Bones in Bristol: conference report

There is something a bit strange about this age of the Internet. I went to a half-day conference in Bristol the other day, which I knew about merely because Larry Swain had posted about it to the Heroic Age blog (thankyou Larry!) That is, I heard about this event a little way across the UK from me because a guy in the USA posted something to a blog, hosted in California, for a journal which is hosted in Newfoundland, about some bones found in Germany. (I guess you will have seen at least one of the announces that made it to the press that same morning, but if you didn’t, Melissa Snell collected several reports at her blog. See also this more extensive consideration by Michelle of Heavenfield.) The conference was called “Princess Eadgyth of Wessex and her World”, and it was about a recent find of some bones in a grave marked with that name in Magdeburg Cathedral.

Sculpture of Emperor Otto the Great and his queen Eadgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral

Sculpture of Emperor Otto the Great and his queen Eadgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s actually very hard to know what I can say about this, because the paper that actually presented on the subject of the find included a lot of information that was presented as `not for the press’ (though there was a small BBC team there, one of whom I’m pretty sure was someone I went to college with). It will eventually be released at a press conference later this year when various tests have allowed them to be certain of a few more things. So I have to avoid saying anything that isn’t already out there, for which reason I shall borrow part of what the BBC were already told:

Remains of one of the earliest members of the English royal family may have been unearthed in a German cathedral, a Bristol University research team says.

They believe a near-complete female skeleton, aged 30 to 40, found wrapped in silk in a lead coffin in Magdeburg Cathedral is that of Queen Eadgyth.

The granddaughter of Alfred the Great, she married Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, in 929. She died 17 years later, at 36.

The team aims to prove her identity by tracing isotopes in her bones.

Professor Mark Horton, of Bristol’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said: “We know that Saxon royalty moved around quite a lot, and we hope to match the isotope results with known locations around Wessex and Mercia, where she could have spent her childhood.

“If we can prove this truly is Eadgyth, this will be one of the most exciting historical discoveries in recent years.”

Their preliminary findings are to be announced later at a conference at the university.

And that’s what happened and I was there and now I can’t tell you what extra stuff they had—indeed, the BBC already seems to have most of what I thought was under wraps, but the few bits I’m sure weren’t for release were really cool. So watch some suitable space for their final formal announcement. Obviously, they need the isotope analysis that Bristol are now doing before they can announce anything completely definitive, but there will be a lot to talk about whichever way the strontium inclines. Meanwhile, if you want more commentary on it you can enjoy this Yahoo News report in which someone manages to get Simon Keynes to admit the justice of a comparison to Princess Diana.

Textile fragments from the grave of the woman who may have been Queen Eadgyth

Textile fragments from the grave of the woman who may have been Queen Eadgyth

So, instead the baldest of reports. There was an introduction by Professor Mark Horton, and then a lengthy explanation of the finds and what was being done with them by Professor Harald Meller of the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte Halle, which he plugged extensively in the course of the talk and which does seem like a really interesting institution with some innovative ways of dealing with the prehistoric. He is the head of the local archæological bureau, so all of this has metaphorically landed on his desk. He is a big fan of hugely collaborative projects; they already have about forty different experts involved on this, but he wants more and asked us to mention it to any art historians or, especially, medieval textile specialists who might be interested. I realise that there are some reading who have such interests, though they may not feel that they have this level of expertise, but I mention it in case you know people who should know. I can supply contact details to any commentators.

The sarcophagus from Magdeburg Cathedral that bears the name of Queen Eadgyth

The sarcophagus from Magdeburg Cathedral that bears the name of Queen Eadgyth

Anyway, that was the most exciting bit. But there were also three other papers, setting the finds and their supposed identity into their wider, and local, context:

  • Sarah Foot, speaking to the title of “Eadgyth and the West Saxon Royal Family”, who had apparently thought that her biography of King Æthelstan (Eadgyth’s half-brother) was finished till she heard the previous paper, gave us a brand-new reconstruction of Eadgyth’s family and their place in European politics;
  • Michael Hare and Caroline Heighway spoke about “The Cult of St Oswald and the Minster of St Oswald’s, Gloucester”, because Eadgyth seems (according to Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, by whom Simon Keynes was forced to liken Eadgyth to Diana) to have been a big fan of Oswald and claimed descent from him, something that Professor Foot’s paper rejected though I don’t see how we can know, given how little we know of Eadgyth’s maternal ancestry; the site, anyway, was dug in the 1980s and reached its peak of popularity at exactly Eadgyth’s time;
  • and Michael Hare alone presenting about “Anglo-Saxon Berkeley – history and topography”, which had to be cut lots because the other papers had overrun, but which was still an inspiring demonstration of how much a determined effort can get out of even Saxon-period evidence for a site and its use with several juicy disputes over the property and propriety of this sometime nunnery to observe.

Attendance wasn’t huge and the hospitality was well-intentioned but slightly inadequate. Mainly it was strange to be in Bristol again, a town where I used to have family, and know no-one present except Professor Foot, but it was still cool to be in on the inside of secret tenth-century knowledge, however minor, and to meet some new people in the field, and with a bit of luck I didn’t look too weird despite being over-dressed, from Cambridge and a Hispanist charter specialist at a conference about Anglo-Saxon and German archæology…

15 responses to “Bones in Bristol: conference report

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

  2. That’s so exciting! And I don’t even know the first thing about Anglo-Saxon Britain!

    I envy you Brits. All these amazing conferences. Though, maybe once I’ve moved to France I can start namedropping cool events I’ve attended too. ;P

  3. I think Oswald’s marriage to a girl from Wessex was probably enough for Eadgyth to claim kinship with him. He was after all an uncle (through marriage) to the Wessex royal family. Given how royal families routinely embellished their history, kinship could easily morph into descent.

    • That supposes some fairly close kinship among the various West Saxon royal kindreds, but then I suppose we know that this family were by this time interested in supposing such a thing :-)

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  5. Interesting. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for updates.

  6. Those silly Americans….glad to be of help and thanks for the report on the conference. I’m hoping to hear when they release more info to the public, since I’m public and have an interest!

    Thanks for the shout!

  7. Muy interesante en Asturias no suele haber muchas conferencias de este tipo y para acceder hay que pagar o ser parte de un grupo reducido de profesores universitarios.

    • No es muy usual para estas conferencias de ser a la gratuidad aquí, bien, pero éste estaba destinado a la creación de publicidad, por lo que proporcionen té, café y galletas y lo daban conocer…

    • ¡Muy útil: gracias! Toda la series de Territorio, Sociedad y Poder parece como si me hubiera leído ya, pero hay algunas cosas muy interesantes en que el volumen solo, especialmente la nueva edición de los Anales Castellanos. Gracias de nuevo.

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  9. Anyone coming late to this may now be interested in the reports of discoveries of Anglo-Saxon material from this period at Berkeley, described here at the Antiquarian’s Attic, this being the site about which Michael Hare was speaking.

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