Long-lost Bones Belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth

This is the most exciting archaeological story of 2010. Once again the University of Bristol is leading the world in research. And I am lucky enough to be going back to my favorite university today to hear this groundbreaking new evidence of Princess Edith’s legend.

Scientists will announce that bones excavated in Magdeburg Cathedral in 2008 are those of SaxonQueen Eadgyth (‘Edith of England’) who died in AD 946. Crucial scientific evidence came from teeth preserved in the upper jaw. The bones are the oldest surviving remains of an English royal burial. The original excavations (view the 2006-2009 excavation here) were carried out by a joint team of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, and Martin-Luther-Universitt Halle-Wittenberg.
Click the images to see them inlarge size

Eadgyth was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great and half-sister of Athelstan, the first acknowledged King of England. She was sent to marry Otto, King of Saxony in AD 929, and bore him at least two children before her death aged around 36.

She lived most of her married life at Magdeburg and was buried in the monastery of St Maurice. Her bones were moved on at least three occasions, before being interred in an elaborated tomb in Magdeburg Cathedral in 1510.

It was this tomb that was opened by German archaeologists in 2008, a tomb long expected to be empty…But instead it contained a lead box carrying the inscription EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGVS HABET… (the remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus…). (the inscription is visible in this slideshow)
When the box was opened partial skeletal remains were found, alongside textile material and organic residues. The challenge facing archaeologists was to show that the remains, which had been moved so often and could easily have been substituted with others, were indeed those of Queen Eadgyth.
Anthropological study of the bones at the University of Mainz, by Professor Kurt Alt, confirmed the remains belonged to a single female, who had died aged between 30 and 40. One of the femur heads showed evidence that the individual was a frequent horse rider. Isotope analysis of the bones suggested that she enjoyed a high protein diet, including a large quantity of fish. All these results suggested a high level of aristocraticy.
The crucial upper jaw evidence came from a technique which measures the strontium and oxygen isotopes that are mineralised in the teeth as they are formed. The value of these isotopes depends on the local environment, and its underlying geology, that is then locked into the teeth. Samples of the teeth were studied at the University of Bristols Department of Archaeology and the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz. “By micro sampling, using a laser, we can reconstruct the sequence of a persons whereabouts, month by month, up to the age of 14,” says Dr Alistair Pike of Bristol University.
Eadgyth seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England, but changed her domicile frequently,” adds Bristol’s Prof Mark Horton. Eadgyth must have moved around the kingdom following her father, king Edward the Elder during his reign. When her mother was divorced in 919 – Eadgyth was between nine and ten at that point – both were banished to a monastery, maybe Winchester or Wilton in Salisbury.”
This is too exciting for words – but don’t worry: I’m going armed with my camera and will be sure to catch all the action from the talk, alongside interviews with archaeologists in the know. I’ll also be tweeting live from the event so keep an eye out!
The bones will be reburied in Magdeburg Cathedral later on this year, exactly 500 years after their last interment in 1510.