Capturing the public imagination

South Cadbury OS map 1885
South Cadbury
OS map 1885

Leslie Alcock
‘By South Cadbury is that Camelot …’:
the Excavation of Cadbury Castle 1966-1970

Book Club Associates 1975

While now superseded by the official two-volume academic excavation report, Cadbury-Camelot (as this book became known) was noteworthy in that it gave a relatively immediate presentation, synopsis and discussion of the literally ground-breaking dig at this Somerset hillfort in the swinging sixties to an eager public. I say eager because, while the pages also detail the Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman and medieval period occupations amply found at South Cadbury, most public attention was focused on the Dark Age or early medieval, the so-called Age of Arthur beloved of Dr John Morris and other contemporary writers.

What was Arthurian about what was found? First and foremost is the Dark Age hall found on the summit plateau of the hill, its plan revealed by postholes (the remains of original wooden posts would have decayed over the course of a millennium and a half, of course). Then there was an encircling wall composed of timber, stone and earth which it was postulated could only have been ordered to be built by an ‘Arthur-type figure’. Into that wall, at the southwest corner, was found evidence for a substantial wooden gate with a rough road surface leading into the hillfort. Finally there was the substantial haul of Mediterranean pottery fragments which indicated that an elite had the clout to import exotic goods from far afield.

Where Cadbury-Camelot scored was that it was authored by the director of the dig himself who, until he declared himself ‘agnostic’ regarding Arthur, had made much of him as a possible historical figure in this work and particularly in his Arthur’s Britain. I’m almost certain that the late Professor would latterly have been even further along the agnostic continuum; I do know that, as one who was there at the time, I was aware that he was largely dismissive of what he saw as the antics of Arthurian romantics beefing up the significance of each archaeological revelation. Nevertheless, Cadbury-Camelot remains as a worthy exemplar of an authoritative yet popularising account of a dig that, in this case, captured the imagination of the public at large.

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2 thoughts on “Capturing the public imagination

    1. Don’t worry, I’ve heard (and probably authored) worse!

      For me it was more than interesting as (a) I’d been involved with a group that was represented on the Camelot Research Committee, the organisation coordinating the excavations; and (b) I did at least a week’s digging there in 1968, on the southwest gate and on a part of the summit with features instigated by a king. Not Arthur, as it happens, but John. The King John, of Magna Carta fame.

      So, as it happens, I literally did dig deeper!

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