Saturday 29 January 2011

Camelot Abandoned

Why was South Cadbury Hillfort deserted

The remains of a large ancient hillfort can be found on a steep, isolated hill of limestone and sandstone at South Cadbury, in Somerset. Known as Cadbury Castle, the hillfort is 500 feet above sea-level, the summit providing panoramic views across central Somerset, including the Tor at Glastonbury some 11 miles distant to the North West. The hillfort has a massive four line defence of bank-and-ditch enclosing a defended area of l8 acres, rising to a long, level central plateau. A break in the ditches at the south-west above the village of Sutton Montis indicates the original gateway. This vast Iron Age hillfort was completely refortified in the Arthurian period, c.500 AD, which has led to claims that it is the site of King Arthur's court at Camelot.

Such a prominent site no doubt was the stronghold of a powerful Dark Age warlord but medieval British sources made- no mention of Camelot; writing in the early 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth placed King Arthur's court at Caerleon in South East Wales and fails to mention Camelot at all. Similarly, the Welsh Triads do not mention Camelot but place Arthur's court at Celliwig, Cornwall. Indeed, Camelot is first mentioned by the French poet Chretien de Troyes in the romance called Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, written in the late 12th century.

Camelot appears to have been a product of medieval French Arthurian romance, but the French authors always placed the location of Arthur's court in Britain. In 1469 Sir Thomas Malory completed "Le Morte d'Arthur" while in London's Newgate Prison. Malory's work is the definitive English Arthurian romance and brings together many earlier French and Welsh tradtitions. Malory placed Camelot at Winchester were today the Round Table can be seen hanging in the Grand Hall. Malory's opus was printed by William Caxton in 1485 who named the work after the last book Morte Darthur although Mallory had originally named it "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table". In his preface Caxton placed Arthur's court in Wales, seemingly following Geoffrey of Monmouth and disagreeing with Malory:

“And yet of record remayne in wytnesse of hym in wales in the toune of Camelot the grete stones & meruayllous werkys of yron lyeng vnder the grounde”.

There is some speculation that Camelot was derived from the Romano-British word 'Camelodunum'. However, the name 'Cadbury' is generally considered to be an Anglo-Brythonic hybrid from the Welsh “cad” = battle + English “bury” = fortification, stronghold = 'Battle-Fort'. Others have suggested a derivation from the personal name Cado, a Dumnonian King, recorded as having a stronghold at Din-Draithou (Dunster), in which case Cadbury could simply mean “Cado's fort”.

Arthur features in several 'Saints Lives' in which he is often at odds with the holy men, often depicted as somewhat of a petty tyrant, in a similar vein to the Arthur of the Welsh Triads which seem to be based on a tradition independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. In one such account Cado (Cadwy) features along with Arthur in a well known incident in the Life of Saint Carannog (Vita Carantoci), an early 6th century West Country Abbot, who is credited with founding Llangrannog, Ceredigion, Wales and credited with establishing St Carantoc's Church at Crantock, Cornwall. The Vita, composed in the early 12th century in Cemis, Pembrokeshire, tells how Carannog arrives in Arthur's realm in search of a marvellous altar which he set adrift in order to see where he should go and preach. On arriving at the banks of the River Willett he meets both Cadwy and Arthur. Arthur promises to help the saint if he will render harmless a serpent that is devastating his lands. Carannog succeeds with prayer were Arthur has failed with force. Arthur then presents him with the altar that he had tried to use as a table but everything he put on it was thrown off at once.

In his notes on the county of Somerset in 1542, John Leland, Antiquarian to King Henry VIII, relates a tradition equating Arthur's court at Camelot with the ancient hillfort of Cadbury Castle. The term "Camallate" was used by Leland, thus identifying "South Cadbyri" as Camelot:

"At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle. . .The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat."

Not far away from the Cadbury site are the old villages of Queen Camel and West Camel which some believe influenced Leland when making reference to 'Camallate'. And of course we find the River Camel in Cornwall, where Geoffrey located Camlann.

Camelot - Cadbury
First inhabited in the Early Neolithic before 3000 BC and again in the Late Neolithic around 2000 BC, characteristic finds of flints and pottery but no evidence of any structures from this early period were uncovered. There followed a long period of abandonment with no indications of activity until the 8th or 7th century BC. By the 5th century BC, the community had expanded to to the status of a large village fortified with a rampart and ditch at the head of the steepest slope. By the time of the Roman conquest the defensive earthworks had increased to four massive banks and ditches, the top rampart some thirty feet high, containing a shrine and an armourer's workshop complete with domestic buildings. From the archaeological evidence it seems the ramparts were not stormed by the Romans at the time of the invasion in 43 AD but survived until c.70 AD when the inhabitants were slaughtered and the defences partially dismantled. [1]

Deep plough soil on the fourth rampart has been interpreted as indications of cultivation for the first two centuries of Roman rule. In the late 3rd and early 4th centuries renewed activity was marked by finds of pottery and coins, the latest of which being from the reign of Honorius dated 393 – 402 AD, indicating activity into the early 5th century. Within the rampart enclosure the site of a possible Romano-British temple was identified, prompting speculation that it was a site of pilgrimage. Occupation recommenced in around 470 AD as evidenced by class A, B and D pottery sherds. [2] This pottery was of a type also found at Tintagel, indicating that someone of high status who could import luxury goods had resided there. This led to the formation of the Camelot Research Committee, co-founded by Geoffrey Ashe and C A Ralegh Radford, which carried out large-scale excavations of South Cadbury hillfort in 1966 - 70 under the direction of Leslie Alcock.

In 1967 the excavations soon revealed that the fort had indeed been re-fortified in post-Roman times, the classic Arthurian period. Alcock found evidence for a wall which had been built in the 500's AD and the ramparts were strengthened with large quantities of dressed masonry from derelict Roman buildings and mounted by raised wooden walkways. The remains of a large timber feasting hall, 63 feet by 34, were discovered at the centre of the site, set in a commanding position on the high part of the plateau called 'Arthur's Palace'. It has been dated to the 5th/6th centuries from pottery finds. [3]

The remains of a massive gatehouse dating from the same period was found at the south-west entrance. Trenches through the bank revealed a cross-section with layers one above another showing how the rampart had been rebuilt at various times throughout the centuries. During the Arthurian period it had been substantially rebuilt; at the top of the earthwork was a dry stone wall 16 feet thick. Holes indicated where ancient timber posts had rotted marked where massive posts had upheld a breastwork on the outside, protecting sentries on the wall. Wooden beams had run across this binding the structure together and supporting a platform, and probably wooden watch towers.

A silver Germanic ring was uncovered indicating the defensive earthworks were repaired around 550 AD. The gate was refortified around this time, possibly in response to westward aggression of Wessex who was pushing its borders further into Somerset as part of a general wave of expansionist activity by the English kingdom from the mid sixth century onwards. [4]

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records English advances in the area:

. This year Cuthwin and Ceawlin fought with the Britons, and slew three kings, Commail, and Condida, and Farinmail, on the spot that is called Derham, and took from them three cities, Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath.

The hill fort at South Cadbury was then abandoned and appears to have gone out of use in the early 7th century. Alcock asserts that occupation had come to an end before 600 AD. Why?

The Wasteland
Was the hillfort stormed by advancing Anglo-Saxons? There is no archaeological evidence that shows there was any destruction or an invasion at the site of South Cadbury at the beginning of the 6th century – it simply seems to have gone out of use. This assumption is based on archaeological evidence (or lack of); the absence of the imported class E pottery ware.

We have noted above the presence of class A and B pottery ware. Class A dates to between 400-500 AD and included bowls ‘with a cross or other motif’ whilst class B pottery ware dates to between 500-600 AD and comprised of amphorae which held both oil and wine. Both A and B pottery consists of both native and imported pottery from the eastern Mediterranean.

Class E pottery ware is dated between 600-700 AD and consists of native grass-marked ware and imported grey-ware originating from the Rhineland. Tintagel and Congresbury display the same pottery ware pattern as South Cadbury; absence of Class E. Tintagel has well known Arthurian associations and no doubt trade links with Cadbury. This absence of Class E pottery ware indicates that Tintagel was probably deserted the same time as Cadbury.

The evidence indicates that Tintagel lost its economic supremacy in south-west Britain and consequently disappeared from the archaeological record until the 12th century. This is due in part to changing trade patterns possibly as a result of political changes in the Mediterranean area at the time. Consequently, communities reliant on Tintagel for trade, namely, but not only, Cadbury Castle and Congresbury, effectively vanished at the same time. Imports increased along the south eastern coast, and merchants may have found these areas provided better trade than the western peoples, whose main exchange seems to have shifted to the Bristol region. [5]

A recent article by Sue Carter [6] suggests the reason was famine. Carter states that the Catholic Encyclopaedia records an entry under the information relating to St. John the Almsgiver, 550-616 AD, indicating there was a shortage of wheat in Britain. In addition, Carter cites how “the 5th century was a century of woes – raiding, wars, plagues, peasant revolts”, contributing to a fall in population, especially male. The cessation of imported goods and the result of local crop failure would be disastrous for a population of people with no centralised authority. Carter continues that research into the Somerset Levels area has shown that “a growth of raised deposits ceased after a change in the climate and a reduction in the annual rainfall in about 400AD.”

Carter concludes that “Famine may be plausible and would certainly explain the abandonment of a site, or several, where no military action or raiding is visible in the archaeological record. It certainly would explain why people just moved away from an area and left no trace.”

Climate Change

Michael E Jones pioneered the theory that abrupt climate change played a major role in ending Roman rule in the 5th century, using various evidence, such as pollen records, peat layers and tree rings, to support his idea that Britain’s climate suddenly got cooler and wetter around 450.
Jones proposes that around 400 AD, the weather in Britain became wetter and colder, a deterioration that intensified after 450 AD. He suggests that by the late Roman period, there may have been as much as a 10% increase in rainfall. Together with deforestation and expanded agriculture and grazing, the heavier rains would have caused flooding and aggravated soil erosion, leaching it of its nutrients and fertility. Annual average temperature also dropped during this time, perhaps as much as 2.5 degrees F (1.5° C), which would have lowered the elevation at which grains could grow by 650 feet and shortened the growing season by almost one whole month.

Although the literary evidence is meagre, we do find references in some Dark Age sources such as the Annales Cambriae which record plague at this time probably as a result of the deteriorating conditions:

- The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

- The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. Thus they say 'The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos'. Then was the yellow plague.

Certainly, this is the impression conveyed by Gildas, who records an oral tradition of invasion, famine, plague and a break down in society during the mid 5th century. The result was human disaster leaving the Britons vulnerable; "an environmental crisis," Jones adds, "Less grain could be grown. Famine struck, the Romans left and the Saxons invaded." [7]

The Catastrophe that Preceded the Dark Ages
What could have caused such a drastic change in climate? According to Professor Mike Baillie of Queen's University in Belfast, something catastrophic occurred on Earth 1,500 years ago that may have led to the Dark Ages and coincided with the end of the Roman Empire and the death of King Arthur. Baillie suggests it could have been a bombardment of cometary debris or the eruption of a super volcano, but whatever it was, evidence can be found in the chronology of tree rings from around the world. This global environmental event occurred around 540 AD and recorded in the tree ring chronologies which date back thousands of years, and indicate something quite extraordinary occurred around the time of King Arthur's death, the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages.

An important part of the Arthurian Mythos is the Grail legend which contains the concept of a wasteland where no crops grow and the land is infertile; something which certainly could be explained by an environmental catastrophe. Significantly, continental Grail romances always set their story in Britain. The cometary impacts or volcanic eruptions filled the atmosphere with dust and debris; a long winter began. Crops failed, and there was famine. The death of Arthur is commonly dated to this time, right in the middle of this environmental catastrophe. [8]

Was this Camelot?
For whatever reason, South Cadbury hillfort was deserted, but it is the Arthurian period occupation of the late 5th century that attracted the most interest at the time of Alcock's excavations and to this day South Cadbury hillfort retains its association with Arthur. Alcock himself was rather suspect of the Arthurian associations of the site and he was accused of encouraging publicity that the site was the military base of an ‘Arthur-like’ Dark Age warlord, a dux bellorum, which the popular press quickly proclaimed as the historical Arthur.

Scholars such as David Dumville must have been pulling their hair out when Alcock's book “Arthur's Britain” was published in 1971 acknowledging that someone must have done the things credited to Arthur at the time of 5th century occupation of South Cadbury hillfort; Alcock therefore considered he was justified in labelling the period ‘Arthurian’. Other historians joined rank with Alcock, such as John Morris who published his reconstructed history of sub-Roman Britain, titled “The Age of Arthur”, in 1973 prompting Dumville's scathing literary outburst demanding Arthur be removed from our history books. [9]

However, although not well received by archaeologists and historians, these books made a large impact on a more popular readership, capturing the public's imagination. Alcock’s excavations had uncovered a new type of late 5th century site; the heavily fortified British hall. It was soon discovered that the fortified Dark Age hall, was not unique to South Cadbury as there were many more similar fortified halls at other Dark Age hillforts in Britain. This is symbolic of the Arthurian period more than anything else; a battle leader co-ordinating British resistance against advancing barbarians. Alcock had confirmed the Arthurian period did actually exist.

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson

See: Arthur's Hunting Path, a Neolithic trackway from Cadbury to Glastonbury Tor.


1. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1989, (1st edition 1971).
2. Charles Thomas, Imported Pottery in Dark-Age Western Britain.
Although perhaps a little dated now and written before Alcock's excavations at South Cadbury this classification generally holds good although there have been revisions to the chronology;
Class A comprises table-wares in the late Roman tradition,
Class B, amphorae and lagenae, containers for wine and oil.
Class D, sub-Roman ware. Alcock favoured a Bristol-Channel origin.
Class E, of distinct, late-Roman, appearance, source in north-eastern France, from a common source between the Somme and the Rhine, perhaps just inside the area usually known as the Rhineland.
Classes A and B were of a east Mediterranean type, wheel made wares introduced late within the 5th century, continued in use to 6th century. It is hard to show any clear case of their importation in the 7th century.
Class A,B and D pottery ware came in to Britain through western trade routes, whereas Class E came in from the East, possibly shipped by Frisian merchants.
3. Leslie Alcock, By South Cadbury, is that Camelot? Excavations at Cadbury Castle 1966-70. Thames and Hudson, 1972.
4. Geoffrey Ashe & Leslie Alcock, Cadbury: Is that Camelot? in The Quest for Arthur's Britain ed. Geoffrey Ashe, 1968.
5. Charles Thomas, Op. Cit.
Class A and B was imported directly by sea from the Byzantine world through the Straits of Gibraltar. Alcock has proposed that the Vandal control of the western Mediterranean entrance at the Straits of Gibraltar, in the mid 5th century might be thought to have interrupted, if not disrupted entirely, such a trade. However, as Charles Thomas states, there appears to be no evidence to support this. Thomas adds that the end of the 6th century is indicated by archaeology, which historically, represents the collapse of the Justinian attempt to reconquer the western empire. The merchant ships which had made the long and hazardous voyage with wine and oil from Byzantium to the distant northern islands simply ceased to find it worth-while.
6. Sue Carter, Did Famine Destroy ‘Camelot’? HeritageDaily - Heritage & Archaeology News- 2011.
7. Michael E. Jones, The End of Roman Britain, 1996.
8. Mike Baillie , Exodus to Arthur; Catastrophic Encounters with Comets, Batsford, 2000.
9. D. Dumville, Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, History #62, 1977.

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