Extraordinary 7th century discovery on outskirts of Cambridge offers unique insights into the origins of English Christianity.
One of the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial sites in Britain has been discovered in a village outside Cambridge. The grave of a teenage girl from the mid 7th century AD has an extraordinary combination of two extremely rare finds: a ‘bed burial’ and an early Christian artefact in the form of a stunning gold and garnet cross.
The girl, aged around 16, was buried on an ornamental bed – a very limited Anglo-Saxon practice of the mid to later 7th century – with a pectoral Christian cross on her chest, that had probably been sewn onto her clothing. Fashioned from gold and intricately set with cut garnets, only the fifth of its kind ever to be found, the artefact dates this grave to the very early years of the English Church, probably between 650 and 680 AD.
In 597 AD, the pope dispatched St Augustine to England on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings; a process that was not completed for many decades. Using the latest scientific techniques to analyse this exceptional find could result in a greater understanding of this pivotal period in British history, and the spread of Christianity in eastern England in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Was this teenage girl an early Christian convert, a standard-bearer for the new God? “Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down,” says Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge.
“To be buried in this elaborate way with such a valuable artefact tells us that this girl was undoubtedly high status, probably nobility or even royalty. This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest level of society. The best known example of the pectoral cross was that found in the coffin of St Cuthbert now in Durham Cathedral.”
“That this is a bed burial is remarkable in itself – the fifteenth ever uncovered in the UK, and only the fourth in the last twenty years – add to that a beautifully made Christian cross and you have a truly astonishing discovery,” says Alison Dickens, who led the excavation for the University’s Archaeological Unit.
“We think there’s only been one other bed burial combined with a Christian pectoral cross ever found – at Ixworth nearby in Suffolk in the 19th century; the records of this find are unclear, however. The fact that we will be able to apply modern techniques to thoroughly investigate the site is a thrilling prospect.”
The bed consisted of a wooden frame held together by metal brackets, with further pieces of looped metal fixing the cross-slats to create a suspended bed base, similar to modern beds, but with a straw mattress. The body was then placed on the bed, probably when it was already in the grave.
Dr Richard Dance, an expert on Old English at the University, has pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon word ‘leger’ can mean either ‘bed’ or ‘grave’. “Etymologically, the word means ‘place where one lies’, but there are examples of this meaning both bed and grave in literature of the time,” says Dr Dance. A clue to the possible symbolism of bed burials perhaps? But why only a chosen few were buried in their beds remains a mystery.
“Bed burials were never widespread, but there is a little cluster around the Cambridge area and another in Wessex, with a solitary very high status example in Teeside” says Dr Lucy. “Where we do find them they seem to be predominantly burials of females, and date to the mid to later 7th century; most have indications of high status such as fine jewellery or burial under a barrow.
The gold and garnet construction of the Trumpington cross also tends to be used for female associated items, although the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, as well as the slightly earlier famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo, show that such material was also used in high status weapon fittings throughout the 7th century. It is interesting that the same decorative techniques are seen both in overtly pagan and overtly Christian settings.”
The cross itself – 3 and a half centimetres in diameter – is only the fifth pectoral cross to be discovered in the UK. As well as the examples from Ixworth and Durham, one example was picked up as a stray find in Holderness, East Yorkshire, and another was a 19th-century find from Wilton in Norfolk. These other crosses are pendants designed to hang suspended on a necklace, whereas the Trumpington cross has a loop on the reverse of each arm, so that it could be stitched directly 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, most likely as a symbol of social status as well as religious affiliation,” says Dickens.
The excavations at Trumpington Meadows on the southern city limits of Cambridge, funded by the property developers Grosvenor, have unearthed significant findings from the Neolithic and Iron Ages, as well as material from a contemporary Anglo-Saxon settlement. The Christian girl was in one of a very small group of four graves, along with an unsexed individual in his or her twenties and two other slightly younger women.
The graves are thought to be broadly contemporary with each other, although the team are only at the very beginning of the investigative process. This will include radiocarbon dating of each of the bodies (to establish their date of burial) and isotopic analysis of their bones and teeth, to help determine both their diet and hopefully to establish where they had lived in childhood.
Detailed study of their skeletons will be able to tell, in addition to their sex and age, their stature, health and any visible medical conditions.
Analysis of the gold and garnets in the cross will also reveal further details about its place of manufacture; garnets in this period were probably imported from the Black Sea or even further afield, from Asia. The teenager’s grave also contained other items. An iron knife and a chatelaine (a chain that would have hung from the waist) were found in the girl’s grave, along with some glass beads which seemed to have been kept in a purse on the end of the chain. Preserved textile on the iron knife and chain offers the possibility of reconstructing her burial costume.
“The custom of grave goods was long-established in the pagan period, but it doesn’t mean that the burials at Trumpington weren’t Christian” states Dr Lucy. “The church never issued any edicts against the use of grave goods, but it’s something that does seem to fade away by the 8th century, just at the point where Christianity was becoming the dominant religion.
There is, though, a time through the second half of the 7th century, where clearly Christian people were still making use of a limited range of goods within their burials, and these often carried explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross here.
“The Trumpington bed burial does seem to belong at that transition between the two religions. Did she have a formal role in the church? The site is just behind the village church, which is first documented over 400 years later. Perhaps there was a monastery – even a nunnery – there before that we don’t know about. This is certainly something worth looking into.”
A small number of structures associated with the burials seem to represent part of a settlement that was in use at the same time. Analysis of the finds from these will help to determine the nature and function of that settlement; initial assessment of the pottery has suggested the presence of some high status imports, of a type usually only associated with high status ecclesiastical centres.
There may even be a possible link to the founding of the first monastery in Ely at around the same time. St Æthelthryth (or Etheldreda), daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, established the female-headed house at Ely in 673 AD. A cemetery found in Ely by the CAU in 2006 also contained a later 7th-century burial of a 10-12 year-old with a delicate gold cross pendant, who was thought to have been associated with the monastery. The parallels between this site and Trumpington are intriguing, and suggest a more interesting origin for the village than has previously been thought.