Blogs > Cliopatria > Eadgyth after ealle

Jul 8, 2010

Eadgyth after ealle

I don't know if it's just that I'm advancing in the profession, but I don't recall that many press conferences about medieval finds when I was still a student. The academic year 2009/10 however seems to have been the year of the incredible early medieval discovery, and the press have been happy to come and hear the archæologists speak their pieces. The obvious example is the Staffordshire hoard, but there was also a less spectacular but more personal case that I've been following since February and which has now reached a kind of culmination. This is the discovery in Magdeburg Cathedral of a skeleton which we can now be fairly sure is that of Queen Eadgyth of the Germans, wife of King and then Holy Roman Emperor Otto I and granddaughter of Alfred the Great.

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

The February point of departure was a press conference I got to go to, or at least a conference to which the press were invited, and the archæologist in charge of the project was late because he'd been on the phone to the press all morning, so it can't be said that they were shy in putting themselves forward. The situation then was that excavations in Magdeburg Cathedral had allowed them to open a grave where Eadgyth had long been supposed to be buried, but from which it was assumed she had been removed in one of her many reburials. Somewhat to their surprise, they found that firstly there was a sarcophagus in the grave, and secondly that it was occupied, by what turned out to be the body of a woman in five sets of burial garments. Of course, this is not to say that the body was Eadgyth: the cult of relics and the dead was so important in the Middle Ages that such translations were frequent, and often involved whatever body could be obtained when the original had gone missing or was elsewhere. So further tests were needed, and the occasion of the conference was that her bones had now been brought to Bristol, where there is an expert team in skeletal analysis, so that tests could be performed that would make the identification more definite. This was the first conference I'd ever been to with a non-disclosure agreement, and they were very cautious about leaping to any conclusions, but that didn't always get through to the press, and I reported on this at the time at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.

Textile fragments from the grave of the woman who may have been Queen Eadgyth
(Textile fragments from the grave of the woman whom it seems was indeed Queen Eadgyth.)

Subsequently extra revelations began to creep out. The Magdeburg team had also, for example, discovered the body of Archbishop Wichmann, one of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa's chancellors in eerily perfect preservation in another of the cathedral's burials, and that made it to the press in March. But only in the last month has the analysis of the woman's skeleton been completed, and now the findings are in. In summary, these are:

  1. The skeleton is of a female of between 30 and 40 years old (Eadgyth died at 36) who had done a lot of horse-riding, all of which was established by anthropological examination at Halle before the trip to Bristol
  2. Analysis of her teeth showed a build-up of strontium isotopes entirely incompatible with an upbringing in the Magdeburg area
  3. The pattern was however compatible with an upbringing in the south of England, although the first eight years' build-up were much more various than the the subsequent ones...
  4. ... which turns out to work quite well because at age nine Eadgyth was probably packed off to a nunnery to be with her freshly-divorced mother.

But don't take my word for it! Michelle of Heavenfield links to this video, which appears to contain some of the February conference (I recognise it) and a newer one in which these findings are announced.

This seems pretty definitive, and the only fly in the ointment is that radio-carbon analysis of the remains somehow comes out 200 years too late. This was particularly vexing as the samples from the burial cloths had come out inside the right date ranges, and it doesn't seem that she was unwrapped at reburial, just swaddled in another layer. Contamination is of course very hard to avoid, but another explanation may lie (and here again a tip of the hat to Michelle of Heavenfield) in the diet high in fish revealed by the strontium isotope analysis: marine carbon usually contains a different ratio of Carbon12 to Carbon14 from terrestrial sources of it and this can really mess this sort of thing up.

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

For now, I am happy to accept the strontium results, and so it seems are most other scholars. Eadgyth was married to Otto almost by chance—the story is that her brother King Athelstan (who, for reference, is the first single ruler of the whole island of Britain known to history) sent both Eadgyth and her sister Eadgifu to the court of Otto's father Henry I so that Otto could choose the one he liked better. This despite, Otto's heart appears to have been behind his choice and his mourning at her death, which occasioned the building of the cathedral in which she will shortly once again lie, is recorded by the Saxon poetess Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (and Michael Wood quotes it and more about her life and significance in an article for The Guardian here). Indeed, Hrotsvitha reported that the queen's adopted nation followed suit:"the whole of the German nation mourned her with an intense grief . . . a foreign race that she had come to cherish with kindness." But since Hrotsvitha also says that the English loved the girl too:"she was so very highly regarded in her own country that public opinion unanimously rated her the best woman who existed at that time in England", I am quietly pleased that she got in some way to come home at last before returning to what we can only hope is a longer rest this time than she has previously been afforded.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Jarrett - 9/22/2010

Hey, a pleasure, sorry I didn't see this comment earlier.

Manan Ahmed - 7/12/2010

"this is just cool" is how I would like to do 80% of my academic work. Thanks for this post, Jarrett!

Jonathan Jarrett - 7/8/2010

That's a perfectly good point, of course. It's much more a demonstration of the science than any actual addition to our knowledge. I myself quite like the fact that we can actually confirm a textual source with archæological evidence this way, and it's part of a far larger wave of skeletal analysis as a source for migration trends. That said, Eadgyth we already knew about; this is just cool.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/7/2010

From what you've written, it seems that the main result of this is confirmation: the physical evidence is consistent with the textual evidence, so both the evidence and methods can be considered reasonably reliable.

Aside from this, what new insights have we gotten, or is it too early?