Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Arthur's Round Table Discovered!

The Winchester 'Round Table'
What? Really? When the hell did this happen? After about fifteen-hundred years, it has finally come to light. King Arthur’s Round Table has been found…in the gardens of Stirling Castle, Scotland.

Oh, come now. Really? I’m sorry to say that I heartily disagree with the Daily Telegraph which interviewed archaeologists from Glasgow University on this discovery. Talk about the media twisting things to get sensational headlines! Glasgow University has been working in the gardens of Stirling Castle and carried out geophysics on the circular part of the gardens called the ‘King’s Knot’. What the geophysics found was a much older, circular feature beneath the visible 17th century remains.


The 'King's Knot' Stirling Castle
 Yes, there has been reference in the past linking Stirling Castle with ‘King Arthur’. The same can be said of almost every other corner of Britain. Arthurian associations are everywhere; Colchester (Roman Camulodunum), South Cadbury, Winchester, Tintagel, Wroxeter (Roman Viroconium), Caerleon…the list is endless. That is not to say that none of these have any claims to linkages with the historical Arthur. On the contrary, my studies over the years (Arthurian studies was a main focus of mine) lead me to believe that a great many sites likely did have a link to Arthur, possessing archaeological, historical and toponymic evidence. This is a massive topic into which I can not delve here. This is just to say that all the claims for association with Arthur show, at the very least, what a powerful tale it is and how something that has its base in fact has been so embroidered and elaborated upon over the centuries. There is real power in the fusion of history and storytelling.

In my thesis work on theories about the location of Arthur’s ‘Camelot’, I looked at a variety of theories that placed Arthur at South Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Wroxeter in western England near the Welsh border, and Roxburgh Castle in the Scottish Borders. This was fascinating research and it showed how much archaeology contributes to such work. Pottery sherds don’t often lie. At the time, Cadbury Castle, a former Iron Age hill fort of the Durotriges, still comes closest with its finds of timber hall post holes and Mediterranean pottery. The period was right but still, one can never be certain. Wroxeter, a former Roman city with a Dark Age timber hall/villa seemed more likely to be the base of Vortigern rather than Arthur’s seat of power. The theory by a Scottish historian on Roxburgh castle, near Roman Trimontium, was also a bit of a stretch and had more Roman connections than anything. That said, Roman sites were often reused in the Dark Ages. A great deal of horse tack was found in the area of Roxburgh but other than that, the remains on the mound were of the medieval castle. Nothing is for certain, history being the most exciting kind of detective work, to my mind anyway.

South Cadbury Castle
But what about the Round Table? Well, that certainly is a catchy headline. However, a round feature could have been anything from a Roman signal tower, to an Iron Age roundhouse, to an oven of sorts. Stirling was definitely strategically positioned, being the gateway to the Highlands for centuries. Countless invading armies have marched through there in their attempts to conquer what is now Scotland. There are other round features with Arthurian associations, of what could be the correct date. In Cornwall, where there are a great many Arthurian sites, you’ve got Celliwig where, as mentioned in the Mabinogi, Arthur is said to have held court. Winchester castle contains the huge, oak Round Table that is on the wall. The painting on it is from the time of Henry VIII in order to back the Tudor claim to descent from Arthur. Though the table at Winchester is older than the paint, is it the Round Table? Doubtful but, what of it? It’s the symbol of the Round Table that was first mentioned by Robert Wace in the early 12th century that is important. Wace wrote that after twelve years of peace:

Arthur had the Round Table made, about which the British tell many a tale. There sat the vassals, all equal, all served. None of them could boast he sat higher than his peer; all were seated near the place of honour, none far away.”

Roman Amphitheatre Caerleon, Wales
A shame he does not mention where it might have been. Another candidate for the Round Table, and a very likely one for a council of equals at the time of the historical Arthur is the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon in southern Wales, mentioned as the site of Arthur’s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth. That is a magnificent site, as are all mentioned above. It is likely that the historical Arthur spent some time Caerleon, where the II Augustan Legion was stationed. Was that the Round Table? Who knows?

The situation that Wace describes regarding tales of Arthur fits with our current dilemma:

In this time of great peace that I speak of… the wondrous events appeared and the adventures were south out which, whether for love of his generosity, or for fear of his bravery, are so often told about Arthur that they have become the stuff of fiction: not all lies, not all truth, neither total folly not total wisdom. The raconteurs have told so many yarns, the story-tellers so many stories, to embellish their tales, that they have made it all appear fiction.”

This is where the historical novelist can let the imagination take over and fill in the gaps in the historical record. If you are going to write an Arthurian epic, there are more than enough romantic, mysterious and inspiring sites in every part of Britain. The trick would be to find the perfect blend of history and myth to make the world one creates authentic and entertaining at the same time. I’ll write more about this topic at a later date – I have loads of photos from visits to many of these sites that I can share with all of you.

For the moment I would like to say “Kudos!” to the Daily Telegraph for printing that story for in doing so, they have helped to rekindle interest in Arthurian studies (always a good thing) but have also helped to up the chances of further funding for the archaeological work going on at Stirling Castle.
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