New evidence shows 7th century girl moved to England from Central Europe

A 16-year-old woman buried near Cambridge, UK, in the 7th century, has had her face reconstructed based on skull analysis. The reconstruction reveals her appearance and will be publicly displayed for the first time on June 21st. Scientific evidence shows that she migrated to England from Central Europe as a young girl, which led to a significant change in her diet.

The woman’s burial, discovered in 2012 at Trumpington Meadows, included a rare gold and garnet cross known as the “Trumpington Cross.” These artifacts, along with the reconstructed face, will be showcased in the “Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region” exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge from June 21st to April 14th, 2024.

Forensic artist Hew Morrison used the woman’s skull measurements and tissue depth data for Caucasian females to create the likeness. While her precise eye and hair color couldn’t be determined without DNA analysis, the image provides a strong indication of her appearance before her death.

Hew Morrison commented on the process, stating, “It was interesting to see her face developing. Her left eye was slightly lower, about half a centimeter, than her right eye. This would have been quite noticeable in life.”

Further analysis conducted by bioarchaeologists Dr. Sam Leggett and Dr. Alice Rose, along with archaeologist Dr. Emma Brownlee, from the University of Cambridge, involved isotopic analysis of the woman’s bones and teeth. The research revealed that she migrated to England from a location near the Alps, potentially southern Germany, after the age of seven.

Leggett and Rose also discovered that once the girl arrived in England, there was a small but significant decrease in the proportion of protein in her diet. This change occurred towards the end of her life, indicating a tragically short period between her migration and burial near Cambridge.

Dr. Leggett, now affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, remarked, “She was quite a young girl when she moved, likely from part of southern Germany, close to the Alps, to a very flat part of England. She was probably quite unwell, and she traveled a long way to somewhere completely unfamiliar—even the food was different. It must have been scary.”

The Trumpington Cross is found during the excavation of the burial in 2012. Credit: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The cause of death for the young woman remains a mystery, although previous analysis indicated that she suffered from an illness. What sets her apart is the remarkable manner in which she was buried. She was placed on a beautifully carved wooden bed and adorned with a cross, gold pins, and fine clothing, all of which are on display today.

Bed burials are incredibly rare, with only 18 such burials ever discovered in the United Kingdom. The ornate cross found with her, made of gold and garnets and dating back to the third quarter of the 7th century, is one of just five of its kind found in Britain. This cross not only highlights her early conversion to Christianity but also suggests her belonging to the aristocracy, if not royalty. A similar cross was famously discovered in the coffin of St Cuthbert.

In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to England with the mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. This process of conversion continued over several decades.

Dr. Leggett, a researcher involved in the excavation, speculates that the young woman must have been aware of her importance and carried that weight with her. Isotope analysis of her remains indicates similarities with two other women buried on beds during the same period in Cambridgeshire. This suggests that she was part of an elite group of women who likely traveled from mainland Europe, particularly Germany, in the 7th century. However, the nature of their presence remains enigmatic. Were they political brides or devoted followers of Christ? The change in her diet after arriving in England suggests a significant shift in her lifestyle.

Dr. Sam Lucy, an expert in Anglo-Saxon burials from Newnham College, Cambridge, who published excavations in Trumpington, finds these findings intriguing. She believes that the combination of the new isotopic results with Emma Brownlee’s research on European bed burials indicates the movement of a small group of young elite women from a mountainous region in continental Europe to the Cambridge area during the third quarter of the seventh century.

Southern Germany emerges as a possible origin due to the bed burial tradition known in that area. Given the clear association between bed burials, cross-shaped jewelry, and early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, it is plausible that the movement of these women was connected to pan-European networks of elite women who played significant roles in the early Church.

The Trumpington Cross. Credit: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Dr. Jody Joy, one of the curators of the exhibition, expressed the significance of the young woman’s story in relation to the overall theme of the exhibition. The aim of the exhibition is to shed light on the lives of individuals during crucial moments in Cambridgeshire’s history, and the Trumpington bed burial holds a central place in that narrative. The exhibition will showcase the Trumpington Cross, along with the delicate gold and garnet pins that were found near the teenager’s neck. These pins, connected by a gold chain, were likely used to secure a long veil to her finely crafted linen outer garment. As she moved, the pins would have caught the light, adding to the visual splendor. Additionally, the exhibition will feature the ornate headboard of the burial bed, displaying its intricate decorations.

Dr. Joy emphasizes the significance of the Trumpington bed burial, stating that it still has much more to teach us. The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), which holds one of Britain’s most important collections of Early Medieval archaeology, recognizes the importance of this discovery and aims to provide valuable insights into the lives of people during this pivotal period of history.

‘Beneath Our Feet’ exhibition: Other highlights

The exhibition at MAA delves into the rich historical tapestry of Cambridgeshire, unraveling the footprints left behind by its inhabitants over thousands of years. Within this captivating showcase, visitors will have the rare opportunity to lay their eyes on a myriad of treasures, some of which have never been displayed to the public before. These include:

Pottery and textile artifacts unearthed from Must Farm, often referred to as “Britain’s Pompeii.” These remnants offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of individuals who lived in this remarkable settlement.

An exquisite armlet and pottery fragments believed to have belonged to a chieftain who possessed a penchant for lavish feasting. Tragically, this high-ranking figure met his demise shortly before the Roman invasion.

A captivating carving depicting an Iron Age man distinguished by his distinctive hairstyle and mustache. This artwork, created in the aftermath of the Roman invasion, provides a unique snapshot of the cultural blend that ensued during this transformative period.

Discoveries from a cemetery located at Girton College. Thanks to the extensive research conducted by Dr. Emma Brownlee, it is now known that this burial site was in use continuously from Roman times through the Early Medieval era. These findings shed light on the diverse burial practices and traditions spanning several centuries.

A remarkable belt buckle made from elephant ivory, recently unearthed in the cemetery of Cambridge’s Augustinian Friary. This intricate artifact once adorned the belt of a young friar, offering a glimpse into the lives of the religious community during that time.

Through this immersive exhibition, MAA aims to showcase the captivating stories and artifacts that have emerged from Cambridgeshire’s past, inviting visitors to embark on a captivating journey through time.

Source: University of Cambridge

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