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‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ ancient necklace found in tomb of powerful Anglo-Saxon woman

An opulent necklace found in Harpole, Northamptonshire alongside an illustration of what it may have looked like 1,300 years ago. MOLA

A tomb that is being hailed as “one of the most spectacular” of its kind ever discovered in the U.K. is garnering international attention over a stunning, 1,300-year-old necklace that was unearthed at the site.

Experts believe the resting place belonged to an Anglo-Saxon woman who may have been a powerful, early Christian leader based on the sumptuous artifacts she was buried with.

The find has been dubbed the “Harpole Treasure,” after the Northamptonshire parish in which it was found, and was dug up by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). The day before an eight-week excavation for a housing development was meant to end, one archaeologist spotted a twinkle in the dust.

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“When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil, we knew this was something significant,” said MOLA site supervisor Levente-Bence Balázs. “However, we didn’t quite realize how special this was going to be.”

The “once-in-a-lifetime” necklace consists of 30 pendants, made of precious gemstones, glass and Roman coins, spaced out with gold beads. The centrepiece showcases a cross motif in red garnet, set in fine gold laces.

An opulent necklace found in Harpole, Northamptonshire alongside an illustration of what it may have looked like 1,300 years ago. MOLA

MOLA archaeologists believe the centre pendant may have been one-half of a hinge clasp that was repurposed.

Pendants from an Anglo-Saxon necklace discovered as part of the Harpole Treasure. MOLA

Archaeologists also discovered a large ornate cross inlaid with more garnets among the grave goods. The artifact is still being X-rayed, but researchers have been able to spot an “unusual depiction of a human face cast in silver” in the design of the cross.

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X-ray of a large ornate cross found as part of the Harpole Treasure. MOLA

The sheer size of the cross and the richness of the necklace have led researchers to suggest that the woman who was buried at the Harpole site was wealthy, devout, and “may have been an early Christian leader,” according to MOLA. The only human remains found so far are tooth enamel fragments, but researchers are confident this is the tomb of a woman based on the necklace and the extravagant burial.

The burial site dates back to between 630 and 670 CE, a few centuries after Roman rule ended in Britain, and a full 400 years before William the Conqueror would eventually supplant the reigning Anglo-Saxons.

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Christianity had been spreading in southern England for some decades, though intermingling with the resident pagan traditions meant that women could still hold powerful positions in the early church at this time. Later on, graves rarely featured such opulent objects as the early church took stronger root and discouraged such practices.

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“The Harpole Treasure, it’s not the richest (burial) in terms of the number of artifacts, but it is the richest in terms of investment of wealth … and it has the highest amount of gold and religious symbolism,” said Lyn Blackmore, MOLA’s senior finds specialist, at a news briefing.

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Two pots of Frankish origin (modern-day France and Belgium) were also entombed with the woman, though archaeologists have not yet been able to identify the residue left within. Their analysis so far has ruled out myrrh.

The Harpole Treasure was actually found back in April, but the discovery was made public on Wednesday following the preliminary analysis by experts. MOLA said that there is still further analysis that must be done to conserve the artifacts before they can go on display.

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