The Allure and Appeal of an Anglo-Saxon Cross from Trumpington

5 minute read

On Saturday 19th February 2011 archaeologist Shannon Hogan was excavating a site in advance of a new housing development in Trumpington, a village just south of Cambridge. Her particular focus was an Anglo-Saxon burial, and she was about to discover something extraordinary. Not only did it turn out to be a rare bed burial, but its female occupant was found with a cloisonné pectoral cross, only the sixth ever found in Britain. Decorated with gold and garnet it became known as the Trumpington Cross and in 2017 was donated to MAA. Since then, it has quickly become an emblem of the museum – appearing in the institution’s shop on postcards, tote bags, fridge magnets, keyrings and even a ruler. The Front of House Team readily reveal that it is the artefact most asked for by visitors. What is it that makes this small (just 34.4mm in diameter), 1,400-year-old object so appealing to people today?

Figures 1, 2, and 3. Tote bags, fridge magnets, and key chains in the MAA shop, with the Trumpington cross on them. Image credit: Aayushi Gupta and Gerard Davis.

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s extremely beautiful. As Hogan is quoted to have said upon its unearthing:  

‘Excavating the area near her head, the glint of a small shiny object, nestled under her chin caught my eye and I do believe I squealed. As I cleared more soil, I noticed the tiny, delicate pieces of garnet … it was exhilarating.’ 

The dazzling precious materials of the cross indicate that its owner was of aristocratic birth and that the piece of jewellery was designed to impress from the outset; in expense, craft, and taste. The combination of gold and garnet are harmonious yet striking, its small scale means that it’s not overbearing and the craftmanship is exemplary. As Yves Saint Laurent said: ‘Fashion fades, style is eternal’; the Trumpington Cross certainly has a timeless appeal. 

Figure 1. A gold and garnet cloisonné pectoral cross, with central roundel and flaring arms. Trumpington, Cambridgeshire. Anglo Saxon, 7th century. Excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Donated by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. MAA 2017.58.

Then there’s the backstory; a melancholic, somewhat sad tale. Chemical testing has shown that the girl buried with the cross was only 16 when she died. She was born in southern Germany before moving to Britain when she was seven, but she appears to have spent much of her short life in ill-health. This gives her and, by extension, the cross, a highly personal human element and brings her closer to us. This has been heightened by Hew Morrison’s recent facial reconstruction which means we now know pretty much what she looked like; the photographic image places her into today’s world, like a passport or Facebook photo. 

Figure 2. Reconstruction of the face of the girl buried with the Trumpington Cross. Image credit: Hew Morrison.

While its beauty or backstory may appeal to the casual viewer, the Trumpington Cross pulls off another neat trick by also getting hardcore archaeologists excited. Its rarity, excellent condition, and historical significance means it holds greater store than merely being pretty. The cross not only denotes that its owner was an early Christian convert but also begs the question of why such a fine piece of religious adornment was found around the neck of a 16-year-old girl and not, for example, around that of a bishop. Furthermore, with the garnets probably hailing from Asia, it provokes questions about the wider trading network of the period.  

Add to all this the natural curiosity of modern-day Cambridgeshire residents marvelling that such a stunning object was discovered in their neck of the woods, and the interest of those travelling from further afield to see it in its (relatively) original location, perhaps it’s no wonder that the aforementioned tote bags sell so well. After all, the cross was placed literally (and possibly figuratively) close to the Anglo-Saxon girl’s heart. So, perhaps the urge to have a Trumpington Cross keyring about one’s person is an extension of this desire to enjoy and share something beautiful, as it is the closest any of us will ever come to wearing the actual cross.

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