The face of a 16-year-old girl thought to be one of the country’s first Christians has been reconstructed following analysis of a skull unearthed at a 1,400-year-old Anglo Saxon burial site.
Her remains, found with a gold cross that was dated to the third quarter of the 7th century, were discovered at Trumpington Meadows on Cambridge’s southern limits in 2012.
Forensic artist Hew Morrison has now created a likeness of the girl by using measurements of her skull and tissue depth data for Caucasian females.
Without DNA analysis, he could not be sure of the girl’s eye and hair colour.
“It was interesting to see her face developing,” said Mr Morrison.
“Her left eye was slightly lower, about half a centimetre, than her right eye.
“This would have been quite noticeable in life.”
Analysis of the girl’s bones and teeth indicated that she moved to England from somewhere near the Alps, perhaps southern Germany, some time after she turned seven years old.
Once the girl had arrived in England, the proportion of protein in her diet decreased by a small but significant amount, according to the work of bioarchaeologists Dr Sam Leggett and Dr Alice Rose, and archaeologist Dr Emma Brownlee, during PhD research at the University of Cambridge.
This change occurred close to the end of the girl’s young life, suggesting that the period between her migration and burial near Cambridge was tragically short.
Dr Leggett, now at Edinburgh University, 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.”
Previous analysis indicated that the young woman had suffered from illness but her cause of death remains unknown.
She was buried in a remarkable way – lying on a carved wooden bed wearing the cross, gold pins and fine clothing.
Hers is one of only 18 bed burials uncovered in the UK.
Her ornate cross, combining gold and garnets, is one of only five of its kind found in Britain and identifies her as one of England’s earliest converts to Christianity and as a member of the aristocracy, if not royalty.
In 597 AD, the pope dispatched St Augustine to England on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings, a process which continued for many decades.
Dr Leggett said: “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.”
Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge, said: “These are intriguing findings, and it is wonderful to see this collaborative research adding to our knowledge of this period.
“Combining the new isotopic results with Emma Brownlee’s research into European bed burials really does seem to suggest the movement of a small group of young elite women from a mountainous area in continental Europe to the Cambridge region in the third quarter of the 7th century.
“Southern Germany is a distinct possibility owing to the bed burial tradition known there.
“Given the increasingly certain association between bed burial, such cross-shaped jewellery and early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, it is possible that their movement related to pan-European networks of elite women who were heavily involved in the early Church.”
The image and artefacts from the girl’s burial, including the Trumpington Cross that she was buried with, will be displayed in a new exhibition at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The burial bed’s decorative headboard will also be exhibited, and also gold and garnet pins connected by a gold chain, found near the girl’s neck, which probably secured a long veil to an outer garment of fine linen.
The free exhibition, called Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology Of The Cambridge Region, will run from Wednesday, June 21 to April 14, 2024.