First there was Richard III. Then, in the early hours of Monday morning, with the exhumation of bones from an unmarked grave at St Bartholemew’s Church in Winchester, archaeologists came closer to unravelling one of the great mysteries of British history – the burial place of King Alfred the Great.
These are exciting times in the field of historical bone-hunting, and senior archaeologists believe we could be in for a flood of new discoveries in the next few years as technology improves and the number of amateur enthusiasts continues to grow.
While the Winchester skeleton awaits scientific tests to see if it is Alfred, the ninth-century monarch revered for his victories over the Danes, speculation is now rife as to which historical riddle will be solved next.
At least some of the smart money is on Boudicca, whose army led an uprising against the Romans and razed London in the first century AD.
Dr Mike Heyworth, the director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), said that experts are on the hunt for her burial place, at one point rumoured to be near what is now a McDonald’s restaurant in Birmingham, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she was unearthed in the next few years.
There are contradictory but persistent tales (with “no element of truth”, according to the Museum of London) that she lies beneath either platform eight, nine or 10 at King’s Cross Station.
Another archaeological grail is the final resting place of King Arthur, the location – not to mention existence – of which has been in dispute for centuries. He was connected to ruined Glastonbury Abbey, but some believe the story was concocted by monks.
Dr Heyworth offered a starting point for investigators: “Cadbury Castle [in Somerset] was thought to be Camelot, and a lot of those tales are based on stories passed down to us, and often they’re based on truth, and that has to be tested with some sort of excavation. There are a lot of ideas and theories with someone of that status, and sometimes archaeologists don’t agree.”
Britain’s growing army of amateur archaeologists, meanwhile, might not have much hope of digging up a former monarch, but that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm.
CBA research suggests there are more than 2,000 voluntary groups and societies active in the UK with an interest in archaeological heritage, representing 215,000 members. The CBA is adding another four youth branches this year, and plans to double its membership from 33,000 over the next five years. Dr Heyworth was keen to stress that anyone can usefully get their knees dirty at a dig.
“It’s one of the few fields where anyone can make a significant contribution with almost no background,” he said.
Dr Paul Wilkinson, founder of the Kent Archaeological Field School, believes there are swathes of plunder still to be found.
Speaking from Teston, where he is excavating a Roman villa with the help of the public, he said: “King John’s treasure was engulfed when it crossed the Wash, but it must be there somewhere.”
He said surprising discoveries could become the norm: “Metal detectors are getting so sophisticated that more and more hoards are going to be found.”