Remains of dark ages princess found in field in Cambridge

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

The remains of a mysterious Anglo-Saxon princess, who died  thirteen and a half centuries ago, have been found in a field three miles south of Cambridge.

Aged just 16 when she died, and buried lying on a special high status funerary bed, she was laid to rest with a small solid gold, garnet encrusted, Christian cross upon her chest.

Her exact identity is as yet a complete mystery. However, it’s likely that she was a member of one of the newly Christianized Anglo-Saxon royal families of the period.

She was buried fully clothed, her bronze and iron chatelaine (belt hook) and purse, still attached to her leather belt.

A clue to the circumstances of her death is the presence of three other individuals buried in separate graves alongside her (two women aged around 20 and one other slightly older individual of indeterminate sex, but conceivably female).  It’s likely that they died at the same time – probably from some sort of epidemic. Significantly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that England was devastated by the plague in 664 AD (around the very time that the archaeological evidence also suggests they died).

The archaeological investigation - carried out by Cambridge University Archaeological Unit – has also revealed that they were interred adjacent to a high status settlement consisting of a 12 metre long timber hall and at least half a dozen other buildings with substantial  semi-subterranean storage cellars.

Among the finds unearthed were fragments of posh French-originating  shiny black ceramic wine jugs - in England a type of pottery previously found mainly on monastic sites.

The female graves, the high status nature of the site and the Christian burial rite all combine to suggest that the  princess and her companions may well have been nuns – and that the settlement may have been part of a nunnery. It’s known that the various newly Christianized Anglo-Saxon monarchs of the time competed with each other to establish monasteries and  nunneries as a proof of their Christian piety. Indeed it’s conceivable that the princess’s parents enrolled their daughter in such a nunnery to further demonstrate their commitment to their new faith (a common practice at the time).

The area itself probably enjoyed some sort of royal or otherwise elevated status inherited from Roman and immediately post-Roman times when it formed part of  a native Romano-British territory centred on  Cambridge and known as the Granta Saete – the territory (saete) of the River Granta (now more often known as the Cam). Just 500 metres to the north of the princess’s grave is the village of Grantchester (derived from  the ‘Granta Saete’ territorial name) – the site of what was once a substantial Roman  villa, the owners of which conceivably became the area’s ruling family.

Historians believe that the Roman villa, the high-status Anglo-Saxon settlement and the princess’s grave were in one of several  quasi-independent mini-kingdoms which acted as buffer states between the larger  kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia (central England). The princess may well therefore have been the daughter of a mid 7th century king of Mercia or East Anglia or of one of the buffer states in between.

Continuing scientific investigations over the next few months are expected to reveal more information about the princess, her companions and the site as a whole. Isotopic tests are likely to reveal their geographical origins by demonstrating where they had spent their early childhoods. Other isotopic analyses will reveal their diet. Efforts will also be made to reconstruct aspects of the princess’s clothing from fragments of mineralized textile which survived in her grave.

“This is an incredibly important and exciting discovery which is already shedding remarkable new light on the early years of English Christianity,” said Alison Dickens, a senior manager at the Cambridge University Archaeological Unit.

The excavation carried out near the village of Trumpington, south of Cambridge, and the on-going scientific investigations, have been funded by the Trumpington Meadows Land Company – a joint housing development venture between London’s Grosvenor property company and USS, the UK-wide universities pension scheme.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent