She endured years of illness and a long journey to a strange land only to die in her teens. Now, more than 1,300 years on, it is possible to look into the face of a young woman who was buried in her bed in Anglo-Saxon England — and to learn of her origin close to the Alps.
Bioarchaeologists have shared their findings about the “mysterious” woman — who was about 16 when she died — ahead of an exhibition in which a scientific reconstruction of her features is going on display along with her lavish possessions.
The burial was found in 2012 by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at Trumpington Meadows on the southern outskirts of Cambridge. The teenager was interred lying on a carved wooden bed wearing an exquisite gold and garnet cross, gold pins and fine clothes. Hers is one of only 18 “bed burials” uncovered in the UK and linked to a burial tradition in Germany and the Rhine valley.
The isotope analysis of her bones and teeth — which uses chemical signatures to infer details of people’s diets and their origins and movements — suggests she was of continental European origin and travelled to England from the vicinity of the Alps after she turned seven. Given previous discoveries of bed burials in southern Germany, and known ties between that region and the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, the team believe an origin there is most likely.
The analysis, carried out by bioarchaeologists Dr Sam Leggett and Dr Alice Rose and archaeologist Dr Emma Brownlee during during PhD research at Cambridge, also indicates that, after the woman arrived in England, the proportion of protein in her diet declined by a small but significant amount.
Dr Leggett, now at the University of Edinburgh, said: “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 travelled a long way to somewhere completely unfamiliar — even the food was different. It must have been scary.”
Regarding her state of health, Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial at Newnham College, Cambridge, who published details of the excavations at Trumpington, said: “We can’t know the cause of death unless we get some pathogen DNA at some point. But she had cribra orbitalia — a pitting of the eye sockets which is associated with deficiencies or periods of malnutrition or severe illness. This was someone who had been ill for quite a long time.”
As for other clues about her life and standing, her 3.5cm-diameter cross — set with garnets that probably originated in today’s India or Sri Lanka — is one of five similar examples found in Britain and identifies her as a Christian and a member of the aristocracy, or even royalty. The best-known example of the type was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It may have been buried with him when he died in 687 or placed in the coffin in 698 when his sainthood was recognised.
The woman’s delicate gold and garnet pins were connected by a gold chain and discovered near her neck. The pins probably secured a long veil to an outer garment of fine linen. Like her cross, which was worn on the chest, they would have caught the light as she moved.
Her bed consisted of an ash frame and headboard held together by iron brackets, with cross-slats creating a suspended base for a mattress. It is believed that the beds used in such burials had been used by the owner for sleeping and were not made specially for the funeral rite. Beds were a luxury at the time, when most people slept on straw mattresses on sleeping platforms at best.
Previous research by Brownlee has suggested that women in English bed burials were members of elite Christian families on the continent who crossed the channel to serve as abbesses or nuns, or for arranged marriages. These movements may have been part of a calculated policy of Christianisation backed by the Church and newly Christian Anglo-Saxon rulers. Conversion efforts continued for many decades after 597, when St Augustine arrived on his mission to Kent — where King Æthelberht had married the Christian Frankish princess Bertha.
Quite how the young woman at Trumpington may have fitted into this process remains unclear, although it is likely that she was from Francia.
Significantly, her grave was one of only four known burials at the Trumpington site and the only bed burial there. At least two of the other burials are likely to be of young women, while the sex of the fourth is unclear. Concerning a burial that was probably female, Lucy said: “One of the other burials looks like it might be from a similar area [of southern Germany] — the results match, which was really interesting. So they may have come over together.”
Radiocarbon dating puts these two burials at around the 660s or 670s. The other burials date from early in the seventh century and isotope analysis, while not conclusive, is “not inconsistent” with them having grown up and lived locally. Despite these differences in dates and geographical origins, Lucy said the graves were definitely associated with each other as they were aligned in a neat parallel row.
She added: “The fact that the graves are not contemporary with each other is weird. You might have thought an illness or something like that took everybody out, but they are not contemporary. I don’t know what that group are doing there because there is no documentary against any monastic or religious institution in the area for another 400 years or so.”
Nevertheless, she suspects that the remains of a monastic settlement — with which the burials could be associated — lies underneath the built fabric of Trumpington. “I think we’ve clipped the southern edge of something that runs under the village and the medieval church… It would be under medieval and post-medieval housing.”
The young woman’s isotope results don’t only match those of one of her burial neighbours at Trumpington but also two other women buried in beds in Cambridgeshire around this period. Leggett said: “So it seems that she was part of an elite group of women who probably travelled from mainland Europe — most likely Germany — in the 7th century, but they remain a bit of a mystery. Were they political brides or perhaps brides of Christ? The fact that her diet changed once she arrived in England suggests that her lifestyle may have changed quite significantly.”
If there are still significant question marks over the woman’s life and identity, the researchers can at least be confident about her appearance. Forensic artist Hew Morrison created his likeness using measurements of her skull. He said: “It was interesting to see her face developing. Her left eye was slightly lower — about half a centimetre — than her right eye. This would have been quite noticeable in life.”
Lucy said: “On a personal level, seeing a face is really intriguing. And the facts that she was of high status, she was ill, she died at 16 and she was from somewhere else — it’s a very direct route into thinking about young women in the past. I’m fascinated by the Church in this period and the fact that women had such an important role in it. The Church hasn’t always been the male-dominated institution people characterise it as. There was this relatively brief window in the seventh century when there was a huge female influence on the early English Church.”
“If you think about who was bringing the first elements of Christianity into eastern England, the first missions were invited to Kent by Bertha, a Frankish princess married to a Kentish king. Known female historical figures were heading up monasteries. For example, Etheldreda at Ely and Hild at what was probably Whitby. They were operating at high political levels and were usually royalty as well. The seventh-century church was often driven by these female figures.”
Historians and archaeologists have highlighted extensive connections between Anglo-Saxon England, continental Europe and regions farther afield. Lucy said there was written and archaeological evidence for constant movements of people over long distances in the seventh century, just as in previous and later periods.
“If you were a female leader of a monastery in the East of England, it would be perfectly normal to have a sister who was also running a monastery in Francia,” she said.
The Trumpington Cross will be displayed, along with the young woman’s pins and her bed’s decorative headboard, in the free “Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region” exhibition at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, running from Wednesday (June 21, 2023) to April 14 2024.