Forensic experts recreate the face of Anglo-Saxon girl who died 1,400 years ago

ANGLIA 200623 facial recon of girl
Hew Morrison
Forensic artist Hew Morrison has created this image of what the girl could have looked like. Credit: Hew Morrison

Forensic experts have reconstructed the face of a teenage girl whose skull was discovered in an Anglo-Saxon burial site dating back 1,400 years.

The 16-year-old's remains were found with a gold cross dating from the 7th century suggesting she was one of the country's first Christians.

The girl's grave site, discovered at Trumpington Meadows outside Cambridge in 2012, was remarkable as one of only 18 so-called "bed burials" unearthed in the UK.

Forensic artist Hew Morrison 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.

The girl was found buried in a dig at Trumpington Meadows near Cambridge in 2012 Credit: Cambridge University

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.

The girl was found with an ornate cross, sparking theories that she was one of the country's first Christians Credit: Cambridge University

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."

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 free exhibition, called Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology Of The Cambridge Region, will run from Wednesday, 21 June to 14 April, 2024.

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