The archaeologists dug enthusiastically despite the pouring rain. Working beneath a makeshift shelter, they knew that they had unearthed something exciting. The evening before, they’d uncovered evidence of a very unusual burial. Now, there was something shiny glinting in the soil – and it would turn out to be an amazingly rare artifact that’s over 1,000 years old.
Trumpington is a village on the outer fringes of Cambridge, England; and in 2011 new housing was slated for development in Trumpington Meadows, just outside the village. Before the building began, however, a team of archaeologists from Cambridge University conducted a series of excavations. The reason? Because prehistoric and Roman settlements had previously been discovered in the area.
As the archaeologists subsequently dug deeper, they soon realized that they’d found a hitherto unknown Anglo-Saxon settlement – and within it they discovered four graves. “We started excavating the first of those, and straight away we knew something was different about it,” recalled Alison Dickens, who headed the dig for Cambridge University’s Archaeological Unit, in a YouTube video uploaded in March 2012.
The grave contained lots of iron, which the Cambridge archaeologists took to be a sign that they’d discovered an Anglo-Saxon “bed burial.” Such graves each consist of a body that’s been literally buried on top of a bed. “That was quite extraordinary to start with,” Dickens explained. And as they unearthed the female skeleton inside, there were more exciting discoveries to come.
Anglo-Saxon bed burials have been uncovered in southern England in the counties of Suffolk, Wiltshire, Derbyshire, North Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. Yet because the beds were constructed from timber, upon their discovery little of them remained other than the iron fittings that held them together. It’s worth remembering how old the sites are, mind you. As with the Trumpington burial, nearly all of them date back to the 7th century.
Meanwhile, despite bad weather, the archaeologists were determined to press ahead with their work just outside Cambridge. “I cleaned off this small area when I saw something shiny,” team member Shannon Hogan recalled. “I thought someone had dropped a pound coin in there and they were winding me up.”
Once the dirt had been cleaned off, though, the Cambridge team saw that they had an extremely rare – and very old – artifact on their hands. It was a 1.3-inch pectoral cross made from garnets and gold, resting on the skeleton’s chest. “I’ve been an archaeologist for approaching 25, 26 years,” Dickens explained. “[But] this is only the second piece of gold I’ve seen come out of the ground. It’s rare.”
And Anglo-Saxon pectoral crosses are even rarer. Just five, in fact, have ever been brought to light in the U.K. – one having been buried with the 7th-century saint Cuthbert. What’s more, only a single previous bed burial site had been found to contain such a cross, and there were few details regarding how it had been unearthed back in the 19th century. All of these things made the find at Trumpington particularly important.
The Trumpington Cross is also unique in its design. The pectoral crosses discovered previously were all made to hang around the neck on chains. This one, however, has loops on its back; and it seems that these were used to stitch the cross onto clothing. “You can tell from the shiny look of three of these loops, where they have rubbed against fabric, that this item was worn in daily life,” Dickens said in an interview published on the University of Cambridge’s website.
The presence of such a piece of jewelry in the Trumpington burial says a lot about the status of its owner, too. As in most graves of this kind, the deceased here was a young female – in this case around 16 years old. And precious gold and garnets, in particular, were popular during the period in question – and were even present on the weapons of the upper classes. They were a symbol of great wealth.
The fact that the buried woman wore a cross is itself also extremely telling. During the 7th century, the English aristocracy began to convert to Christianity – although it would take much longer for the population as a whole to follow suit. So, it seems that the Trumpington burial girl had been a person of high status. And as among the oldest such sites ever discovered, it’s likely that it will be particularly valuable for the study of early Christianity in Britain.
“She would have been an aristocrat, possibly very closely linked with one of the new monastic foundations,” Anglo-Saxon burial expert Dr. Sam Lucy told the University of Cambridge’s website. Lucy explained that these foundations were “often headed up by women in this period,” adding, “I doubt that she was actually the head of a monastery. She was too young, but she may well have been associated in some way.”
The bed itself, meanwhile, was made up of a wooden frame with wood cross-slats as the base. Metal brackets and loops fixed it in place. And the mattress would have been fashioned from straw. Dr. Lucy believes that this might have been the same bed that the deceased had slept on during her lifetime. It would probably also have been put into the grave first, and then the body would have been arranged on top of it afterwards.
Also in the grave were a chain, glass beads and an iron knife. Interestingly, the inclusion of such burial items was in fact a pagan practice. Yet according to Dr. Lucy, there was a period of time when Christian burials would likely have involved elements of both the old and new religions. “The church never issued any edicts against the use of grave goods,” she said. “But it’s something that does seem to fade away by the 8th century.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the research centered on the bed burial, the three other graves at Trumpington Meadow are also being thoroughly examined. Two of them contain the remains of younger girls, and the other is the grave of either a man or woman who was in their 20s when they died. All four are currently thought to be from the same time period, too, but that notion may change after closer study.
A more accurate timeframe will be established through radiocarbon dating. In addition, tests on the teeth and bones will give researchers an idea of what these people ate and where they came from. If possible, DNA will be extracted, and the remains will also be assessed for signs of prior disease.
And the Trumpington Cross will of course also be studied carefully. The materials that were used to make the artifact will provide clues to its origin. For example, during the time period from which it dates, garnets were likely imported from as far away as Asia. So, information gleaned from the cross and burial could add to our knowledge about international trade in the so-called Dark Ages.
What’s more, the Anglo-Saxon settlement that surrounded the graves is itself intriguing. There is reason to believe that it might have been an important early Christian center. For instance, the site is similar to that of another 7th-century settlement that’s found in nearby Ely. A young girl had been buried there with a gold cross, too; and in that case the girl is likewise believed to have had an association with a local monastery.
Currently, the cross and other artifacts from the Trumpington bed burial are on display at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). They were donated to the museum by Grosvenor, the developers of the Trumpington Meadow housing project. It was a fine gift as well: the Trumpington Cross has since been valued at more than $100,000.
“The Trumpington Cross offers unique insights into the origins of English Christianity,” the MAA’s senior curator, Jody Joy, told the University of Cambridge’s website. “And we feel very lucky to be able to put it on display at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, just a few short miles away from where this beautiful artifact was discovered.” The museum also plans to explain the significance of the cross to the public through a series of lectures.