‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ 1,300-year-old gold and gemstone necklace discovered within internationally significant female burial

In April 2022 we discovered something incredible.

Our team was right at the end of a Northamptonshire dig on behalf of Vistry Group, which had been pretty unremarkable. However, as we were excavating something that appeared to be a pit based on the geophysics, we spotted some gold…

“When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant. However, we didn’t quite realise how special this was going to be.”

MOLA Site Supervisor, Levente-Bence Balázs

Suddenly we were dealing with an internationally important burial. Welcome to the ‘Harpole Treasure’.

The Harpole Treasure

What we found was a burial dating to 630-670 AD, located on a slight rise. The first bits of gold spotted turned out to be an incredible necklace – the most ornate of its kind ever found.

The necklace is made up of a staggering number of pendants. There are gold Roman coins, semi-precious stones set in gold and decorated glass pendants set in gold. Along with these are several gold bead spacers, that spaced out the pendants in the necklace.

The centrepiece of this necklace is a large rectangular pendant made of red garnets and gold, with a cross motif. We think that it was originally half of a hinge clasp before it was re-used in this necklace.

The Desborough necklace is currently the finest of this kind of necklace. It was also discovered in Northamptonshire, in 1876, and is now stored in the British Museum. However, it isn’t clear if it is complete, because the workmen had portioned the pendants and beads amongst themselves before being persuaded to hand them over for a small reward. We know that the Harpole Treasure necklace is complete.

Lots of necklaces with similar pendants have been found in female burials dating to around this time. However, only the Harpole Treasure necklace has this incredible variety of pendants.

Apart from fragments of tooth enamel, no human remains survived. We currently think that it is almost certainly a female burial because similar necklaces and extravagant burials are almost exclusively found in female burials in this period.

What else was found?

The necklace is only part of this amazing burial and x-raying the soil blocks lifted from the site revealed further incredible finds.

Most excitingly, we found a large ornate cross with inset garnets and smaller crosses at the end of each arm. While it is still being micro-excavated, the x-ray clearly shows its incredible design. At the end of two arms of this cross we even found some unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver. The sheer size of the cross suggests the woman buried here may have been an early Christian leader.

The combination of the incredible necklace and other grave goods means this is one of the most spectacular female Early Medieval burials ever discovered in the UK.

What comes next?

We are at a very early stage of the conservation and analysis of this discovery, so there is a lot of work still to do. We hope to identify the organic material that has survived, and learn more about the cross and necklace.

The burial is subject to the Treasure Act and was reported to the Coroner as potential Treasure by the local Finds Liaison Officer. The finds are now going through the normal legal process. Finds declared a ‘Treasure’ would usually be valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee. However, in this case Vistry Group has waived their right to a portion of the reward and therefore the finds may not need to be put through a valuation process.

For comparison, a contemporary gold and garnet pendent known as the ‘Winfarthing pendant’ was discovered in Norfolk in 2014 and valued at £145,000.

Keep an eye out for more information about the Harpole Treasure, and we'll share more information as we go through the analysis of the burial!

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