Rare Anglo-Saxon Trumpington Cross Girl Burial Has Been Given A Face
Who Was This Anglo-Saxon Girl? Face of Trumpington Cross Bed Burial Revealed
In 2011, a mid-7th century Anglo-Saxon Christian burial of a 16-year-old teenage girl in a village had turned out to be one of the earliest burial sites of such a nature in Britain. What made it particularly special was that it was a rare combination of burial practices – a ‘bed burial’ along with a captivating gold and garnet cross (the ‘Trumpington Cross’), which represents an early Christian artifact of great historical value.
Now, archaeologists have used the wonders of modern technology to reconstruct her face, just through analysis of her skull, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge will be putting this on display as part of their latest exhibition.
The exhibition, titled 'Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region,' will run from June 21st this year, until April 14th, 2024, and will feature the reconstructed face and artifacts from her burial.
Trumpington Cross burial facial reconstruction created by forensic artist Hew Morrison using measurements of the woman’s skull and tissue depth data for Caucasian females. (Hew Morrison ©2023)
Reconstruction: Face, Diet, and Origins
The reconstruction was performed by forensic artist Hew Morrison, who created the likeness using measurements of the woman’s skull and tissue depth data for Caucasian females. The absence of DNA analysis meant Morrison was not sure of her precise eye and hair color, though the image offered a strong idea of what her appearance could have been right before she died.
“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,” noted Morrison.
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The ‘you are what you eat’ saying has been taken into the literal realm of science regarding the young woman's origins and diet. Bioarchaeologists Dr. Sam Leggett and Dr. Alice Rose, along with archaeologist Dr. Emma Brownlee, conducted isotopic analysis of her bones and teeth during their PhD research at the University of Cambridge.
The analysis revealed that she migrated to England from somewhere near the Alps, potentially southern Germany, after the age of seven. The protein in her diet reduced by a small and significant amount upon arrival in England, but this change occurred towards the end of her life. This led archaeologists to the obvious conclusion that in the time she migrated to Cambridge and died was a very short time period.
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.”
A Pan Network of Elite European Women?
This bed burial is one of only 18 ever discovered in the UK, and her elaborate cross, adorned with gold and garnets, is one of just five of its kind found in Britain. Its presence identifies her as one of England's earliest Christian converts and suggests her affiliation with the aristocracy, if not royalty. A similar cross was famously found in the coffin of St Cuthbert.
The young woman's migration and burial align with the broader historical context of the 7th century, when St Augustine was dispatched by the pope to England with the mission of converting the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings in 597 AD. This was an endeavor that spanned several decades.
Her isotopic results also correspond with those of two other women buried on beds in Cambridgeshire during the same period. This intriguing discovery hints at the movement of a select group of young elite women from a mountainous area, possibly southern Germany, to the Cambridge region in the third quarter of the 7th century.
“She must have known that she was important and she had to carry that on her shoulders. Her isotopic results match those of two other women who were similarly buried on beds in this period in Cambridgeshire. 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,” added Dr. Leggett.
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Unearthed during excavations conducted by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit near Trumpington, this young woman was laid to rest in a unique 'bed burial' dating back to the 7th century. The surrounding area showcases visible remnants of the metal fixtures that were once used to secure the furniture. University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit
The Trumpington Cross: An Intriguing History
Laid on an ornate bed, a practice limited to the mid to later 7th century Anglo-Saxon period, the girl was adorned with a pectoral Christian cross, likely sewn onto her clothing. The cross, crafted from gold and embellished with intricately cut garnets, is only the fifth of its kind ever discovered! This dates the grave back to the early years of the English Church, estimated to be between 650 and 680 AD.
“Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down,” says Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge. “To be buried in this elaborate way with such a valuable artifact tells us that this girl was undoubtedly high status, probably nobility or even royalty. This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest level of society. The best known example of the pectoral cross was that found in the coffin of St Cuthbert now in Durham Cathedral.”
The bed in the burial consisted of a wooden frame held together by metal brackets, with additional looped metal pieces securing the cross-slats, creating a suspended bed base akin to modern beds, albeit with a straw mattress. It is likely that the body was placed on the bed before being lowered into the grave, as reported by Ancient Origins.
“The story of this young woman goes to the very heart of what our exhibition is all about – new research making visible the lives of people at pivotal moments of Cambridgeshire’s history. MAA holds one of Britain’s most important collections of Early Medieval archaeology and the Trumpington bed burial is so important. It looks like it still has much more to teach us,” concluded Dr Jody Joy, the exhibition’s co-curator.
Top image: Left, The Trumpington Cross is found during the excavation of the burial in 2012. Top right, The Trumpington Cross. Bottom Right, Skull of Anglo-Saxon girl in the burial. Source: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit
By Sahir Pandey
CAM. 2012. Mystery of Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross. Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/mystery-of-anglo-saxon-teen-buried-in-bed-with-gold-cross.
Roberts, S. 2012. Trumpington Cross goes on display for the first time. Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/trumpingtoncross