Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist

camelotGeoffrey Ashe ed The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
Pall Mall 1968

The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot. In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee. Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated.

Most of the contributors to this 1968 volume were directly or tangentially associated with this Committee, and preparations for the book began as the results of the first year of excavation were being processed. The result was a compendium that was, for the time, an authoritative summary of the history, archaeology, literature and continuing cultural appeal of the Arthurian period and the Arthurian legends, plentifully illustrated with maps, line drawings and photos. After its appearance in hardback it was frequently re-issued as a paperback by Paladin, thus literally extending its shelf-life.

As a snapshot of what was known or could be surmised about the Arthurian ‘reality’ it was of its time, but in retrospect much of it still stands up to scrutiny four decades and more later, despite advances particularly in archaeological research. Its influence was immense, so much so that non-academic writers still ill-advisedly use it as their Arthurian bible, when Christopher Snyder’s more up-to-date 2000 study The World of King Arthur would provide a better overview (though even this is very dated now).

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain is particularly nostalgic for me as I spent part of one season as a volunteer digger at South Cadbury helping to excavate the southwest gate and part of the summit, and also met or knew some of the contributors to this volume; sadly most of them have since passed away. Although the text only hints at this, the dig captured the public’s imagination and made archaeology very rock & roll (in much the same way as Time Team was to do in its way at the end of the century); it’s difficult now to fully appreciate what an impact it made in popular culture, though it certainly made a lasting impression on me.

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6 thoughts on “Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist

  1. It was! Though I was only digging there for a week or so, I then became involved in a Roman villa dig only a few miles away for three or four years, and then a long-running investigation of an old Welsh church site which had Dark Age origins. Great times, though I’ve since hung up my trowel!

  2. I’m jealous about your participation, Professor Alcock did wonderful things for the study of archeology and Arthuriana. He did mention, though, in his chapter of the book, that he had been asked to agree with the other contributors. He wrote accordingly, but spent most of the rest of his career disagreeing with the geography. Ashe made a career out of the tourist trade in Cornwall, and his works are not to be trusted.

    1. I think it was Alcock who described Ashe, slightly damningly, as a “middlebrow” writer. While Ashe deserves credit for keeping Arthur in the foreground of popular consciousness, I part company with him on his identification of Riothamus as the or an original for Arthur.

  3. I have to agree. Alcock wasn’t above using Arthur to help popularize archaeology but he drew the line with the integrity of his work. He never flinched in that, while Ashe never bothered.

    1. Ashe largely built his reputation on the back of Arthur; though the range of topics he has written about is wide this doesn’t necessarily preclude him having important things to say on the subject. However his mystical approach to some topics suggests he has several personal axes to grind and while he argues his cases powerfully I’m rarely convinced of his impartiality.

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