Sunday, October 3, 2010

Maybe Camelot Wasn't off the Mark?

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot!
 Lerner & Lowe

Before I started my reports on the RWNZ conference, I was blogging searching for the “historical” King Arthur and discovered that the Ango-Saxon invasions, on which Arthur’s existence is predicated, may never have happened. If Britain wasn’t under siege, so to speak, by invaders, what was happening?

Archaeologist Francis Pryor and the various academic specialists he interviewed in the BBC TV Series Britain AD and Pryor’s book by the same name, paint a picture that is bright, indeed.

According to Pryor, Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, the period after the Roman withdrawal, was a centre of culture that spread through Europe and whose fame and influence stretched as far as Byzantium.

One of the clues lies in the “Class 1” inscribed stones. (Class 1 refers to the dating, approximately 5th through 7th centuries.)  The Class 1 stones found in Scotland and the north of England have gained a lot of attention as it's speculated they're evidence of Pictish culture.  But those found mainly in Wales but also in southern Britain, tell a different, equally interesting story. 

These are memorial stones, erected to commemorate the dead. Originally the Latin on these inscriptions was thought to be the ramblings of semi-literate individuals. Then scholars had the idea of reading them out loud and discovered that they were poetry that employed the rhyme and scansion of sophisticated Latin verse. Furthermore, some of these inscriptions could be read both forward to end and backward to front and reveal completely different meanings. According to scholars David Howlett and Charles Thomas, this is the work of people who are literate and well-educated. They are evidence of highly sophisticated centers of learning, not ignorant hidey-holes of a collapsing civilization.

By the fifth century, Britain was fully Christianized. Contrary to popular belief, paganism was long gone. But the church of Britain was the Celtic church, not the Roman church. It was a well-organized church based on a monastic model, as opposed to the ecclesiastical model with bishops and priests centered in Rome. Its practices were slightly different, and, as such, it was a threat to Rome, which gradually over the next two centuries gained the ascendency. More on this in another blog, because it’s another piece to the picture. What is significant to note now is that there are monastic centers of learning all over Britain. This is not a country fallen into a Dark Age. Not only that, but the Celtic church is spreading its influence all over Europe, not the other way around.

Tintagel.  The "bumps" in the hillside are post-Roman homes.

Another piece to the picture is the evidence of trade with centers of civilization as far away as Byzantium. I’ve already talked about the “forts” along the Saxon Shore actually being trade depots, rather than defensive structures. But the Saxon Shore ports were probably oriented towards trade with northern Europe. Tintagel Castle, long been associated with the King Arthur myth, appears to have been a main entry port for even more distant market. Archeologists have excavated “bumps” all over the peninsula that have turned out to be early Christian houses from the fifth and sixth centuries. The buildings are full of luxury goods from remote ports. Pryor lists “glassware from southern Spain, wine amphorae from Byzantium, oil jars and fine tableware from the North African coast”. Tintagel was a centre of wealth. But even more amazing, if you look at the map on p. 182 of Pryor’s book Britain AD, you discover that similar findings are distributed across Britain, mostly in the southwest, but as far away as substantial finds in Dumbarton and Whithorn in Scotland and Hull on the east coast.

This is a moneyed civilization. A site at the mouth of the Avon River shows trade going on in a grand scale with amphora of Byzantine wine being consumed, huge numbers of animals roast over open pits, and piles of broken but expansive Byzantine tableware. Shipwrecks from the period off the southern coast of England contain rich trade goods from the Mediterrranean. I’ve mentioned that the period after the Roman withdrawal seems to have been a period of reconstruction and renewal, with old Roman civitas and villas being enlarged and given face lifts. Historian Michael Jones has suggested that when the Britains no longer had to pay taxes to Rome, they started spending the money on themselves.

Dark Ages? Hardly. Instead, the “Arthurian period” of British history appears to be a golden age worthy of the Camelot legend itself!


  1. As usual, fascinating! Thanks for sharing. This seems to lend some credence to that "Secrets of the Dead" episode in which they postulated that "Dark" may have referred to literal dark skies, rather than a lack of education, etc.

  2. If my memory serves me properly, the term "Dark Ages" was a product of the 18th century, where they arrogantly patted themselves on the back for their "Enlightenment", which they based on "reason" and Roman/Classical learning. Everything else they considered supersticion, hence the terms "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages". They saw the Rennaissance as the rebirth of classical knowledge, hence the term. Peoples of those periods, of course, never used any of those terms.

    By the way, regarding dark skies, both the Anglo Saxon Chronicals and the Annales Cambriae record three days and nights in which the sun and moon were blocked from view, possibly due to the eruption of Krakatoa. As the two chronicals don't correlate in terms of the "years" in which common events were supposed to have happened, the darkening of the skies is one way you can make the two match up.

  3. When I studied Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology at Newcastle uni many moons ago,I heard of no Pictish sculptures or crosses in the north of England. I did learn about the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses and hog-back tombs, all with leanings towards the Viking influence. There were many centres of learning along the Tyne valley - Jarrow, for one. Pryor is a bit of a one-man industry, and after watching him claim time and again on the Time Team and other programmes that anything he doesn't understand is "ritual," I take his claims with a pinch of salr unless they're backed up by other historians.