The secrets hidden within Winchester Cathedral’s mortuary chests are gradually being unlocked as part of an on-going research project supported by the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral.
It has long been believed that the six mortuary chests at the Cathedral contained the mortal remains of pre-Conquest kings and bishops, but for many years this has merely been the subject of speculation. The bones had been co-mingled over the centuries, and it was clear that the chests did not contain whole skeletons.
The conservation of the mortuary chests, which began in 2012, provided an opportunity for the scientific analysis of the contents for the first time.
A major development in 2015 revealed that the bones were from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, thanks to radiocarbon (C14) dating on selected fragments by the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford. These findings confirmed that the bones date from the same periods as the names on the chests – which include eight kings, two bishops and one queen – rather than being the result of later activity within the Cathedral.
Working in the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral (which became a temporary laboratory), the researchers reassembled over 1,300 human bones with the aim of restoring the identity of the unknown royals. Each bone has been carefully measured and recorded, and at least 23 partial skeletons have been reconstructed: a remarkable finding in itself, since it was originally believed that the mortuary chests contained the remains of no more than fifteen people.
The ability to identify the sex, age and physical characteristics of these individuals has resulted in some exciting discoveries, including the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests. It is believed these bodily remains are those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and the wife of two successive Kings of England: Ethelred and Cnut. She was the mother of King Edward the Confessor and King Harthacnut.
Queen Emma was a powerful political figure in late Saxon England, and her family ties provided William the Conqueror with a measure of justification for his claim to the English throne.
The conservation team approached Cadventure for our assistance in the replication the bones for Winchester Cathedral’s landmark National Lottery-funded exhibition, Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation.
To begin the process of 3D printing the existing bones of the female skeleton, first the bones were scanned to create a model from which we could then 3D print using a layering production process. We then brought the digital form to life in its now physical form to produce authentic replicas of real bone.
These replica bones are now laid out as a key part of the exhibition which went on display in May this year.
We expect more exciting developments as the investigation to identify all of the individuals in the chests continues: these discoveries could make Winchester Cathedral the first formal royal mausoleum.