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Bejeweled Anglo-Saxon Burial Suggests Cult
In seventh century England, a woman's jewelry-draped body was laid out on a specially constructed bed and buried in a grave that formed the center of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, according to British archaeologists who recently excavated the site in Yorkshire.
Her jewelry, which included a large shield-shaped pendant, the layout and location of the cemetery as well as excavated weaponry, such as knives and a fine langseax (a single-edged Anglo-Saxon sword), lead the scientists to believe she might have been a member of royalty who led a pagan cult at a time when Christianity was just starting to take root in the region.
"I believe it is a cult because of the arrangement of graves, the short period of the cemetery's use and the bed burial and burial mound that is almost in the center of the very regular cemetery," archaeologist Stephen Sherlock, who directed the project, told Discovery News.
"The whole focus of the cemetery is based upon the bed burial -- it is our view that this was erected first and the other graves were dug around it," added Sherlock, who worked with the Teesside Archaeological Society, which recently published a report on the research.
A summary of the finds also appears in the latest issue of British Archaeology.
The cemetery, named Street House, consists of 109 graves, most of which were dug in a square around the bed burial.
"This square formation is unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England," Sherlock said.
Remains of a sunken-floored building, possibly used as a mortuary chapel where the body might have been laid to rest prior to her funeral, exist near the cemetery's entrance. A roundhouse and the burial mound also stand within the square.
The bed burial itself consists of a wooden bed held together, and decorated with, iron. Artifacts within the grave included two gemstone pendants, gold and glass beads, a jet pin or hairpiece, and the shield pendant that was unique for the time, according to Sherlock and colleague Mark Simmons.
Mounted by a central blue gemstone, the piece has scalloped-shaped carving with 11 separate lobes and a scalloped lower edge. Small red gems resting on gold foil, which would have reflected light when the piece was worn, surround the central stone.
Although the site's acidic soil eroded the woman's remains, the age of the cemetery and its location provide clues to her identity. Sherlock believes "likely suspects" include Ethelburga, the wife of King Edwin of Northumbria, who converted to Christianity and was made a saint. Other possibilities are Eanflaed, the wife of King Oswiu, or Oswiu's daughter, Aelflaed.