Earlier this year, the Vistry Group, a housing developer, commissioned an archaeological evaluation of the land it planned to build on in Northamptonshire, England. Nobody had high expectations for this plot of land, which wasn’t near any ruins, churches or old landmarks.
But just before the dig wrapped up, archaeologists discovered the remains of human teeth. Then, something began to sparkle.
“When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant,” Levente-Bence Balázs, a site supervisor at the Museum of London Archaeology and leader of the dig, says to BBC News’ Andrea Pluck. “However, we didn’t quite realize how special this was going to be.”
The archaeologists had discovered an early medieval grave—and while most of the skeleton had decomposed, an ornate 30-piece gold necklace remained. Dating to around 630 to 670 C.E. it was made up of Roman coins, gold, garnets, painted glass and semiprecious stones; a large cross pendant was at its center. Alongside the necklace, two pots and a copper dish were also unearthed.
The find, as the Washington Post’s Leo Sands puts it, is “being hailed as the most significant female burial site from the era discovered in Britain.”
Because of the necklace’s presence, the researchers think the grave belonged to a woman—and not just any woman. According to the Guardian’s Amelia Hill, experts think that the necklace’s owner was “one of the first women in Britain ever to reach a high position in the church.”
“It is an archaeologist’s dream to find something like this,” said Balázs when the museum announced the discovery on Tuesday, per the Guardian.
When researchers removed blocks of soil to study, X-rays revealed a second large, elaborate cross. Beside it, they also found unique silver casts of human faces with blue glass eyes.
Due to the extravagant artifacts, experts think their owner was a woman of great wealth as well as a religious figure—“both an abbess and a princess, perhaps,” writes the Guardian.
The find captures a unique moment in history, when two distinct religious traditions were at play at the same time. “Burying people with lots and lots of bling is a pagan notion, but this is obviously heavily vested in Christian iconography, so it’s that period of quite rapid change,” says Simon Mortimer, an archaeology consultant who worked on the project, per the Associated Press’ Jill Lawless.
After the researchers finish their analysis, the artifacts will go on display at a local museum.
“This find is truly a once-in-a-lifetime discovery—the sort of thing you read about in textbooks and not something you expect to see coming out of the ground in front of you,” says Mortimer in a statement. “It shows the fundamental value of developer-funded archaeology.”