University of Winchester archaeologists who have been working to identify the remains of King Alfred the Great (848-899) held a press conference a short time a go. They revealed the bones exhumed from a grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in March of 2013 do not belong to the 9th century king, because radio carbon tests eliminated all of those bones as belonging to the monarch. Dr Katie Tucker, an osteologist at the University of Winchester, said the exhumed bones were from a later period that King Alfred.
But the University Winchester research team now believes that pieces of a pelvic found in a box in storage for the Winchester City Museum could belong to King Alfred the Great or his son Edward the Elder.
According to historical records, King Alfred was interred at the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester when he died in 899, but his bones were moved a couple of times before getting their final resting place at Hyde Abbey. When the Abbey was dismantled in the 16th century, the bodies buried were believed to have been displaced when a prison was built on the site.
It was during a community excavation at the Abbey in the late 1990s that the fragments of pelvic bone believed to belong to either Alfred or Edward was unearthed. The bones were found in an excavation pit in front of the high altar where there were known burials. At the time, no tests were done on the bones because there was a lack of funding and because remains found near it were dated to between the 17th or 18th century, so the pelvic bones was not thought to be of interest.
Dr. Tucker found out about the pieces of pelvic bone after the St. Bartholomew’s skeletons were eliminated as possibilities. When she arranged for the bones to be tested she discovered they dated to between 895-1017 belonged to a man who was between 26 and 45 at the time of death.
During the press conference Dr. Tucker said, “Given the age at death of the individual and the probable male identity, the plausible candidates are King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or the brother of King Edward, Aethelweard. All were buried in the abbey. However, historical evidence indicates that only the coffins of Alfred and Edward were at the site of the high altar. The discovery of the bone in a pit dug into the graves in front of the high altar makes it far more likely it comes from either Alfred or Edward.”
Dr. Tucker said that it might be possible to extract DNA from the pelvic bone but said the problem was finding another DNA source to check it with.
She explained: “There’s a good chance of extracting DNA and comparing it to Alfred’s granddaughter [Queen Eagdyth] who is buried in Germany but they did try to get a DNA sample from her grave but were not able to because it was not so well preserved so we need to find someone else to compare them with.”
Tucker said the they will continue to try and positively identify the remains by testing DNA against a living ancestor, like researchers did with Richard III, but the problem will be finding a clear descendant, since they need to trace ancestry back more than a 1000 years.
So many questions…What pieces of bone did researchers use when they tried to extract DNA from Queen Eagdyth’s remains in 2010? If Queen Eagdyth’s teeth, pelvis or femur bones are intact archaeologists should try to extract DNA from within those bones, those areas preserve DNA in harsh conditions like fire and mass disasters. That’s if those researchers haven’t tried those areas already.
BBC Two’s Neil Oliver was given exclusive access to historians and scientists while they were investigating the final resting place of Alfred the Great. The Search For Alfred The Great will air on BBC Two on Tuesday 21st January at 9pm. In the doc Oliver investigates what happened to Alfred’s remains after his death in 899 and follows the team as they exhume the contents of the unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church last March.
(2014 January 17). King Alfred the Great bones believed to be in box found in museum. The Telegraph. Retrieved on January 17, 2014 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10579315/King-Alfred-the-Great-bones-believed-to-be-in-box-found-in-museum.html
Gander, Kashimira. (2014 January 17). Bones of King Alfred the Great believed to be found in a box at Winchester City Museum. The Independent. Retrieved on January 17, 2014 from:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bones-of-king-alfred-the-great-believed-to-be-found-in-a-box-in-at-winchester-city-museum-9067601.html