King Alfred the Great's Remains Found Inside A Cardboard Box

By Ajit Jha on January 18, 2014 5:02 PM EST

alfred the great
The remains of Alfred the Great, who founded the English Kingdom, were believed to be lost since his death in 899 AD. They were found at a museum, where they had been in a storage box for nearly two decades. (Photo: Jim Linwood, CC BY 2.0)

A year after the discovery of the grave of King Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, England, archaeologists in Hampshire may have found the remains of Alfred the Great, the 9th century monarch who founded the English Kingdom, inside a cardboard box.

Also known as King Alfred of Wessex, he is the only known Anglo-Saxon leader to have defended against the ferocious Vikings before laying the foundations of a great empire. Historians have described him as "the most perfect character in history," and he is the only king in British history with the honorific "the Great." His remains were considered lost after he died in 899 AD and underwent several re-burials after the 16th century, The Daily Beast reported.  

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A routine carbon dating analysis revealed that the bones in the box belonged to man who was between 26 and 45 at the time of death. The remains date back to between 895 and 1017 AD. In the late 1990s, some amateur archaeologists dug up an ancient grave that could not be identified with any accuracy. Now, it is nearly certain that the remains of Alfred or his son could have been lying unrecognized inside a storage box at Winchester City Museum.   

According to Neil Oliver, an archeologist working on a soon-to-be-released BBC program about King Alfred, this is one the most important findings in archeological history. "It overshadows the discovery of Richard III's remains in my opinion," he told The Telegraph. "We are talking about a body of a king more than half a millennia older. He's one of the few great kings of England that most people can name. He's a mythologized figure, almost like Arthur."

An exhumation last year on a grave at St. Bartholomew's Church in Winchester, southern England, led archeologists to believe that they had located the 9th century king. Further tests motivated Dr. Katie Tucker, a researcher in human osteology to re-examine some more recent excavations in the area. A series of bones dug in the 1990s was tested without conclusive findings. The remains were consequently stored away in the museum.

Tucker decided to look at those bones again. Tests on a pelvic bone startled the scientists, for the scale of the discovery was confounding. With regard to the location of the discovery, three possible explanations were offered. "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 Tucker, according to The Daily Beast.

Carbon dating led the researchers to zero in on King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or his brother, Aethelweard. However, the site of the high altar further narrowed down the probable candidates to Alfred and Edward. "The discovery of the bone in a pit dug into the graves in front of the high altar makes it far more likely it comes from either Alfred or Edward," Tucker said. Although final confirmation of the findings will require further tests, the researchers are pretty confident in their discovery and conclusions. 

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