Sacred Stones. The standing stones of West Wales: their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994
Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.
If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.
Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.
Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett: The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998
I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.
With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.
They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.
• Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.
Charles Thomas Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998
This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.
Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend
Paul Chambers Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002
A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:
By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*
When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?
I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”→
In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.
It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.
I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.
So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).
Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.
I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.
* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.
** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.
Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344
Boydell Press 2007
Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.
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.
Ellen Swift The End of the Western Roman Empire:
an archaeological investigation
Tempus Publishing 2000
As Dr Swift acknowledges, “the End of the Roman Empire is a misleading term to use for the changes at the end of the fourth century and in the fifth century. The end of official Roman authority would perhaps be more accurate.” The thrust of this book, distilled from her doctoral research, is that the archaeology of personal items may help chart the gradual transition from Western Empire to Medieval Europe, but that it still leaves many questions unanswered. Continue reading “The archaeology of personal items”→
Thomas Green Concepts of Arthur The History Press Ltd 2008
Tom Green’s excellent study follows a growing scholarly trend to treat the hypothesis of an historical Arthur seriously, even if it means ultimately demolishing the case for a genuine hero of the same name. Nick Higham’s King Arthur: myth-making and history, for example, showed how the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) was put together with a contemporary political agenda in mind, meaning it must not be relied on to accurately reconstruct post-Roman British history.
Unlike Higham, who accepted that there might possibly have been some Arthur-type warlord at the core of the Nennian construct, Green, I think persuasively, argues from the available documentary evidence that there never was such a prototype historical figure. Instead, the earliest sources (some contemporary with and others predating Nennius) make it clear that, first, Arthur was a mythological figure, defender of Britain from giants, monsters, witches and the like; and, secondly, that it is Nennius (or rather his anonymous source) who first historicizes Arthur. Nennius does this by pitting him against human adversaries (namely, the Angles and the Saxons) and attributing to him a selection of both mythological and genuinely historical battles. Those critics who instinctively felt that Arthur was more an archetypal hero than a flesh-and-blood warrior may now feel more vindicated; those who believe that there was a real king called Arthur will vehemently disagree. Continue reading “Contextualising the evidence”→
Stuart McHardy On the Trail of the Holy Grail
Luath Press Ltd 2006
Another of this author’s Arthurian titles (his 2001 The Quest for Arthur was also published by Luath Press) takes him on a quest from the pages of medieval writers to places in the Scottish landscape, and from the early medieval period back into the mists of time. Along the way he encounters folklore and legend, Dark Age warriors and Goddess worship, Pictish symbol stones and natural wonders. It’s all a bit contentious, especially his insistence that every crucial aspect of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur himself to the location of Avalon, is to be firmly set in Scotland, and McHardy flits in a gossipy style from one discipline to another, taking a nugget from one or another scholar and linking it indiscriminately to antiquarian speculation. In fact, despite describing himself as a ‘cultural ecologist’ McHardy is actually a typical speculative antiquarian, mixing fact and fancy in a heady brew that leaves you with a hangover. Continue reading “A heady brew”→
Richard Barber King Arthur: Hero and Legend
Boydell Press 2004
Richard Barber’s classic Arthurian study was deservedly dusted off and re-issued to coincide with the film of the same name (the very curious King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), though there was absolutely no other connection between the two other than the title. Its first appearance in 1961 (as Arthur of Albion), despite being presented to a middle-brow audience, by its style betrayed its origins in academic research; it still occasionally appears on second-hand bookshop shelves. Next, King Arthur in Legend and History appeared in the 70s during a boom in larger format non-fiction paperbacks; unfortunately the glued binding was poor quality and all the colour plates in my copy fell out.
Geoffrey Ashe King Arthur’s Avalon:
the story of Glastonbury Collins 1958
First published in 1957, this is the post-war book that really re-invigorated interest in King Arthur and the Dark Ages by focusing on the medieval notion that he was buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. On the surface all the omens were good: archaeologically there was evidence that there was an ancient cemetery here – in the early sixties a prominent archaeologist, Ralegh Radford, would even pinpoint where 12th-century monks dug for the supposed grave of Arthur – legends placed Dark Age saints here, the medieval abbey was one of the richest (if not the richest) monastic foundation in the country, and many people in recent times have been attracted by the supposed aura of the place. Certainly Ashe, a Catholic, believes there is something special here, and that the legends, even if not true, have a significance beyond the claimed facts; and he has lived on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor for many decades now, a vindication of the magic of this small Somerset town. Continue reading “A seminal work”→
Geoffrey 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. Continue reading “Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist”→
Robert Rouse, Cory Rushton: The Medieval Quest for Arthur
The History Press 2005
Nowadays, a book possibly entitled The Invention of King Arthur might imply subterfuge and forgery. Several centuries ago, when “to invent” would simply mean “to chance upon”, it would instead imply a re-discovery of what already existed. Nowadays we are rightly wary of Arthurian relics such as Arthur’s Tomb at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Seal, Gawain’s skull, Lancelot’s sword and the Winchester Round Table, as objects more likely to be “invented” in the modern sense of “made up” rather than pre-existing. In Caxton’s 15th century, with fewer critical tools at their disposal, people were more inclined to accept such chanced-upon unprovenanced evidence at face value (though then as now there were always doubters and detractors, as the wholesale destruction of saintly relics in the English Reformation was to demonstrate); however, I am of course aware that weeping stuatues and their ilk still excite the credulous in our own time.
K R Dark Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800 Leicester University Press 1999
Continuity used to be a dirty word for certain old-style archaeologists, wedded as they were to the concept of “waves” of invaders to the British Isles and keen to stave off latter-day druid mystics and leyline enthusiasts. Now the balance has righted a bit, it is good to see attempts to address the likely dynamics of social, cultural, political and religious change in the post-Roman period. Continue reading “A little light on the Dark Ages”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.