Part of a pelvic bone, most likely to be from King Alfred or his eldest son Edward, has been discovered in Winchester – not in the unmarked grave being examined by experts, but in a box in museum storage.
In what researchers described as a “fluke”, a piece of an adult male pelvis was discovered in a box of bones at Winchester Museum. The bones had been recovered during a 1995–99 community excavation.
The bones were recently re-examined by Dr Katie Tucker, researcher in human osteology at the University of Winchester, after the exhumation of remains in an unmarked grave reached a dead end.
Radiocarbon dates revealed the remains, excavated last year from the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, dated from about 1100 to 1500 AD – much later than Alfred’s reign. The bones, including five skulls, came from a minimum of six individuals.
Disappointed by the results, Dr Tucker 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.
Upon examining the remains, Dr Tucker came across a pelvis bone that had been found at the site of the Abbey’s High Altar. Radiocarbon dating showed it dated from AD 895-1017, and osteological analysis found it belonged to a man aged between 26 and 45+ at death.
King Alfred died in 899, barely in his fifties.
Dr Tucker said: “Given the age of 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, Ethelweard. 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 that it comes from either Alfred or Edward.”
Dr Tucker told History Extra: “I was disappointed, but not surprised, that we didn’t find bones of the right date in the unmarked grave. It was a long shot.
“I was motivated to contact the Museum Service because I was disappointed. And we managed to get a piece of bone that’s the right date – you would never have expected that. It was a fluke really.”
Dr Tucker said there is “a good chance” the bone belongs to Alfred or Edward. “There’s really no-one else it could be,” she added.
Dr Tucker also said that DNA may be able to be obtained from the bone.
She added that she hoped for a re-excavation of the area of the High Altar. “It’s still a big ‘if’, but there’s a potential to find more bones. That would enable us to compare DNA, and see if there is a relationship between the individuals.”
Barbara Yorke, professor emerita of early medieval history at the University of Winchester, told History Extra: “I was quite surprised, because I did not think there would be any surviving bones.
“Now here we have a pelvis bone that potentially belonged to Alfred or Edward – it’s a chance to get closer to the two as real people. And more bones may be established in the future. It’s really just the start of the story.
“It must also be one of the earliest surviving royal fragments – that is exciting in itself.
“I really hope this will arouse interest in Anglo-Saxons. There’s so much focus on the Vikings, and not enough on the people who managed to beat them.”
Ryan Lavelle, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Winchester, told History Extra: “This bone provides a tangible link with that period of history. It shouldn’t matter whether the bone belongs to Alfred or Edward, but for me, Alfred has been there since I started studying the Middle Ages, and he is very close to the hearts of the people of Winchester.”
When King Alfred died in 899, he was interred at the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester, known as the Old Minster. His bones were later moved by monks to New Minster, and then Hyde Abbey.
Today’s announcement was made at a press conference held by community group Hyde900 and the University of Winchester.
Permission was, in August 2013, granted to Hyde900, to see if remains from an unmarked grave were those of King Alfred. The group was granted a licence – known as a faculty – to start examining the remains.
The remains were exhumed in March 2013 amid concerns about theft or vandalism, after publicity surrounding the discovery of Richard III’s remains.
The findings will be explained in full in a BBC documentary, The Search for Alfred the Great, due to air on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday 21 January.
Read Alex Burghart’s feature ‘Alfred The Great: A Lucky King?’ in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine.