Rewriting the History of King Alfred the Great
Recently, newspapers and wire agencies were abuzz with a dramatic archaeological discovery—a pelvic bone believed to belong either to King Alfred the Great, or his son King Edward the Elder, had been found inside a box at the excavation site of the medieval abbey in Winchester. This discovery is not only pivotal in that it ended a millennium-long hunt for the remains of the first king of England, it’s crucial in demonstrating how the efforts of Earthwatch volunteers can go a long way in making history.
A pelvic bone believed to belong either to King Alfred the Great, or his son King Edward the Elder.
The only English monarch referred to as “The Great,” King Alfred (849 AD-899 AD) earned his place in history for his social and educational reforms and victories against Viking conquests. But little did this great Anglo-Saxon king know that, following his death, his bones would be plundered and lost only to be uncovered 1200 years later by a small group of diligent Earthwatch volunteers.
Earthwatchers excavating the grave pit at Hyde Abbey.
Is it Really King Alfred?
King Alfred the Great was buried at his capital city of Winchester in 899 AD. Two hundred years later, his body and the body of his son were transferred to a new prosperous abbey right outside the city walls of Winchester and the old church was leveled and destroyed. Hyde Abbey, as this abbey came to be called, housed the remains of the royal family as well as several saints, and valuable ornaments accumulated by the Catholic Church in its historical heyday. But more importantly, the new church was built on land that was previously uninhabited; it was all fields and grasslands. What this proves is that there were no human remains buried in the area before the abbey was built. This evidence is crucial in linking the recently-discovered remains to King Alfred. Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, Earthwatch historian and archaeologist at the Winchester Research Unit (at the time of the excavation), explains, “It’s resting solely on the fact that we know that the members of the Wessex, Anglo-Saxon Royal family were moved there (Hyde Abbey). We have to rely upon the documentary record that says there were no earlier burials that were exhumed, brought and reburied in the church.” Carbon-14 dating (the measure of the amount of radioactive carbon in a fossil) tests reveal that the bones discovered at the church in Winchester pre-date the church itself.
No Skeletons in this Closet
One of the biggest challenges faced by archaeologists at Hyde Abbey is the lack of complete bone or skeletal structure normally associated with most historical graves and tombs. Reformation and political will of the Tudors ensured that the remains of the Anglo-Saxon kings would be lost to history for a very long time. The church in Winchester was plundered and looted and the tombs of the saints and the royal family were ravaged and their bones scattered. Klingelhofer explains that the mighty 16th century king of England, Henry VIII, lacked evidence of pure blue-bloodedness in his own legacy and that could have led him to erase traces of older dynasties. This political will can alone explain why archaeologists have managed only to find one intact bone, at the excavation site, despite searching for several years.
Statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester, erected in 1899.
To further complicate matters and hide the graves from the keen eye of archaeologists, Winchester’s plundered churches laid the building foundation to a prison, a Victorian suburb and eventually a parking lot— in quick succession of each other. The high altar in the East End of the abbey, home to the plundered graves, was hidden for several years from modern historians until the end of the 20th century.
Earthwatch Ends a Long Search
In 1997, following several decades of excavation in Winchester, Dr Eric Klingelhofer and Kenneth Qualmann, head of the Winchester Museums Service, believed they found evidence to the precise location of the royal tombs in the abbey. They discovered deep pits that dated back to the dissolution carried out during the reign of Henry VIII. This led the two historians to suspect that the pits might hold a crucial piece of the missing Anglo-Saxon puzzle—the remains of King Alfred the Great. In a letter to Earthwatch proposing this excavation as a project, Klingelhofer wrote “the excavation at Hyde Abbey has the potential to rewrite the history books in a way that few digs can.” He was absolutely right.
In 1998, a team of Earthwatch volunteers opened up the site of the pits at the abbey. The following year, another team went into the site and further excavated the pits from which the bones were later recovered. Klingelhofer expressed great pride in his Earthwatch teams and said, “All the British people visiting it (the excavation) were astounded by the speed and skill that our volunteers displayed on the site. They were very impressed by the quality of work that was undertaken.”
The discovery of what might be King Alfred’s remains corroborates the combined effort, skill and deduction of Earthwatch volunteers and archaeologists back in 1998. Like science, history too can take a while to generate outcomes, and, even though it has taken more than a decade to confirm their notion, the discovery proves that the teams were on the right track all along. It also testifies, yet again, that Earthwatch volunteers are dedicated to conserving the present, preserving the past and reserving a better future, in an unparalleled manner.
The archaeologists and Earthwatch volunteers who helped recover the lost remains.
Volunteers: what's the coolest thing you've discovered on your expedition? Share your findings below!