A royal mystery to rival the intrigue of any drama airs tonight. The Search for Alfred the Great, on BBC Two, follows the rigorous skeletal and radiocarbon tests which may lead all the way to the adversary of the Vikings, fixated on a section of his hip found in a location far less obvious than the unmarked grave experts initially thought the king’s family might have been laid to rest in.
The programme’s presenter, archaeologist Neil Oliver, and Dr Katie Tucker, the leader of the investigation at the University of Winchester, learn that the dating of a pelvis bone – from the late 9th century – is “bang on the money” in its link to King Alfred and his son, Edward the Elder.
There was an element of chance to the rediscovery of the fragment, which was part of two boxes of bones mentioned as an aside by organisers from Winchester Museums, having been left in their care when funding ran out for a community dig during the 1990s.
“My ghast was well and truly flabbered,” admits Oliver.
“I was fascinated by this project but never thought we would find anything that could possibly be Alfred the Great.
“To know that even a fragment of a member of the House of Wessex has survived into the 21st century is astonishing, and seeing the pelvic bone laid out in front of me was one of the most surprising moments of my archaeological career.”
The film crew gain several surprise insights from scientists and archaeologists. There is a suggestion that Alfred – the “perfect English king” – had a chronic illness, possibly the inflammatory bowel condition Crohn’s disease.
Following in the footsteps of John Mellor, the historian who headed to Winchester intent on finding King Alfred’s remains in 1866, the exploration tries to make sense of bones thought to have been reburied four times.
Martin Davidson, the BBC Commissioning Editor for History and Business, said the pelvis was a “wonderful find” in the pursuit of a patriarch.
“We set out to make this documentary to explore not just what the exhumations at Hyde Abbey might reveal, but also tell the extraordinary story of Alfred’s life and influence, forging a united language and identity that laid the foundations of the English nation,” he explained.
“The result is a fascinating piece of television with twists and turns - and the unexpected discovery of this piece of bone that could belong to Alfred the Great, one of England’s most important kings.”
- The Search for Alfred the Great is on BBC Two at 9pm tonight (February 21 2014).
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