In her role as one of the experts in Channel 4’s long-running Time Team series, Dr Helen Geake saw many exciting finds come to the surface. But the discovery of the stunning gold and jewel pendant, dug out of a muddy South Norfolk field and announced today, tops the lot.
“It’s the single most exciting discovery I have ever been present at,” Dr Geake said.
She is an expert on the early Anglo-Saxon period, that time when the new Kingdom of East Anglia was being established after the chaos following the end of Roman Britain.
That means she is also an expert on the world-famous Sutton Hoo burial – thought to be of King Raedwald from the early seventh century – and was also involved with research into the fabulous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon Hoard discovered in 2009.
Now the South Norfolk pendant, the latest in a long line of spectacular discoveries from Norfolk, is set to join that famous list. “It’s going to be a nationally-important thing,” Dr Geake added. Nothing else has been found quite like it.
The exquisite 7cm pendant is stunningly made with gold ‘cells’ and red garnet inlays. Some of the garnets have been cut to make animal ‘interlace’, a popular and highly-skilled design technique from the period where representations of creatures are stretched out and intricately interwoven.
But all of these discoveries were still in the future when Tom Lucking, a first-year UEA landscape archaeology student and keen member of the Suffolk Archaeological Field Group, was exploring the field – with the landowner’s permission – just before Christmas.
His detector found a large and deep signal, and he dug down just far enough to reveal the top of a bronze bowl. Instead of carrying on he did exactly the right thing: carefully re-filling the hole and calling in the Field Group’s geophysics team to survey the site, and Norfolk County Council’s Heritage Environment Service to assess any finds.
Dr Andrew Rogerson and Steven Ashley from the HES then asked Dr Geake to join in the excavation, which took place over two cold days in January.
The bowl turned out to be at the foot of a grave with the badly-preserved bones of an adult Anglo-Saxon. As the excavation continued it was clear that this was a female because of the jewellery being discovered. It included a ‘chatelaine’, a long strip with probably silver rings which would have been hung from a girdle.
The pendant is the undoubted star find from the excavation, but there are other items to indicate that this was a noblewoman of wealth and taste. Some of them were made in the Kingdom of the Franks, part of what was to later become France.
They include two pendants made from re-used gold coins. One of them has been dated to between 639-656 when it was minted for Frankish king Sigebert III [example] probably near Marseilles, so we know the grave must be dated to just after this. The pendants, along with two gold beads, formed part of a ‘choker’-style necklace.
“It’s that theme that we see running right up to the present day, where we turn to France for style and cultured items,” Dr Geake explained. The finds also included the beaten bronze bowl, which may be another French import, a wheel-thrown pot which Dr Rogerson has identified as a definite import, plus a tiny knife and iron buckle.
So who was the mysterious noblewoman? We will never know her name but we can tell that she was someone who was living at the very highest levels of society. “She’s going to have known the kings of East Anglia, and France,” Dr Geake said. The noblewoman may even been alive when burials were still going on at Sutton Hoo.
“They were terrible conditions to dig in over the two days,” he said. “Lots of mud everywhere, and cold and wet! But I think it’s the most exciting discovery I have ever uncovered – one of those things you dream of finding.
“It’s so beautifully made. The garnet cells even have scored gold ‘foil’ at the back of them to catch the light. And you can’t see the back of the pendant in the photograph but it has rivets going through from the bosses on the front – and these have been decorated with garnets too.”
The bones of the noblewoman have already been taken to Norwich Castle Museum for analysis. We should be able to discover more about her lifestyle, including her age and clues to her diet and medical conditions. The finds will be considered at a special inquest to decide if they are Treasure.
The debate will then begin about what happens next to this amazing discovery, and whether the finds can be kept in Norfolk. This is a story 14 centuries in the making, and there’s a lot more to come yet.