Arthurian Archaeology
A Short History of Arthurian Archaeology by Michelle L. Biehl

Written for Archaeology of Europe, University of Minnesota, 1991

Introduction: Arthur
The above passage is from LeMmorte d'Arthur : the history of King Arthur and his noble knights of the Round Table, by Sir Thomas Malory, a book that was written and published between 1469-1470, during the reign of King Edward IV. Prior to this document, the exact origins of Arthurian legend are difficult to trace reliably before the twelfth century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth produced the History of the Kings of Britain, in which he devotes the last third of the book to King Arthur, with the first two thirds leading up to this climax. Although Monmouth's history contains passages which can be deemed 'mystical' in nature, especially in regards to Arthur, the preceding pages leading up to King Arthur's appearance, read as straight history as opposed to mythical tale.

King Arthur would have lived in the end of the fifth century to the beginning of the sixth century, with his birth most likely occurring around 470 A.D. and his death, as related in the folklore, in the year 539, at the Battle of Camlan. This means that six hundred years transpired between Arthur's life span and any surviving written account, history or folklore, of a king named Arthur. Although the majority of the British population in the fifth and sixth centuries was illiterate, there was a classically educated, 'Romanized' minority that could read and write, as well as a literate monastic society. In the year 545, a monk named Gilda wrote an account of the decline of Roman authority in Britain and the events which followed. Most contemporary scholars and historians dismiss this source as unreliable and in many places entirely wrong, in any event, there is no mention of King Arthur in Gilda's writings. This absence of early written sources pertaining to King Arthur suggests three hypotheses:

In this paper, I do not aim to clearly prove any of these possibilities, but to examine and discuss some of the archaeological evidence from the time of King Arthur and from associated sites to see if the history of this king is possible and not refuted by physical evidence. To accomplish this, I will describe the historical and political environment at the time of Arthur and detail two sites, Tintagel and Cadbury (Camelot) in terms of archaeological content.

History: Britain

Following the inclusion of Britain into the Roman Empire, the country managed to remain fairly autonomous. The educated members of the society adopted Christianity, brought into the country by the Romans, while the uneducated peasants remained pagan. Economically, the island exported grain, iron, coal, hides, hunting dogs, and slaves. Previous to the occupation by Rome, there had been raids by the Angels and the Saxons, but under the Empire, forts were erected to guard against these raiding forces and the would-be invaders were kept at bay. In 367 A.D., however, the Roman Empire began to dissolve. Britain, without this military backing, became defenseless almost overnight and the Angels, the Saxons, and the Jutes began to gain control of the countryside and cut off whole towns.

In the book, The peoples of the British Isles: a new history (Lehmberg, 1992) the author theorizes that some of these invaders from the east were invited into the country by the British leader, Vortigern, to aid in the defense of invading Picts from the North, in the absence of Roman aid. Once in, however, the Saxon mercenaries found the country agreeable and stayed, influencing others to migrate into the country. However it happened, the years after 367 in Britain are marked by Germanic invasions and the struggles for power and control between these invaders and the native Britons. It was a time period marked by violence, pillage, and political unrest. It is to this dark age in Britain, that King Arthur belongs.

In light of this backdrop, a military leader who fought against these invasions, won battles, and was possibly known for his military feats is quite plausible. In the ninth century, a member of the Welsh clergy, Nennius, is attributed with the work entitled, Historia Brittonum (edited in the 10th century by Mark the Hermit), a document that was discovered in the library of the Vatican Palace in Rome. In this work, Nennius speaks of Arthur not as a king but as a soldier:
Archaeology: Tintagel
Tintagel is on the southwest coast of Britain, in Cornwall and is surrounded on three sides by water. The first mention of Tintagel Castle, as it pertains to King Arthur, is in Monmouth's account in the above excerpt. This book, published in 1149, traces the history of British royalty from 1200 BC and charts the reigns of seventy-five kings, most of which many historians feel that he made up. In his preface, he claims that his work is based on a much older collection of writings, given to him by Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford; such a book, however, has never been found.

In Geoffrey's history, the ruler Constantine holds the throne until he is murdered, in the early fourth century, by Vortigern. Vortigern, needing a puppet, convinces Constane's eldest son, Constans, to assume the throne, which he does until he falls sick and dies after only a short time as king. Vortigern then claims the throne for himself, at which point Monmouth incorporates the prophecies of Merlin into his history. Merlin fortells the coming of Authur, "the boar of cornwall" when Vortigern seeks his counsel. Merlin also announces that "doom is near" and that Constantine's other two sons, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon are coming to claim the throne. This comes to pass and after the death of his brother, Aurelius, Uther Pendragon is eventually made king and goes on to father Arthur, the seed being planted at Tintagel Castle.

Vertigern was a real ruler and can be historically traced and documented. Monmouth's account, however, preoccupied with mysticism and prophecy, can hardly be taken as fact but it is possible that it is rooted in fact. In 1926, Henry Jenner presented a paper in which he dismissed the Arthurian connections to Tintagel as a fraud. He interpreted Tintagel's function at that time as a religious establishment rather than a royal one. It is this theory that influenced the archaeological interpretations about Tintagel from the first excavations in the 1930's until the 1970's.

C. A. Raleigh Radford was asked by the British Ministry of works in 1930 to investigate the Arthurian history of the Tintagel site. His excavations went on intermittently for thirty tears, the most important aspect of his work, for this paper, being what he refers to as 'Site A' , which is approximately 150 feet north to south and about 60 feet from east to west. This site was covered with a number of structures that he divides into four periods based on the walls that he uncovered from these buildings. Period I contained only one complete structure, 'Room 9'. Based on the pottery sherds that he found, Radford dated Period I at 450-700 A.D. Period II is not associated with any material finds and is dated on art historical grounds by an 'interlace' cross slate (Dark, 1985). Period II begins at 700 A.D. and develops into Period III an no one definable time. Period III is not associated with any specific material finds, either. The chronology for Site A breaks down as follows:
In respect to King Arthur, the possible answers lie in Period I.

Radford, in his interpretation of the sites archaeological content, agreed with Jensen's earlier suggestion that Tintagel was the site of a Celtic monastery, during its Period I occupation. One of the main reasons for this assessment was the presence of what he perceived to be a leacht. This is a type of monument that is found at many of the early monastic sites on the west coast of Ireland. During Radford's excavations, however, he did not find any graves associated with this leacht, a normal accompaniment to this religious monument. There were four graves found at Tintagel Site A, but all were empty.

More recent interpretations of the Tintagel site suggest a very different function of the site's Period I; one that does not prove the Arthurian connections to be legitimate but a function that does not disprove the connection either. In 1981, O. J. Padel began a study of the Cornish background of the Tristian stories. In the course of this research, he began to investigate Tintagel in medieval literature, and discovered that Tintagel, in Cornish, pre-Norman folklore, was always referred to as a 'royal palace'. Padel suggested that this could account for the mass supply of imported pottery found at the site and further surmised that, "Tintagel was the (or a) dwelling of the rulers of Cornwall in the period of the imported pottery" (Padel 1984).

Concurrent with Padel's research, archaeologist Charles Thomas began re-evaluating the site and resorting and studying the pottery sherds that were uncovered by Radford. He first dismissed the leacht as 'atypical' and not very reliable in interpreting the site as a monastery and then suggested that the pottery was the only way to accurately date and interpret the Period I occupation (Thomas 1988). Lynette Olson, in her book, Early Monasteries in Cornwall (1989), is doubtful that Tintagel was the site of an early monastery, as well, an opinion is based on the absence of any associated funerary remains.

If the site was not religious in function, that what was its function? The answer seems to lie in the huge amounts of imported pottery found in the Period I layers. This suggests two likely uses of Tintagel Site A:
If the site were a trading station, mass amounts of valuable, imported pottery would not have remained at the site. Luxury items would have been transported to royal sites instead of sitting at the station where they arrived in Britain. In addition, Tintagel is not the best port in the immediate area, Port William, which is about a half of a mile southwest of Tintagel has easier access from the harbor and would have been the more likely choice for a trading station between 450-700 (Dark, 1985).

In terms of a secular settlement, during the years of Period I occupation, there was a tendency for the royal use of hilltop fortification in western Britain (Dark, 1985). Tintagel overlooks the Atlantic on rocky cliffs. There is also the rich material evidence of imported luxury goods, including Class A, B, C, and D imported pottery, that would have been used by high status or royal individuals. These factors, taken along with Padel's research, indicate that without contradictory new evidence, Tintagel Period I can be interpreted as a royal settlement.

Does this prove the Geoffrey of Monmouth account of the beginnings of King Arthur at Tintagel Castle? No, but at the same time it is not disproved. The archaeological evidence combined with historical data suggest that the function of Tintagel, during Period I suggest that the right kind of people were inhabiting Tintagel at about the right time.

Archaeology: Cadbury (Camelot):
The hill at South Cadbury, has long been associated with Arthurian folklore; Arthur and his knights are eternally sleeping in a cave beneath the hill and on Christmas Eve Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table ride along top the hill. In 1965, this area was ploughed and a few fragments of imported pottery, like those found at Tintagel, were discovered. This evidence, was enough justification for the formation of the Camelot Research Committee, with members including British historians and archaeologists C.A. Raleigh Radford, Geoffrey Ashe, and Phillip Rahtz, under the direction of Leslie Alcock.

From July 15 to August 6, 1966, there was a trial excavation at the site to see if there was enough physical evidence to justify a full scale excavation. Three sites, Site A, Site B, and Site C were identified and excavated on the eighteen acre hilltop. They discovered several layers of habitation at each site, covering a large time span, from the Neolithic (3000 B.C.) to a occupation in the first millennium B.C. which produced mass amounts of bronzes and Bronze Age pottery. The pre-Roman Iron Age was marked by loom weights, weaving combs, and La Tane III brooches. This rich material culture continues until the Roman Conquest. The next layer contained burnt pottery sherds, which could suggest a violent end to the settlement around 45 A.D. (Alcock and Ashe 1971). This is followed by a Roman Period occupation, marked by third and fourth century pottery. The next level of use, at Sites A, B, and C, contained mass amounts of Tintagel class B pottery, suggesting a major occupation of the site during the dark age. This provided a sufficient evidence for the research committee to get more funding.

The excavations at Cadbury continued throughout the summer of 1970 and the new information that was collected further supported the notion of a dark age, military stronghold. The committee incorporated the use of geophysical prospecting as a means of finding the most beneficial site to excavate further; an area of 1000 square meters was selected. One of the trenches revealed more than five successful structural phases, at least two of which were post-Roman. What they discovered was that when the hill was re-occupied in the second half of the fifth century or slightly later, that they earlier defences were reconstructed and fortified.

This refortification consisted of an unmotared stone wall, sixteen feet thick, with blocks of Roman masonry on to pf it, in addition to a surrounding earth bank, an internal drystone wall, and a gate tower with two entrances (Alcock 1968). Area postholes suggested other buildings and a small amount of Tintagel-like sherds of class A, B, and some D pottery were also discovered. Based on these finds, it was suggested that large amounts of imported pottery indicated a peasants hovel, where as the widely scattered small amounts found at Cadbury suggested a "civilized settlement" (Alcock, Ashe 1971). Due to the amount of imported luxury goods, it was also surmised that the occupants of the fortified settlement were people of standing.

There are the remains of many hill-forts that were re-occupied during the post-Roman years but none were refortified on the same scale as Cadbury and none were anywhere as large as that eighteen acre site. The site was occupied at the right time, with the pottery sherds and other finds dating it at the late fifth century into the early sixth century. The only other fortified site remotely on this scale, in or near Britain was located in Scotland, at Aldeed, the capital of the Clyde Kingdom, but even that was noticeably smaller than Cadbury.


Cadbury was inhabited as a military strong hold, in the Dark Ages, in Britain. Whether it was occupied by King Arthur is not proven, what is proven is that the site [Camelot] was used for what it was supposed to be used for at the right period in British history. In The Real Camelot, Darrah writes, "The truth is however, that attempts to identify 'Camelot' are pointless. The name and the very concept of 'Camelot' are inventions of the French Medieval poets" (Darrah 1981).

There is a tendency in our society, to romanticize the past, to mystify it to suit our own imaginations and to fit our own conceptions of what we thought it must have been like. David Lowenthal, an archaeologist, theorizes that this in part, due to the uncertainty of our own future that we cling so desperately to the past. Whatever the cause, it is something that we are guilty of and King Arthur is one of our victims. The archaeological evidence supports an historical 'King Arthur' figure, his parents could have been Uther Pendragon and Igerne for that matter and he could have been conceived at Tintagel, the archaeological findings do not contradict it. But, the King Arthur of Camelot and other popular literary works did not exist; how could he exist, he has been glorified to a point where the concept of King Arthur is not a human; he is a myth, a hero on the same scale of a deity that will resurrect save and save all of England one day.

Based on archaeological evidence, mainly pottery (see Appendix A--forthcoming..I need to learn how to make tables ), the sites associated with Arthurian legend are plausible. Each site has the 'right' types of finds located in soil layers and pottery types to the 5th to 6th century AD. Does this prove that King Arthur existed and defended Camelot, and was conceived at Tintagel? No. Does it prove that he didn't exist and was not at these places? No, it doesn't. What the archaeological remains do are create a record, a time line based on tangible physical evidence for a mythic, literary figure.

What is important to remember, is that the archaeology of Arthurian sites is one thing and Arthurian literature is another. The same is true for early 'histories' of King Arthur; they may be based on fact but there was such a time lapse between the actual events and recorded history, that these sources are questionable at best. These written sources, both fact and fiction, may dissect at times and compliment the archaeological record, but the characters of Morgaine le Fay, Lancelot, Merlin, Guinievere, or even Arthur are not going to be buried in the years accumulation of soil, waiting to be discovered, to tell us their tales; but the archaeology of these sites, taken as a key to the factual past of Anglo-Saxon history, can be just as fascinating.

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