The Time Team excavations at the western – fort – end of Athelney proved to be more interesting. What seems to be established is that this was the site of an Iron Age fort with a fortification of some sort running around the western end; it defended a narrow causeway leading to East Lyng.
This was apparently the only access to the island and was probably the way Alfred arrived. As it provided the only access for an invading army, it seems that Alfred strengthened the existing defences at this point.
A hypothesis of the Time Team was that the surrounding marshes at the time of Alfred were filled with thick reeds or sedge which would have made it near impossible to reach the island by boat or punt.
Other archaeological discoveries were extensive signs of metal-working slag, even of steel-making, which seemed to indicate the Saxon presence as they were highly skilled at making steel. A scythe-type blade was found, and a knife with a horn handle may also have dated from that time. The conclusion was that this may have been a centre of weapon-making for the Saxon army – Alfred’s army since he is known to have been on the island.
What didn’t emerge was any indication of whether the island was at any point inhabited. The seventh-century saint, Æthelwine (Egelwine) of Athelney, was son of King Cynegils (611-642) and brother of King Cenwealh (642-672), rulers of the West Saxons. He had lived the life of a hermit on Athelney and the possibility has been mooted that Athelney, Athelings’ Island, was rather a corruption of Æthelwine’s Island. Ockham’s Razor supports this, since evidence as to who (or when) the Athelings, or Princes, were is lacking.
Æthelwine would have been on Athelney 200 years before Alfred (in fact, the later abbey was dedicated to the saints Peter, Paul and Egelwine). As the island was no more than about 800 yards long and 300 yards wide, it wouldn’t have been much of a refuge for a hermit if there were any sized population living nearby.
But what does this say about the likelihood of there being any inhabitants at all when Alfred arrived? He came alone, ‘an exile’, crossing by the causeway, and promptly spotted the hut of a swineherd who lived there with his wife …
Why did he have an entire herd of pigs? Did he breed them? Were they all for home consumption? Were the couple self-sufficient, growing their own wheat for flour to bake their bread? And boiling the surrounding salt water for drinking? Why would they choose such a remote place to live? Alone? If the swineherd drove his herd off to their usual pasture, as the story said, did that mean he kept them indoors overnight? Close to the hut to prevent them being stolen? And who was making these metal implements for Alfred’s army if he was alone when he arrived?
It all sounds a bit strange. Perhaps we should look at another version of the events …