Who is this woman? Forensic artists reconstruct face of long-dead medieval Cambridge immigrant

Forensic artists have put a face to the buried remains of a 16-year-old German woman thought to have been buried in Cambridge more than 1,300 years ago.

The composite has been released by researchers from Cambridge University, not as part of some unsolved disappearance, but as an example of reconstructive work from long-dead remains uncovered from the region.

Forensic artist Hew Morrison drew on measurements of the skull, knowledge of facial tissue depth for Caucasian females and DNA analysis of hair and eye colour, to recreate the mystery woman’s features.

But the retelling of her life story goes beyond mere facial recreation.

An analysis of her remains by bioarchaeologists has uncovered unique aspects of her history: she likely moved to England from somewhere near the Swiss Alps near the German border around the time she turned seven.

Once that happened, her dietary protein increased to a discernibly higher level. But University of Edinburgh bioarchaeologist Dr Sam Leggett explains this sudden change in diet occurred near the end of her life.

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While previous analysis of these remains has failed to uncover a cause of death, it is known she had suffered from an illness.

“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,” Leggett says.

“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.”

She was likely a member of the English elite

The teenager’s remains were originally uncovered in Trumpington south of Cambridge in 2011 along with those of two other women.

But when they were unearthed, archaeologists found she had been laid to rest as part of an uncommon burial practice. Bed burials in Medieval Europe were rare traditions in which Christian women were interred as if they were going to sleep.

Only 20 such examples of this practice have been found in the UK, among them the Trumpington dead.

The teenager was also notably found bearing a 3.5cm wide gold and garnet red cross, one of only five on record. This, the researchers explain, signifies her status as an early convert to Christianity and likely as a member of the English elite – potentially a royal.

A small cross made of gold and garnet.
The Trumpington Cross. Credit: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

“She must have known that she was important and she had to carry that [cross] on her shoulders,” Legget says.

“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 seventh 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 woman is having her story told as part of an exhibition at the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Her cross will be displayed along with the gold chain and pins found near her neck, and the headboard of her burial bed.

The trumpington cross is found during the excavation of the burial in 2012.
The Trumpington Cross is found during the excavation of the burial in 2012. Credit University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

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