University of Winchester reveals significant find in the search for Alfred the Great’s remains
Hyde900 and the University of Winchester confirm they have discovered what they believe to be a fragment of the the pelvic bone of King Alfred the Great or his eldest son, Edward the Elder.
Cllr Rob Humby, Deputy Leader of Winchester City Council said:
The City Council is delighted that the hard work of Hyde900 and the University has helped fit another piece into the jigsaw of the King Alfred story. We support their shared ambition to complete this jigsaw, over time, and we look forward to working with them to find new ways of telling the story of Alfred and of Winchester in the future.
This significant find was announced at a press conference by representatives from the community cultural group Hyde900 and experts from the University of Winchester. Together they presented the results of rigorous skeletal and radiocarbon dating tests, and highlighted supporting historical evidence.
They also revealed the discovery had not been without its twists and turns. Initial investigations in to an unmarked grave, that was rumoured to contain the remains of King Alfred, proved fruitless. However, archaeological evidence came to light that reignited the search.
A BBC documentary, The Search for Alfred the Great, followed the project team throughout. This will be shown on BBC 2, at 9pm, on Tuesday 21 January.
King Alfred was best known for defending Wessex against the Viking invaders, but he also laid the foundations for a unified English nation. He was above all passionate about education and learning.
History recalls that when King Alfred died in 899, he was interred in the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester, known as the Old Minster. From there his bones were moved by monks to New Minster (near the modern-day Cathedral) and then Hyde Abbey.
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.
Early in 2013, Hyde900, working with Saint Bartholomew’s Church, petitioned Winchester Diocese to grant permission to exhume the remains of the Unmarked Grave.
Archaeologists from the University of Winchester exhumed the remains in March 2013. Dr Katie Tucker, Researcher in Human Osteology at the University of Winchester, led the exhumation. She established that the bones, including five skulls, came from a minimum of six individuals.
Radiocarbon dates revealed the skeletons dated from about 1100 to 1500 AD, much later than Alfred’s reign.
Dr Tucker said the evidence pointed to one conclusion: “The occupants of the Unmarked Grave were not among the West Saxon royal family.”
As part of Dr Tucker’s research she contacted the Winchester City Council's Museums to find out more about a community excavation that took place on the site of Hyde Abbey between 1995 and 1999, and that led her to an exciting development.
Upon examining the remains, Dr Tucker’s interest was piqued by 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. Osteological analysis found it belonged to a man between 26 and 45+ at death.
“The simplest explanation, given there was no Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hyde Abbey, is that this bone comes from one of the members of the West Saxon royal family brought to the site,” said Dr Tucker.
“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, Æthelweard. 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 Nick Thorpe, Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Winchester, added: “The Department of Archaeology is extremely excited to have been able to plausibly link this human bone to one of these two crucial figures in English history.”
“We also believe that we are thereby helping the city to right a historical wrong done to the remains of these great kings, which began with the dissolution of Hyde Abbey in 1539, to be followed by centuries of neglect, destruction and disturbance up to the last antiquarian diggings in 1901. Monks brought their remains to Hyde in 1110 because they wanted to preserve and honour them, and this project enables us to do this once more.”
Hyde900 and the University of Winchester are now considering how to take forward these exciting findings, in their quest to find the further remains of Alfred and the Wessex royal family and to tell the fully story of Hyde Abbey.
More information about the BBC’s documentary, The Search for Alfred the Great, can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03sbp73
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