Press release issued 17 June 2010
Bones excavated in Magdeburg Cathedral in 2008 are those of Saxon Princess Eadgyth who died in AD 946, experts at the University of Bristol confirmed today. The crucial scientific evidence came from the teeth preserved in the upper jaw. The bones are the oldest surviving remains of an English royal burial.
Eadgyth was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great and the half sister of Athelstan, the first acknowledged King of England. She was sent to marry Otto, the king of Saxony in AD 929, and bore him at least two children, before her death at around the age of 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. Instead they found it contained a lead box, with the inscription “EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGVS HABET...” (The remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus...).
When the box was opened, partial skeletal remains were found, along with textile material and organic residues. The challenge facing the archaeologists was to show that the remains, which had been moved so often, and could easily have been substituted by others, were indeed those of Queen Eadgyth.
Director of the project, Professor Harald Meller of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology, Saxony-Anhalt, commented: “Medieval bones were moved frequently, and often mixed up, so it required some exceptional science to prove that they are indeed those of Eadgyth. It is incredible that we have been able to do this using the most recent analytical techniques.”
Anthropological study of the bones, undertaken at the University of Mainz by Professor Kurt Alt, confirmed that the remains belonged to a single female individual, who died between 30 and 40 years of age. One of the femur heads showed evidence that the individual was a frequent horse rider, thus hinting at her nobility.
Unfortunately vital parts were missing, including hands and feet, and much of the skull, of which only the upper jaw survived. These losses are probably due to their collection as medieval relics. Isotope analysis of the bones suggested that she enjoyed a high protein diet, including a large quantity of fish. All these results suggest a high status aristocratic lady.
It was hoped that radiocarbon dating would help in the identification of the bones, but the results proved to be some 200 years too early. This presented a real problem, as dating of the associated textiles in the lead box produced the correct range of dates for Eadgyth. It was also hoped that DNA might be extracted from the remains but this proved impossible, most likely due to the box’s bad state of preservation because the burial was in a tomb.
The crucial scientific evidence came from the study of the teeth preserved in the upper jaw. This used a technique that 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 Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz.
Dr Alistair Pike, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University, explained: “Strontium isotopes on tiny samples of tooth enamel have been measured. By micro sampling, using a laser, we can reconstruct the sequence of a person’s whereabouts, month by month up to the age of 14.”
By combining oxygen and strontium results, it was possible to ‘triangulate’ the location of the first 14 years of this individual’s life. The results unambiguously pinpointed the chalk regions of southern Britain. The findings were compared to isotope values measured in teeth from other burials from Magdeburg by Corina Knipper at the University of Mainz.
Ms Knipper, a researcher in Professor Alt’s team, said: “The isotopes in the teeth supposed to be Eadgyth’s are completely different from those in the people local to Magdeburg. This individual cannot have spent her childhood in Magdeburg.”
The remarkable discovery was, however, that these isotope results matched exactly the historical records of Eadgyth’s childhood and adolescence in Wessex.
Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology at Bristol University, added: “Eadgyth seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England, but changed her domicile frequently, matching quite variable strontium ratios in her teeth. Only from the age of nine do the isotope values remain constant.
“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.”
Trauma was also indicated in her skeleton around this same age, suggesting a dramatic change in her circumstances. Her monastic life, and a diet of fish also explain the problematic radiocarbon dates, which tend to appear older with heavily fish-based diets.
Grave goods, as was common for Christian burials, did not accompany Eadgyth’s bones. However, they were wrapped in extremely expensive and rare silks using the most expensive colorants of the time.
The bones will be reburied in Magdeburg Cathedral later this year, 500 years after their last interment in 1510.
The linen textile corresponding to the last reburial inside the coffin
Image by © Juraj Liptak, LDA Halle
Professor Dr Kurt W. Alt and Dipl. Biol. Petra Held during the anthropological examination of the skeletal remains
Image by © Juraj Liptak, LDA Halle
Dr Alistair Pike and Professor Mark Horton during the isotope analysis in the laboratories at Bristol
Image by © University of Bristol, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Strontium isotopes on tiny samples of tooth enamel have been measured. By micro sampling, using a laser, we can reconstruct the sequence of a person’s whereabouts, month by month up to the age of 14.