It's always a pleasure to here an academic who's also an excellent communicator, and Dr. Sam Lucy of Cambridge University proved herself to be that kind of estimable academic on this morning's Sunday. She was very clear and informative.
She was talking about the Trumpington Cross (which has nothing whatsoever to do with Baroness Trumpington famous two-fingered salute to Tom King).
I thought I'd transcribe it for your delectation:
Edward Stourton: The Trumpington Cross is a stunning piece of jewellery made in garnet-studded gold. It also offers a window onto the earliest days of Christianity in England, and it's just gone on display in Cambridge, not far from the village of Trumpington, where it was discovered seven years ago. Dr. Sam Lucy is a Cambridge archaeologist and I asked her to describe it
Sam Lucy: It's very small actually. It's about three and a half centimetres across. And it's a gold cross that's got garnet insets in an arrangement that we call cloisonné - so, little garnet cells in a gold cell work. But it's a four-pointed cross with slightly expanded terminals.
Edward Stourton: And tell me about the circumstances in which it was discovered and why they are important.
Sam Lucy: It was found in 2011 on a development site - a site that is now a modern housing estate in Trumpington, just South of Cambridge. The University of Cambridge's archaeological unit was excavating there ahead of the development and they found a row of four what turned out to be graves, one of which had some iron fittings that we now recognise as a bed structure, and originally placed on that bed was a young person, almost certainly a young female, probably about 14-16 years old, and she was placed on the bed, and around her neck was both the little golden garnet cross - which may have been sewn onto her clothing or worn as a pendant, we're not sure - but she also had two little golden garnet pins that would have fastened a veil as part of her costume as well. So it is very unusual as an assemblage. Bed burials themselves are pretty rare. So this is the 7th century burial - probably later 7th century and part of that first wave of, we think, Christian graves that we see in that part of the Anglo-Saxon period. So the bed is unusual and the cross is particularly unusual. This would be only the fifth example that we've found.
Edward Stourton: And you believe that she was an aristocratic young girl, or perhaps even a member of a royal family?
Sam Lucy: Certainly aristocratic. The presence of gold and garnet artefacts are something that is indicative of a really quite high status of burial, and the fact that she was buried on a bed, that also looks to us like a high-status type of burial method. We don't know whether she was actually a member of a royal family but certainly that sphere of society.
Edward Stourton: What conclusions can you draw about the state of Christianity in...well, not just in England, in that part of England at that period?
Sam Lucy: In terms of drawing conclusions it's still quite difficult. We don't have much in the way of documentary sources to help us, so we are just trying to interpret it from the archaeology. It is interesting that you have such a high-status symbol with such a young female - the fact that you could be almost like someone who signed up to that religion at that age - you know, she's probably about 15 - and being buried in this high-status way. We think it reflects that women in this period were really quite involved in the early Church. We know, for example, that the earliest missions into Kent were there because that contact was being fostered by high-status females. We know that high-status females were often founding monastic institutions, and running them and heading them, and were putting their own resources into them. So I think it is giving us a little bit of insight into the role that women had in that early period in the Church/
Edward Stourton: And it's definitely women rather than men founding orders and so forth, is it? I mean, you can make that distinction from what you've seen?
Sam Lucy: It is both. So we have a documentary sources that, for example, Anglo-Saxon queens and widows were founding these institutions. So, for example, Ely itself, in the Fens, that was founded by Etheldreda in around the same period that this burial belongs to. So this is all part of the same sphere of activity.
Edward Stourton: And Christianity is being picked up by aristocrats, upper-class families, and then making its way down through the social classes. Is that how it was working?
Sam Lucy: Yes, we think it is going in that direction. So the first missions are coming over almost by royal invite, and we know that quite often it's almost a career path that you marry a king when. He dies. You then use your resources to found some kind of monastic or other religious institution. So it is something particularly associated with aristocratic spheres in this period, and then we think it probably filters down the social scale.