7th century English ‘Princess’ Grave Revealed

Multiple news sites (Independent, NewsObserver, ) are reporting that the remains of a seventh century ‘princess’ has been found in a field near Cambridge. The approximately 16 year old woman was found laying on a bed with iron fittings; the fittings are all that remain of the bed. She was buried fully dressed with an iron knife, belt buckle, and a chained purse with glass beads, and most fabulously a 3 cm wide garnet pectoral cross around her neck. Unlike other recently found garnet jewelry and fittings, this cross is solid gold. The grave has been dated to c. 650 to 680, although carbon dates are not available yet.

Apparently the University of Cambridge released the photos popping up online in the stories linked above, so I’ll collect them here. Strangely, I can’t find anything on the University of Cambridge’s website yet.  The picture to the right strikes me, seeing the cross still around her neck. There are many objects visible in the cutting of the grave shown below. So far the only description that I have seen is that they are iron fittings.

English teenager found near Cambridge. Photo: University of Cambridge.

According to the Independent there were two other female graves found nearby and a third of indeterminate gender. No grave goods were mentioned for the others. David Keys’ (The Independent) conjecture that this was a convent and that they all died of plague seems a bit of a stretch. I certainly would like to see them all tested for plague, but I think the nunnery is pretty unlikely. This is not a monastic grave with the funeral bed and burial with a knife.

I also don’t particularly see this grave as a mixed religious tradition. There is nothing particularly pagan about the grave. There is no sign of grave offerings; bowls of food or signs of pagan rites. Burial on a funeral bed is not necessarily more elaborate or expensive than a stone or lead coffin. Secular elites who were not buried in church yards may not have been buried as sparingly as monastic burials. Several rich graves have been found in the last five years that were Christian, like the Essex prince, but still buried with some goods and a bed in particular. Unlike the Essex ‘prince’ this grave is not fitted out for the afterlife with tools and favorite objects. If the objects are limited to apparel, objects worn on the body, this seems normal to me. She appears to have been dressed as she might for  a special occasion like a feast.  Christians today may choose special clothes (a suit or military uniform) and sometimes still leave goods in coffins, like leaving on wedding bands, military insignia, rosaries, or putting special pillows in the coffin. We know that high status clergy like Cuthbert were buried clothed and with jewelry. What do you think about the mixed nature of this grave?


5 thoughts on “7th century English ‘Princess’ Grave Revealed

  1. Michelle, the cross is a stunning find. Like you, I don’t see any reason to identify the grave accoutrements as “transitional” pagan to Christian, since I think the whole notion of identifying pagan and Christian grave goods (or lack thereof) has been debunked. What people put in graves varied over time and place with obvious symbolic meanings, but the idea of a clear progression from one to the other does not make sense. The only thing transitional about this find is the date, as Alison Dickens pointed out in the NewsObserver article, that the young woman is an “early adopter” of Christianity.
    I look forward to seeing an analysis of the cross, its construction and style, from art historians. I wouldn’t mind seeing a replica turning up in museum shops!

    1. I’d like to see a replica of it too! Its amazing how different, more dull, it looks in some of the other pictures circulating. Perhaps that is why they took this picture at such an odd angle.

  2. It’s the chatelaine that gives me pause for thought–Though I don’t see it as mixed religion, just transitional burial custom. How often do we see those in later Christian burials? (That’s an actual question, btw, not rhetorical: I don’t have the answer.)

    I’m intensely curious about the strontium analysis, possible malaria, possible plague, possible relatedness of those buried, and–hopefully–information on the textiles.

    I hope we don’t have to wait years…

    1. I’d love to hear more about it soon but apparently it has taken them over 6 months to announce the find much less any analysis. I’m still waiting for a formal analysis of the Bamburgh cemetery!

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