In March of this year, archaeologists exhumed an unmarked grave in St Bartholomew’s Church in England. They exhumed 5 skulls and other bones, which some people believe belong to King Alfred the Great and his family. After interest in King Alfred’s grave grew after the publicity of the discovery of King Richard III’s remains, local and church officials were concerned about the safety of the St. Bartholomew remains.
In August the Diocese of Winchester granted a local group, Hyde900, permission to test the skeletal remains. Rosemary Burns, executive committee member of Hyde 900, said that samples would be taken for carbon dating as well as isotope analysis. Isotope analysis can be used to isolate the region where a person grew up because tooth enamel is laid down in the first 14 years of life, and strontium and oxygen isotope ratios in the teeth reflect the food a person ate and the water they drank. Dr. Katie Tucker, from the University of Winchester, said that if the remains date to the 10th century it would be ‘proof ‘ they belong to King Alfred the Great and his family, because there would be no other reason for those bones to be there.
Rosemary Burns went on to say that DNA testing, which was used to identify Richard the III’s remains, would be problematic in this case because King Alfred died more than 1000 years ago, and finding living relatives would be more challenging.
At the time of the reporting in August, the officials with Hyde900 couldn’t go into further detail about the tests because they signed a confidentiality agreement. Because I’m way too excited to know the results of these, I’ve been checking in with the British press weekly for updates, and so far nothing. But this got me to thinking about how they could use DNA testing to positively ID these remains.
In January of 2010, British archaeologists announced the discovery of the skeletal remains of Queen Eadgyth, inside a lead coffin in Germany’s Madgeburg Cathedral. The inscription on the tomb read that the occupant was “Eadgyth, queen of the Germans, the Anglo-Saxon granddaughter of Alfred the Great, sister of Athelstan the first king of a United England.” At the time Queen Eadgyth’s bones were hailed as some of the oldest surviving remains of an English royal burial ever recovered.
Queen Eadgyth was an Anglo Saxon princess and the granddaughter of the King Alfred the Great, who married King Otto I of Germany in 927AD. Because the remains of medieval royalty were moved a lot, archaeologists were not 100% sure these belonged to the queen.
When anthropologists articulated Eadgyth’s remains, they discovered that some bones were missing, including bones of the hands and feet and much of the skull, which were probably taken by medieval relic hunters. In the photo to the left you can see the bones articulated with the skull fragment at the far right, and it looks like only the bones and teeth of the upper jaw remain. Thank goodness researchers had this much, because they were able to run isotope analysis on the tooth enamel. The Telegraph reported that “DNA analysis proved inconclusive due to the poor preservation of the tomb.”
Isotope analysis on tooth enamel confirmed that these bones belonged to someone who was raised in Wessex in southern England until they were 9 then moved around a lot, which matches up with historical records of Queen Eadgyth. Osteological analysis revealed these were the remains of woman who rode horses regularly, and who died in her mid-30s.
Though scientists tried unsuccessfully to extract DNA from Queen Eadgyth’s remains in 2010, another attempt may provide results that could be compared to the bones exhumed from the unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s Church in England. DNA testing maybe the only way to positively identify King Alfred’s skeletal remains, because (as far as I know) carbon dating and isotope analysis would only provide an approximation of identification. A successful DNA test would positively ID King Alfred’s remains as well as Queen Eagdyth’s bones.
In the last three years DNA extraction techniques have made great strides. In 2012, for example, researchers from Solvenia developed a technique to extract STR DNA profiles from teeth and bones. They tested this method on the bones of WWII soldiers, whose remains were buried in mass graves or thrown into caves, unprotected by coffins or tombs. Despite the fact that the DNA in these bones had degraded due to environmental conditions, they were able to extract STR DNA profiles in 99% of the remains.
Though there is a huge difference in remains that date to WWII and a thousand years ago, my point is is that DNA extraction techniques have improved in the last few years. Depending on how many teeth are left and the integrity of the DNA remaining in the long bones or pelvis of Queen Eagdyth’s remains, scientists maybe able to extract additional DNA for testing.