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Arthur’s Grave at Glastonbury September 13, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Beachcombing thought that he would recall tonight the first recorded archaeological dig to take place in the United Kingdom. The place? The magical abbey of Glastonbury on the fringes of the Celtic fringes. The time? Probably 1191, though different accounts give slightly different dating clues. The find? The body of Arthur, Lord of the Round Table no less. The writer? The insufferable Gerald of Wales, who elsewhere reports on an Irish king mating with a mare and who had an eye for natural details, especially degraded ones.

 Arthur’s body… in our own days was discovered at Glastonbury between two ancient stone pyramids erected in the holy cemetery, hidden deep in the ground in a hollow oak and revealed by wonderful signs and marvels: it was afterwards moved into the church with honour and committed properly to a marble tomb. In the grave there was a leaden cross, under the stone and not above, as is typical today, with the words on it…: ‘Here lies buried King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon’… Arthur had two wives, the second buried with him there and her bones were in the tomb with his. But they were separated from them so that the two thirds of the grave, at the head naturally, were given over to Arthur’s bones, while the bottom third, at the feet, held the woman’s bones apart. There was a blonde lock of the woman’s hair found still coloured. But when a monk snatched greedily at this lock and lifted it up, the lock crumbled straightaway into dust. Now Arthur’s shinbone when measured against the shin of the tallest there by being fixed in the ground… went more than three inches over that one’s knee. The skull, meanwhile, was spacious and so large that it seemed to be of a freak or prodigy, with a hand’s breadth for the eye-socket alone. And there were ten or more wounds there, all of which had scarred over, except for one greater wound which had left a substantial hole.

Gerald was not present but he had contacts who likely were and can certainly be described as a near contemporary writer. So what in God’s name had the monks at Glastonbury dug up? The Latin on the inscription leaves no doubt that this was not a genuine Arthurian relic, but a clumsy medieval forgery. Glastonbury had presumably put it together to give some background to the discovery of unusual bones on its territory: another source tells us that curtains were hung up around the digging monks – helpful if you want to carry out dishonest acts! But what were the bones? The hair suggests human remains, if hair is what was really found here. A hollow oak has been compared to certain kinds of Neolithic burials. But the size of ‘Arthur’ might point to something non human and was the ‘greater wound’ really a wound and not a non-human orifice? Beachcombing has wondered long and reasonably hard about this. Any ideas? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom


Professor Adrienne Mayor kindly sent Beachcombing these thoughts on Arthur’s bones – she is the uber expert on human perceptions of fossils in antiquity: ‘Thanks for the interesting report on the prodigious bones of King Arthur. A shin bone of that size and the huge ‘eye socket’ (note that it is singular in the account) makes me think that some fossil bones of a Pleistocene mammoth were discovered and reburied labeled ‘Arthur’. Such fossils do exist in England; apothecaries used the tusks and fossils as medicine. Some mammoth bones were recognized as elephant remains and proclaimed to be a war elephant brought to Britain by Claudius.’ Note that Beachcombing has already written on Claudius and war elephants in the green and pleasant land. Thanks again to Professor Mayor!