Queen Edith

"EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGVS HABET..." / "The recovered remains of Queen Edith lie in this sarcophagus …"

This inscription from the year 1510 now seems to have been confirmed. It was recently revealed that the mortal remains of Queen Edith were highly probably and almost certainly initially laid to rest in the lead coffin that was discovered in the alleged cenotaph of Queen Edith at the end of 2008 during research excavations in Magdeburg Cathedral run by Rainer Kuhn (from the Foundation of Cathedrals, Palaces and Castles in the German Land of Saxony-Anhalt).

The spectacular discovery and recovery of Queen Edith's alleged resting place were followed by extensive examinations carried out in a number of different laboratories in both Germany and England, which have now revealed that it is highly likely that the remains found really are those of Queen Edith. Given the high importance of the find on both a German and international level, a research group consisting of accredited experts on the different objects discovered, for example bones, textiles, metals and plant and insect remains, was formed in order to investigate the remains. The fundamental scientific examinations have since been brought to a close and it is now time to reveal the answers to the central questions concerning the discovery, the most important of which is: Does the coffin really contain the mortal remains of Queen Edith, the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, who was the most famous Saxon King of England? Edith left her home in Wessex at the age of 19 in order to come to the German city of Magdeburg, where she married Emperor Otto the Great and then died in 946 at the age of 36. According to historical sources, she was originally buried in the Monastery of St. Maurice in Magdeburg.

The anthropological examinations of the remains themselves were carried out by a team run by Prof. Dr Kurt. W. Alt from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. These examinations revealed that the gender, age and living circumstances of the remains match the description of Queen Edith provided by literary sources and that all of the bones found in the lead coffin can be traced back to a single individual. Morphological and metric analyses of the skeleton revealed that it belonged to a woman aged between 30 and 40 years old who was approximately 1.57 metres (5’2”) tall. The team also discovered that infectious diseases or malnutrition suffered by the woman between the age of 10 and 14 had left their mark on her bones in the form of stress markers. Her preserved femur head shows evidence that she was a frequent horse-rider, as can be expected from the living circumstances of a noblewoman. According to the analysts, the fact that complete parts of the buried skeleton were missing in the coffin, for example its feet, parts of its hand and, most importantly, its skull, of which only the upper jaw survived, cannot be explained in terms of the state of preservation of the rest of the skeleton. It is likely that these missing parts were traded as relics or collected as part of popular religious practices during the Middle Ages.

The analysis of strontium and oxygen isotopes that can use the chemical signals stored in bones to reveal information about the whereabouts of the individual being examined enabled the team to make even more remarkable findings with regard to the buried woman’s past. These isotope analyses were carried out in two laboratories, namely at the University of Mainz by Corina Knipper and at Bristol University by Dr Alistair Pike. Both analysts independently came to the same conclusion: the woman who was buried in Edith’s coffin grew up in the area surrounding Winchester in the county of Wessex in southeast England. The analyses carried out in Bristol were additionally able to use special laser ablation technology to provide even more precise details where this result is concerned: “Strontium isotopes on tiny samples of tooth enamel have been measured. By micro sampling”, explains Alistair Pike, “we can reconstruct the sequence of a person’s whereabouts, just like annual growth rings, up to the age of 14.” According to Prof. Dr Mark Horton (from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University), the results of this examination can without a doubt be linked to the locations in Wessex in which Edith spent time as a child and adolescent: “Edith seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England, but changed her domicile frequently. Only from the age of nine do the isotope values remain constant. Edith must have moved around the kingdom following her father, King Edward the Elder, during his reign. When her mother was divorced in 919 – Edith was between nine and ten at that point – both were banished to a monastery, maybe Winchester or Wilton in Salisbury.” The analyses carried out in Mainz also revealed that the individual in question had enjoyed a high-quality diet and can therefore be placed in the same category as the members of the upper class in Magdeburg in the Middle Ages, who have been proven to have enjoyed a similar diet. One of the more noticeable factors where the individual’s nutrition is concerned is the fact that it was rich in animal proteins and fish, which suggests that she based her diet on Christian guidelines. The lack of signs of abrasion on the skeleton’s teeth, which were originally completely preserved, also indicates that the woman’s diet primarily contained a large amount of soft nutritional components and foods.


The large amount of fish eaten by the individual in question, which influenced the composition of the carbon isotopes in her bones, resulted in a data anomaly in the radiocarbon dating of the collagen samples that the analysts had already suspected before beginning their work. In fact, both the laboratory in the German city of Kiel (the Leibniz Laboratory for Radiometric Dating and Stable Isotope Research run by Prof. Dr P.M. Grootes and Dr J.-M. Nadeau at Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel) and the laboratory in the German city of Mannheim (the Klaus-Tschira-Laboratory for Radiometric Dating Methods run by Dr B. Kromer) basically came to the same conclusion, namely that the samples seem to be approx. 200 years older than Queen Edith’s date of death as specified in historical documents, which is most probably due to the nutritional habits specified above.
The results of these bone examinations are not the only findings to comprehensively suggest that the mortal remains discovered can indeed be attributed to Queen Edith. The results of analyses of the other contents of the coffin, the lead coffin itself and the archaeological investigations carried out in Magdeburg Cathedral all fit perfectly into this range of evidence.


The archaeological examination of the foundation underneath Edith’s alleged cenotaph in the ambulatory of the Gothic cathedral, for example, which was carried out by a team led by Rainer Kuhn, revealed that several components from earlier burial sites were intentionally reused. This proves that the memoria discovered and attested in written sources really do belong to Queen Edith. The oldest relic of earlier burials is a simple sandstone sarcophagus that can almost certainly be ascribed to the first burial in the 10th century and was opened several times, as proven by a number of different layers of mortar on the upper edge of the sarcophagus on which the lid rested. Alongside a number of possible interim reburials, Edith's mortal remains were definitely brought to the ambulatory of the newly constructed Gothic cathedral after the cathedral fire in 1207. Evidence of this is provided by the tracery fragments from the second quarter of the 13th century that were sealed in the foundation next to the old sandstone sarcophagus. The lead coffin with the date inscription was finally finished in 1510 and laid to rest in the new intricately designed stone sarcophagus featuring a relief plaque.

The radiocarbon dating of the textiles carried out by the Leibniz Laboratory at the University of Kiel also indicates that the remains were reburied several times over. The laboratory was able to take samples from several layers of fabric remnants and was therefore able to connect these layers to different reburials. The dates recorded in the radiocarbon dating process fit perfectly into this period between the 10th and 16th century. Dr Heinrich Wunderlich, the Head of the Restoration Department at the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology in the German city of Halle, also examined the textiles in order to investigate the dyes and pigments used. He discovered that kermes, the most valuable dye in the Middle Ages, was used to give some of the fabric its red colour. This, combined with the fact that some of the textiles were top-quality samite silk fabrics, clearly indicates that the burial in question was a royal occasion. The lead used in the coffin was extracted in the Harz region of Germany, presumably from the Rammelsberg mountain by the town of Goslar. Between the bones and textiles, the coffin also contained a multitude of insect remains, the most noticeable of which was the huge abundance of the ground beetle Harpalus rufipes. These beetles must have been attracted to the lead coffin by torchlight or a similar form of light and the light-coloured fabric in the coffin, which must have been left out in the open without its lid on for at least a short period during the night before it was reburied in 1510. The coffin also contained a number of grains of oat, which can clearly be traced back to a pillow filled with spelt and covered in fabric on which the corpse was laid. Small fragments of the shrub Savin Juniper are evidence that the deceased woman was decorated with evergreen branches from this ornamental and medicinal plant that was so important in medieval monastery gardens. It seems as if the woman in question was also yet again specially honoured before being reburied in 1510 and was a person of high standing both in her city and among her congregation.


A multitude of independent pieces of evidence such as the corpse's biological features, the burial position and location, the inscription on the lead coffin and the high quality of the textile remnants discovered in the coffin all come together to provide a comprehensive answer to the matter in question. Nevertheless, although the most important question has now been answered, the research on the burial of the Queen and the context surrounding it is sure to continue to occupy the interdisciplinary group of experts for a number of years to come.
The excavations in Magdeburg Cathedral were carried out as part of a cooperation between the Foundation of Cathedrals, Palaces and Castles in the German Land of Saxony-Anhalt, the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology, the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg and Magdeburg, the Capital City of the German Land of Saxony-Anhalt. They have been in progress since 2006 and are being supervised by the Excavation Leader Rainer Kuhn. The research into the history of Magdeburg Cathedral is being carried out by an interdisciplinary group of researchers led by Prof. Dr Wolfgang Schenkluhn (from the Institute of Art History at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg).

Source: Saxony-Anhalt State Museum of Prehistory


More information

The Reburial of the Mortal Remains of Queen Edith in Magdeburg Cathedral on 22nd October 2010