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The skeleton of a young Christian noblewoman, who was laid to rest on a "burial bed" some 1,400 years ago, is giving archaeologists precious clues to the earliest days of the English church.
Unearthed in 2011 in a village near Cambridge, the teenager wore the badge of her faith in the shape of an exquisite gold-and-garnet cross, found on her chest and just visible in the picture above.
The ornate treasure marks the grave as one of the earliest known Christian burials in Anglo-Saxon England, researchers from the University of Cambridge announced last week.
Christians previously lived and died in Britain under Roman rule. But the newfound grave dates to the mid-seventh century, when Anglo-Saxons—the Germanic peoples who founded the English nation and language—were starting to convert to Christianity.
In addition, the wooden burial bed on which the 16-year-old was placed is one of only a handful of such finds discovered in Britain, the team says.
This solid-gold pectoral cross inlaid with garnets was recovered from the early Anglo-Saxon grave. Only the fifth cross of its type yet found in the U.K., the treasure is among the earliest Christian artifacts known from Anglo-Saxon Britain, said dig team leader Alison Dickens of the University of Cambridge's Archaeological Unit.
Loops on the back of the cross indicate the bauble was worn stitched into the young woman's clothes. The cross was probably made in England, but the gold and garnets were likely sourced from as far away as Asia.
For the dead teenager to have been buried with such a valuable object shows that "she's an important, probably wealthy person," Dickens added.
The gold cross pokes from the noblewoman's grave during excavations at a housing-development site near Cambridge, England.
Other items found at the seventh-century burial site included an iron knife, a waist chain, and glass beads, which would have been kept in a purse on the end of the chain.
While the cross is clearly Christian in its symbolism, the other objects hark back to earlier beliefs, said dig leader Dickens.
Pagan burials often contained personal effects of the dead for use in the afterlife, but as Christianity took hold, that practice petered out, Dickens said. The newfound grave thus marks a "transitional point" between Christian and pagan beliefs.
Seen during excavation work in 2011, the body of the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman—which dates back to between A.D. 650 and 680—was laid to rest on a "burial bed."
Constructed from wood and metal, the bed had a slatted base and a straw mattress.
Burial beds are extremely rare, but the few that are known also date to the early Anglo-Saxon period, the study team said. Why only a chosen few were buried in their beds remains a mystery.
Perhaps worn by an early English convert to Christianity, the garnet-encrusted cross (seen above from the front and back) may mean that the grave marks the site of an ancient monastery or missionary center, according to archaeologists.
Along with the noblewoman's burial site, the team found the graves of two other teenage females and one individual of undetermined gender in his or her twenties next to the remains of an Anglo-Saxon settlement.
The cross indicates that the site had "some sort of Christian focus, be it a monastery, nunnery, or something like that," Dickens said.