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Behold the likely face of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon teenage girl

Behold the likely face of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon teenage girl

A face for the ages —

Isotopic analysis revealed her diet and likely migration from southern Germany to England.

Enlarge / (left) Skull of teenage girl from 7th century CE. (right) Facial reconstruction as she might have looked in life.

University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit/Hew Morrison ©2023

Earlier this week, archaeologists unveiled the facial reconstruction of the remains of a seventh-century CE Anglo-Saxon teenage girl found in a rare “bed burial” in 2012. It’s part of a new exhibit at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology called “Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region.” In addition to the reconstruction, scientists also analyzed the young woman’s bones and teeth to learn more about her diet and geographical region of origin.

The girl is believed to have been about 16 years old when she died. The grave was discovered at a site near a village called Trumpington just outside Cambridge. It is one of only 18 so-called “bed burials”—a rare Anglo-Saxon practice, usually reserved for high-status women, in which the deceased was buried on an ornamental bed—discovered thus far in the United Kingdom. Nearby were three other graves holding two younger women and an older person. This particular bed had a wooden frame held together by metal brackets and looped metal to fix the cross-slats, most likely topped with a straw mattress.

Among the grave goods buried with the girl were an iron knife, a chatelaine (decorative belt), glass beads, gold and garnet pins, and most significantly, an ornate gold pectoral cross inlaid with garnets, now known as the Trumpington Cross. Archaeologists believe it may have been sewn onto the robe she wore when she died. Such crosses are very rare, and its presence indicated the young woman was likely a member of Anglo-Saxon nobility, particularly when combined with the evidence of the bed burial. The cross indicates she was a Christian, but the grave goods are a pagan practice, so archaeologists view the find as representative of a pivotal period in British history when Christianity had just begun to spread through the land.

To reconstruct the girl’s face, forensic artist Hew Morrison used measurements of the skull and general tissue depth data, although he had to guess at precise hair and eye color in the absence of a DNA analysis. The resulting face is notable for having a left eye slightly lower than the right, which Morrison believes “would have been quite noticeable in life.”

  • The Trumpington bed burial was excavated in Cambridge, England, in 2011.

    University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

  • The Trumpington Cross is found during the excavation of the burial in 2012.

    University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

  • The Trumpington Cross, 3.5 cm across and inlaid with garnets.

    University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

  • Gold and garnet pins from the burial.

    University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

  • Iron fittings from the bed burial displayed in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

Prior research already revealed that the young woman had suffered from an illness, although her cause of death was inconclusive. In addition, isotopic analysis suggested that the girl had moved to England around the age of 7 and that close to the end of her life, there was a significant decrease of protein in her diet. Those isotopic results match those of two other women found in bed burials from the same period.

“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,” said Cambridge bioarchaeologist Sam Leggett, who performed the analysis with colleagues Alice Rose and Emma Brownlee. “She was probably quite unwell and she traveled a long way to somewhere completely unfamiliar—even the food was different. It seems that she was part of an elite group of women who probably traveled 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.”

The Cambridge exhibit will also feature the Trumpington Cross and the gold and garnet pins found near the girl’s neck, as well as the decorative headboard. Other artifacts on display include pottery and textiles found at a Bronze Age site dubbed “Britain’s Pompeii“; a carving of an Iron Age man; a recently discovered elephant ivory belt buckle that once belonged to a young Augustinian friar; and an armlet and pottery dating to just before the Roman invasion of Britain.

2012 video describing the discovery of the grave of a teenage girl from the mid-seventh century CE.

Jennifer Ouellette
Jennifer is a senior reporter at Ars Technica with a particular focus on where science meets culture, covering everything from physics and related interdisciplinary topics to her favorite films and TV series. Jennifer lives in Baltimore with her spouse, physicist Sean M. Carroll, and their two cats, Ariel and Caliban.

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