King Alfred excavation: what we know so far

Researchers believe they have found a piece of pelvic bone belonging to King Alfred, or to his eldest son, Edward.

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The findings, announced on Friday, are to be explored in a BBC Two documentary, due to air tonight at 9pm.

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King Alfred became king of Wessex in AD 871, and died in 899 barely in his fifties. He is best remembered for his victories against the Vikings.

Here, ahead of tonight’s documentary, History Extra looks back at the events to date, and summarises what is known so far about the piece of pelvic bone.

Events to date

1) Security fears: Publicity surrounding the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton underneath a car park in Leicester last year prompted security fears about an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church in Winchester, rumoured to contain the remains of King Alfred. Fearful that grave robbers would target the site, community group Hyde900 sought permission to excavate the grave.

2) Grave excavated: In March 2013, human remains from the grave were removed and taken to secure storage.

3) Remains examined: Hyde900 was in August granted permission to inspect the remains, to see if they belonged to King Alfred.

4) Dead end reached: Radiocarbon dating revealed that the bones dated from about 1100 to 1500 – much later than Alfred’s reign. The bones, including five skulls, came from a minimum of six individuals.

5) Community excavation revisited: Disappointed by the results, Dr Katie Tucker, researcher in human osteology at the University of Winchester, contacted the Winchester Museum Service to find out more about a community excavation that took place on the site of Hyde Abbey between 1995 and 1999.

She was advised of two boxes of bones in the museum’s storage facility that had been identified as human, but not until some years after the excavation had ended and funding had run out. Dr Tucker re-examined the remains, and became interested in a piece of pelvic bone.

The pelvic bone: what we know

– Radiocarbon dating revealed the piece of adult male pelvis dated from AD 895–1017.

– Osteological analysis found the piece of bone belonged to a man aged between 26 and 45+ at death.

– This, researchers say, means there is “a good chance” the bone belongs to King Alfred or his son, Edward. Alfred died in AD 899 barely in his fifties, while Edward died in 924, probably also in his fifties. [It is believed he was born in the 870s].

– Dr Tucker said she would “not like to say which one of them” the bone belongs to.

– The piece of bone is between a quarter and a third of the size of a complete pelvis. “The front and top part of the pelvis are missing,” Dr Tucker told a press conference on Friday.

– Dr Tucker believes it may be possible to extract DNA from the bone. “The preservation of the organic component of the bone is very, very good.”

– She also said she hoped for a re-excavation of the area, but was not able to comment on a timescale.

– To understand the history of the pelvic bone, we must look back to King Alfred’s death in 899. He was originally interred at the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester, known as the Old Minster. But his successor and eldest son, Edward, at once commissioned work on a bigger, grander church – the New Minster immediately to the cathedral’s north. It seems to have been intended as a burial place for the new dynasty of English kings founded by Alfred.

The bodies of Alfred and the brother of King Edward, Ealhswith, were transferred to New Minster, to be joined eventually by Edward himself and other members of the royal family. The bones were later moved to Hyde Abbey.

Although Hyde Abbey was dismantled after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the bodies seem to have been allowed to remain. But when a bridewell – a prison/workhouse – was built on the site in 1788, they were emptied out and the remains “thrown about”, according to an eyewitness.

In 1866–67, an antiquarian claimed to have excavated the bones of the Wessex royal household from the site of Hyde Abbey. He sold these to the Rector William Williams of Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, who reinterred them in the unmarked grave in the late 19th century.

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The grave was excavated last year by Hyde900.