British law states that prior to building work commencing major construction projects perform an archaeological survey to prevent valuable heritage being lost. Most digs produce routine finds of no great significance, but occasionally you get a big find. The small village of Harpole, set in rural Northamptonshire, a green and pleasant part of rural England, was recently the scene of such a find. The excavation of the site of a new housing estate turned up a grave, and this was the resting place of a woman of high status, judging from the grave goods interred with her.
The archaeologists have had to infer that the buried person was female. You can normally tell the sex of a skeleton by studying the pelvis, which differs in males and females, but in this case the acidic soils of the east midlands have all but destroyed organic remains, be they flesh, wood or wool, leaving solid grave goods made of metal, along with finger and toe nails, which decay slower than bone, and some bits of wood. Significantly it was a bed burial. The residents of the area were Angles, a tribe who settled in much of England. Their noblemen or kings had a tradition of ship burials, as at Sutton Hoo, and over the ship was heaped a tumulus of Earth, but women had bed burials, in which a bed was laid in the grave and the body deposited on it. Though the wood of the bed had rotted, the imprint of the bed had been left in the soil. Women were also buried without weapons, unlike men who took weapons into the grave with them. There were no weapons in this grave. This was not a person who saw weapons as integral to her identity.
The spectacular find was a necklace. It was composed of golden Roman coins and garnets. Though the date of the burial was probably late 600s, Roman coins were still in circulation in Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons valued them. Those who think of them as crude barbarians may be surprised to know that these Germanic settlers valued Roman things and saw themselves as heirs of Rome. However, there were some pieces of the necklace which were incised with the marks of the cross. Furthermore, a cross was placed under the body. This woman was a Christian buried by people who either shared or respected her Christianity. Such a rich burial shouts princess.
The presence of grave goods generally marks a pagan burial, but the rules for Christians had not been fully finalized then, and even if the church forbade grave goods, as it later did, wealthy and powerful pagan relatives of the deceased could make their will felt.
But who was she?