‘Astonishing’ 1,300-Year-old Gold and Gemstone Necklace is the Richest Ever Uncovered in Britain

​MOLA / Hugh Gatt

Archaeologists have uncovered an “astonishing” 1,300-year-old necklace in Northamptonshire, England, discovered during excavations for a housing development.

Researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) say the necklace is the richest of its type ever uncovered in Britain—with a staggering 30 pendants and beads made of Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semi-precious stones.

It was found in a high-status female burial containing other intriguing items that are still being investigated. The collection 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.

“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.”

A rectangular pendant with a cross motif forms the centerpiece 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.

X-rays taken on blocks of soil lifted from the grave revealed a further tantalizing find—a striking and elaborately decorated cross, featuring highly unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver.

Specialist Lyn Blackmore – MOLA / Andy Chopping

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 Harpole Treasure suggests that this was a very devout high status woman such as an abbess, royalty, or perhaps both.

“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.”

“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,” said an RPS Archaeology consultant, Simon Mortimer, who was involved with the excavation for the planned development and accorded a unique opportunity to investigate the 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 artifacts. 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 artifacts 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.

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 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.

The discovery also serves as a reminder of the importance of archaeology in the planning and development process.

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