Statue of King Alfred in Wantage Market Square. Source: wikipedia
Statue of King Alfred in Wantage Market Square. Source: wikipedia

Bring up the Bones I

Alfred the Great is next on the list of kings waiting to be exhumed

Svend Estridsson
Reconstruction of the face of Svend Estridsson

First the hunt went for Richard III. Now that the results have shown to be so captivating to the general public, the endeavours elsewhere for universities and local communities  to repeat the success are gathering momentum.

At the University of Bristol, scientists are right now working to identify the bones of Cnut the Great (Knútr or Canute) originally laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral. Until now his bones with those of Queen Emma, his son Harthacanute (Hörthaknútr) and other kings have been kept in a series of bone-caskets. Here they were collected after Roundheads ransacked the cathedral during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Her the possibility is to compare DNA with that of Sven Estridsøn (Sveinn Ástríðarson) – his sisters son – who was buried in Roskilde Cathedral in 1074/76. A few years ago his remains were intensively studied and his face reconstructed. Another source for identification would be comparing the DNA of the jumbled skeletons in the bonecaskets with those of Queen Eadgyth 910 -946), wife of Otto of Saxony. Unfortunately extraction of DNA from her remains has sofar not met with success.

Eadgyth – or Editha in German – was the daughter of Edward the Elder and the granddaughter of Alfred the Great (849-899). Hence she is also considered a key to the hopeful future identification of the remains of this king. His remains are believed to lie in a grave in Winchester and a team from Winchester University is reportedly seeking permission to dig up the spot at St Bartholomew’s Church, near the remains of the Hyde Abbey in the Northern part of present Winchester.

During Saxon times, Winchester became the capital of Wessex. King Alfred 871-899) laid out the Saxon street plan, a cross shape street system and built fortifications and was later buried there.Originally he was buried temporarily in the Old Minster in Winchester in order to be moved later to the New Minster, which might have been built especially to receive his body. Later the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city and in 1110 the monks transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred’s body and those of his wife and children. Soon after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, the church was demolished, but the graves were left intact. The royal graves were probably rediscovered by chance in 1788 when convicts from a prison nearby were digging in the Governor’s garden. Apparently the coffins were stripped of lead, bones were scattered and lost, and no identifiable remains of Alfred have subsequently been found. Further excavations in 1866 and 1897 were inconclusive. As late as 1999 the Hyde Community Archaeology project carried an extensive excavation at the site of the Abbey in order to study the archaeological remains and find the bones of Alfred; alas with no success. Nevertheless archaeologists apparently wish to have another go.

Why we bother

Some may wonder why we bother? But this is a question with an easy answer. Unfortunately we cannot time travel and thus take part in bygone events. Neither may we exchange any words with are ancestors or forebears. However, what we are able to under lucky circumstances is recreating the face of persons long dead.

Such cranio-facial reconstruction had its origins in the 19th century. However not before 1964 did Russian scientists use the techniques to recreate historical person. Recently the techniques have developed significantly. Especially with the introduction of 3D computer-models the technique has become more advanced. Today such reconstructions have become part and parcel of the work of curators and museums.

We want to meet them! That’s why…