“Once-in-a-lifetime”: 7th-century gold and gemstone necklace discovered in England

An early medieval necklace made of gold, garnets and semi-precious stones has been found by archaeologists working in central England. Dubbed the ‘Harpole Treasure’, this is being called an internationally significant discovery.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology. (MOLA) made the discovery in the village of Harpole in Northamptonshire during excavations for a housing development. The necklace was found in the grave of a woman and dates to between 630 and 670 AD.

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

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.

“When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant,” says MOLA Site Supervisor, Levente-Bence Balázs, who led a team that made the discovery. “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.”

Harpole burial reconstruction © MOLA (Hugh Gatt)

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.

Small silver face found on cross feature © MOLA

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.

Necklace reconstruction and layout side-by-side – Image by MOLA

A handful of similar necklaces from this time have previously been discovered in other regions of England, but none are as ornate as the Harpole Treasure. The closest parallel is the Desborough necklace, found in Northamptonshire in 1876 and now in the British Museum’s collections.

The future housing development where the discovery was made was assisted by RPS, who worked as archaeological consultants for the project headed by the Vistry Group. RPS Archaeology Consultant Simon Mortimer comments, “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.”

Cross feature xray © MOLA

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.

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