times.

“That brought home the reach of this find—which is certainly the biggest I have ever been involved with, and up there in terms of online reaction to any RPS story I know of.”

Dan was pleased to confirm the find didn’t stop any work on site. Vistry waived any rights to the treasure, which now belongs to the state. The MOLA team hopes it will be displayed locally, once their conservation work is complete—a meticulous effort that will take at least another two years.

Dan concludes: “It’s not every year we get to declare that, as a group, we have gifted Internationally significant finds to the nation”.

The project has been a huge highlight in Simon’s career. But it's also emphasised how far the client-consultant relationship can go, when developed on a foundation of expertise, trust and great work.

Read more about the Harpole Treasure find.