ONE of the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial sites in Britain has been discovered in a Cambridgeshire village.

The grave of a teenage girl from the 7th century AD has startled archaeologists by revealing itself to have an extraordinary combination of two extremely rare finds: a 'bed burial' and an early Christian artefact in the form of a stunning gold and garnet cross.

The girl, aged around 16, was buried on an ornamental bed - an enigmatic and very limited Anglo-Saxon practice about which almost nothing is known - with a pectoral Christian cross on her chest, probably sewn onto her clothing.

Fashioned from gold and intricately set with cut garnets, only the fifth of its kind ever to be found, the artefact dates this grave to the earliest years of the English Church, between 650 and 680 AD.

In 597 AD, the Pope dispatched St Augustine to England on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings, igniting a process of national conversion that led to many decades of struggle between Christian and pagan beliefs. Using the latest scientific techniques to analyse this exceptional find could result in a greater understanding of this pivotal period in British history, and the spread of Christianity in eastern England during what are often termed 'the Dark Ages'.

Was this teenage girl an early Christian convert, a standard-bearer for the new God? "Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down," says Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge.

"To be buried in this elaborate way, with such a valuable artefact, tells us that this girl was probably nobility or even royalty. This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest sphere of society - similar to the one found in the coffin of St Cuthbert."

The site at Trumpington Meadows, just south of the village of Trumpington on Cambridge city limits - has proved an archaeological treasure trove. The dig, funded by the Trumpington Meadows Land Company, has unearthed significant findings from the Neolithic and Iron Ages.

But it's the Anglo-Saxon teenager in her bed with a Christian cross that has really excited the archaeologists.

"That this is a bed burial is remarkable in itself - the thirteenth ever uncovered in the UK, and only the fourth in the last twenty years - add to that a beautifully made Christian cross and you have a truly astonishing discovery," says Alison Dickens, who led the excavation for the University's Archaeological Unit.

"We think there's only been one other bed burial combined with a Christian pectoral cross ever found - at Ixworth in nearby Suffolk. As this was a 19th century find, the records are very unclear.

"The fact that we will be able to apply modern techniques to thoroughly investigate the site is a thrilling prospect"