Friday 30 September 2011

Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg

Remains dating back to the Bronze Age have been uncovered by archaeologists excavating the site of a 9th Century monument.

The Pillar of Eliseg, also known as Elise's Pillar (Croes Elisedd in Welsh), stands 2 miles along the A542 from Llangollen, in north-east Wales. It was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell, king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog.  It is located 400m north-west of the ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Valle Crucis, founded in 1201. The Pillar is a striking landmark sited in the narrow valley of the Nant Eglwyseg, a tributary of the river Dee, to which it gives its name: the ‘Valley of the Cross’.

The Pillar is thought to be the remains of a 20 foot-high Celtic cross-shaft set within its original base, with the cross-head clearly now missing. Almost invisible to today’s visitor, the Pillar once bore a long Latin inscription saying that the cross was raised by Concenn, the last native ruler of the kingdom of Powys, who died in 854 AD, in memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg, recording the ancestry of the house of Powys, though in a form that continues to be a subject to ongoing debate; the early history of how this kingdom, adjoining the borderland with England, came into being is obscure.

The Latin inscription not only mentions several individuals described in the Historia Britonum, but also the genealogy of Concenn and Eliseg, recording the exploits of Eliseg and the enlargement of his kingdom, the achievements of Concenn himself, and finally the dynasty is glorified by reference of their ancestors, the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus and Vortigern. It is one of the longest surviving inscriptions from early medieval Wales being of immense importance to Dark Age history.

After much genealogical description, the inscription states that both Concenn and Eliseg were descended from Vortigern, the much maligned 5th Century British overlord who invited the Saxons into the country, 'like wolves into the sheepfold', as Gildas put it. Vortigern is also famous in early British legendary history for his meeting with the child Merlin at Dinas Emrys, a hill fort in the mountains of Snowdonia.

By the late  17th century the Pillar was no longer standing, but fortunately the damaged inscription was recorded by the famous Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd in 1696, listing the names of key 5th century figures from early English and Welsh history. The original inscription is now illegible.

Lhuyd made the earliest mention of Croes Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere's Cross) in the 1690's, the remains of a stone cross standing aside the Llangollen Canal. Indeed, the Llangollen area is host to many sites with Arthurian associations: the grail castle at Dinas Bran; Ffynnon Arthur (Arthur's Well); Craig Arthur and it's strange rock formation known as Cadair Arthur (Arthur's Chair); and Valle Crucis Abbey, seen by some as the 'real Glastonbury'.

The mound of the Pillar was dug into in 1773 by the local land-owner Thomas Lloyd and is reported to have contained a stone cist with a skeleton along with pieces of silver. He re-erected the Pillar which had been pulled down by the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War when a grave under it opened. The lower half of the Pillar disappeared but the upper half was re-erected in 1779.

The mound is of unknown date and function but thought to have a prehistoric provenance although the site has never previously been subject to modern archaeological investigation. Significantly, the site lies in an area rich in Bronze Age burials and finds, and graves of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, cut into earlier Bronze Age burials sites, are testified elsewhere in Wales. CADW has given consent for the excavations to be carried out on a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Project Eliseg
Co-directed by Professor Nancy Edwards and Dr Gary Robinson of Bangor University together with Professor Dai Morgan Evans and Professor Howard Williams of the University of Chester, Project Eliseg, is a collaborative archaeological research project investigating the Pillar, one of Britain’s most enigmatic early medieval monuments. Using modern archaeological methods to investigate the mound and it's setting, the Project aims to obtain a better understanding of this enigmatic monument and to discover more about the emergence of the early medieval kingdoms on the borderlands of England and Wales after the fall of Roman Britain.

The archaeologists have been trying to establish if there any truth in Trevor Lloyd's story or if it is pure legend. Professor Edwards from Bangor University said the Project was trying to establish if there was any truth in the story. The excavations set out to reveal what are thought to be Bronze Age remains underneath an early medieval long cist grave, clearing away debris left by Lloyd more than 200 years ago.

Last year's excavations focused on the mound, which was identified as an early Bronze Age cairn but archaeologists from Bangor and Chester University admitted the latest finds, cremated remains and bone fragments, had complicated the picture regarding the site's historical significance and make it worthy of further investigation.

An update on the latest finds is expected to be published in the near future.


Bronze Age finds at Llangollen's Pillar of Eliseg - BBC News North East Wales 25 September 2011 

The Project Eliseg website provides information about earlier research and the latest discoveries, including information about the historical context of the early medieval kingdom of Powys, early medieval stone sculpture and information about the archaeology of early medieval Britain (c. AD 400-1100).

Updates, photographs and films on Llangollen Museum's Facebook page

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Thursday 8 September 2011

The Legend of Arthur's Survival

The Abduction of Guinevere

Throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and she was very susceptible to being abducted.

Appendix II

“The Britons.... are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur, being unwilling to entertain the fact of his death” - William of Newburgh (The History of English Affairs)

Arthur's Messianic Return
In a continuation of the Anglo-Norman chronicler Geffrei Gaimar's Estorie des Engles (The History of the English) c.1150, the redactor states that the Welsh of this time  threatened the Normans that they would finally win back their land through Arthur and restore the name of Britain. [1]

Site of Arthur's tomb, Glastonbury
Henry of Huntingdon reported that the Bretons denied Arthur's death and expected his return. [2] The Norman poet Wace, in his Roman de Brut (1155), wrote that Arthur was still in Avalon and the Bretons await his return. Peter of Blois and Gerald of Wales both compared the Bretons in this respect to the Jews who awaited their Messiah. Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle (c.1300) asserts that the Cornish share the same hope as the Bretons.  [3] The belief in Arthur's messianic return persisted into the 15th century when Malory wrote that “some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again”. [4]

The discovery of Arthur's remains at Glastonbury in 1190, or 1191, was designed to deflate Welsh hopes as they resisted Normal rule but it failed to make any great impact as the belief in Arthur's survival was extant amongst the pan-Brittonic nations; the Southern Scottish, the Welsh, the Bretons and the Cornishmen. If we accept the argument that Arthur's body was not found at Glastonbury then we must be prepared to consider the alternative; Arthur's Survival.

Two Arthurs?
By claiming to have discovered King Arthur's remains at Glastonbury the Norman's hoped they had exterminated the historical Arthur, the Arthur of the vision of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the great hope of these pan-Brittonic nations; the Celtic Messiah. But the Norman's could not eradicate the Arthur who was alive in the minds and the wild places of the landscape of the Britons;  the Arthur of folklore and myth.

By the time of the first historical account of Arthur, the Historia Brittonum, c.829AD, there are clearly two Arthurs. The first, of Historia Chapter 56, is the 'historical' battle list, describing Arthur's campaigns as the dux bellorum, and secondly in the landscape wonders of Chapter 73 of the Historia, known as the Mirabilia. The latter contain two wonders relating to Arthur; the grave of his son Amr and a stone with a footprint from his dog Cabal. Although scribed as "Cabal" in the Historia, it has been argued that Cafal, pronounced "Caval", is related to the British word Cafall meaning "horse" from the Latin caballus. [5]

This suggests a huge, giant of a dog. Cavall appears in Culwch and Olwen (in its current form dated to 11th century), as Arthur's dog in the hunt for the supernatural giant boar, the Twrch Trwyth.  This dog's footprint on a mound of stones, identified as the mountain Carn Gafallt, in the Elan Valley in central Wales, as recorded in the 9th century Mirabilia, is the earliest known reference to the story of the “hunting the porker Troynt”, betraying the antiquity of the tale.

As we have seen above, written examples of these local legends first emerge around the same time as the figure of Arthur the warrior in the 9th century Historia Brittonum. Yet the first appearances of the mythological hero may well predate the Arthurian battle list of  the Historia  which is seen as the first historical account of the dux bellorum. The story of Arthur's journey to the Otherworld in 'Preiddau Annwn' and the various stories summarised in 'Pa gur yw porthaur?' are impossible to date with any certainty but may well be evidence of the existence of Arthur as a mythological hero prior to the battle list of the Historia. With the available literature it is impossible to answer the important question of which came first, but we can be fairly certain that these tales existed as oral traditions before being first written down.

However, it seems likely that the author of the Historia did not invent these onomastic legends contained within the Mirabilia but attached them to his larger work because they were topical and familiar to his intended audience. These stories of Arthurian landscape wonders are found throughout the pan-Brittonic world as evidenced in Cornwall, Wales, southern Scotland, Brittany. Many of the tales may now be lost but their very existence is betrayed by the large number of topographical features with an Arthurian association.

Arthur of the Wild Places
The concept of the undead king who could be invoked as a national saviour, combined with the folkloric Arthur, was eternal. This belief was defended with vigour. In 1113 a group of nine canons from Laon paid a visit to England. The event is described in a narrative, De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudensis (The Miracles of St Mary of Laon) by a Henri from Laon, written in 1146. The canons had with them a shrine containing the relics of Our Lady of Laon, their object being to raise funds for the rebuilding of their cathedral which had been destroyed in a fire, and invited the misfortunate to pray for holy cures.

From Exeter they journeyed through 'Danavexeria', probably meant to be ancient Dumnonia, roughly modern Devonshire, and here they were told they were entering the very land of the famous King Arthur, 'terra Arturi'. On their journey they were shown various rock formations in open country called Arthur's Chair and Arthur's Oven. These, with the Mirabilia, are amongst the earliest documented Arthurian sites. On arriving at Bodmin in Cornwall they displayed the holy relics in the church when a local man with a withered arm came forward in hope of being healed. The canons had probably approached the church from Bodmin Moor, a wild part of Cornwall which hosts many Arthur named sites. He told one of the French party that King Arthur lived which caused laughter amongst the canon's group but to their amazement the bystanders supported him. A dispute broke out and quickly became a brawl, an armed crowd gathered and bloodshed was only just avoided. Needless to say, Our Lady of Laon had been offended and the man's withered arm was not healed. Henri compared the event to the Britons (Bretons) of Brittany, “Just as the Britons are wont to wrangle with the French on behalf of King Arthur”. [6]

All that remains of Furnum Regi
There are not many surviving so-named Arthurian localities in Devon, however, the site of Arthur's Oven is thought to be 'King's Oven', with Arthur's name dropped, about a mile from where the Exeter and Bodmin road climbs to its highest point on Dartmoor at Merripit. [7]

It is likely that the King's Oven was called King (Arthur)'s Oven (or Furness) in previous days. This appears to be the remains of a tin smelter that was in use in the 12th century, known as Furnum Regis, King's Furness, one of the original boundary markers of Dartmoor forest.

King's Oven  is situated near Warren House Inn, the second highest pub in Britain situated some 1425 feet above sea level, on the Postbridge to Moretonhampstead Road. This is a very isolated spot in the middle of Dartmoor where travellers would stop for a break in their journey and refresh the horses. It is believed that the French canons passed through here on their journey to Bodmin from Exeter in 1113. A cairn to the rear of the Inn is known as "Kings Oven""" as it was named in early records.

Arthur's O'on
We can only guess that the King's Furness bore a resemblance to a similar feature in Central Scotland, formerly Stirlingshire. In his encyclopedic Liber Floridus, c.1120, Lambert of St Omer included some items not included in the Mirabilia of the Historia Brittonum, one such example being a circular building known as 'Arthur’s Palace', a former Roman shrine.

This became known as 'Arthur's O'on'.  [8] This building stood near the site of the Carron Ironworks, just north of Falkirk on the Stenhousemuir side of the river Carron. It is mentioned as a landmark in a document dated to 1293 were it is called 'Furnus Arturi'. It is illustrated in an 18th century engraving which shows it as a dome shaped building in the region of twelve feet in height with steps leading up to an arched doorway with a window above. It was obliterated in the 18th century and nothing now remains. Nearby was the Roman town of Camelon, with it's obvious Arthurian connotations. [9]

Arthur's Seat
Arthur's Chair in Cornwall as recounted by Henri of Laon is not to be confused with the similar named topographical features in the north; we find an Arthur's Seat atop an ancient volcano, towering over Edinburgh and linked with the stories of Arthur the warrior. The mountain features in the early Arthurian poem 'Pa gur yw porthaur?' (What man is the gate-keeper?), which describes Arthur fighting dog-headed men (Cynvyn) on the slopes of the mountain (Mynyd Eiddyn). In Lud's Church Part XIII: Gwydion's Eagle we saw that an ancient alternative name for Din Eidin was *Lugu-dunon, listed in the Roman Ravenna Cosmography, c.700AD, as apparently located somewhere in the north of Britain. Local folklore states that Arthur and his men are sleeping inside the hill, awaiting the call to come forth in time of the Country’s need. In the earliest records the origin of the name is simply “the Crag” and it has been suggested that Arthur’s Seat (Suidhe Arthair) may be a corruption either of the Gaelic Ard-na-Said, meaning “height of arrows”. Edin may also be  a reference to the mythical giant Etin.

Additional Arthur's Seats are found at Dumbarrow Hill, Angus and east of Liddesdale in Cumberland. In Wales we find it as an alternative name for Cadair Idris and a rock formation on the peak of Pen-y-fâl (Sugar Loaf) in Monmouthsire are also known as 'Arthur's Chair'. Gerald of Wales refers to a hill as 'Kairarthur', identified as Pen y Fan, the highest point of the Brecon Beacons. [10]

Back in Cornwall, at Tintagel we find an 'Arthur's Chair' but this is further west from Bodmin and of doubtful dating and cannot be assigned as early. However, we do find an Arthur's Hunting Lodge, or Hunting Seat, in Cornwall. There are two sites in Cornwall associated with Arthur the hunter. The first, a stone lined rectangular enclosure of Arthur's Hall near Garrow Tor on Bodmin Moor, is also known as Arthur's Hunting Lodge. Just north of this is 'Arthur's Downs' with its rocky basins known as 'Arthur's Troughs' from where he fed his hunting dogs.

The second Cornish Arthur’s Hunting Lodge, or Seat, is the Iron Age hill-fort of Castle-an-Dinas which commands wide views of the moors. The hill-fort has three massive earthwork ramparts of differing dates, implying use as a fortification over  along period. Inside there traces of a fourth rampart. Legend states that it is from Castle-an-Dinas that Arthur rode out to hunt on Tregoss Moor and left four hoofprints from his horse on a stone at St Columb Major, some two miles distant. In the episode of Arthur's birth of later Arthurian legend the site has been named as the stronghold where Duke Glorois was killed fighting Uther's forces. [11]

Lanyon Quoit – Arthur's Dining Table
A peculiar feature of the Celtic landscape is the many Cornish dolmens and Welsh cromlechs with Arthurian associations. In some instances just the capstone, particularly when flat, is known as Bwrdd Arthur, or Arthur's Table, perhaps a reference to feasting in the wilderness. Indeed Arthur's dining in the wilderness has been compared to the Irish fulachta, a pit used for cooking as such, found in wild places and attributed to Fionn and his band of men, whose legend has close parallels to that of the early, pre-Geoffrey Arthur. [12]

The characteristics displayed by this mythological Arthur of local wonder-tales has been compared to his namesake of the animal kingdom: the bear, an animal renowned for its great strength, its skill in hunting and living off the wild, its solitary nature and preference for the remote places.  [13]

Yet, in all cases, the concept of Arthur would seem to be that of a giant, with these enormous rock-formations providing all his needs, his bed, his dining table, his chair, his table, whilst he roamed the wilderness.  [14] Indeed, we find many dolmens and cromlechs known as 'Coeten Arthur' or Arthur's Quoit, by implication a stone, or discus, hurled by a giant. Indeed in 'terra Arturi', we find a Giant's Grave at Warbstowe, Cornwall, which is also known as 'Arthur's Grave'. This is the mound of a long barrow within the double-ramparted hill-fort called Warbstowe Bury. [15]

It is impossible to know when these prehistoric monuments first adopted their Arthurian names; they must have been in use in oral tradition before their first appearance in recorded literature. It could have well been in ancient times, but it is a persistent enigma. A recent suggestion is that these ancient monuments with Arthurian associations all seem to possess connections with north-ness. [16]

The Exalted Prisoner
The belief in Arthur's survival was still in existence some 700 years after the exhumation at Glastonbury. 19th century Folk tales claimed that South Cadbury hill, the site both Camden and Leland call CamalatArthur's Camelot, was hollow, and Arthur and his knights lie sleeping inside waiting for the call when the country needs them. A local person saw the gates as a boy, but they cannot be located today. A local poem calls them golden gates claiming that if you look through them on St John's Eve you can see the king in his court. A group of Victorian archaeologists visiting the hillfort were about to commence their dig when they were asked by a local man if they had come ‘to take the king out’.

Above we saw that Arthur’s Seat (Suidhe Arthair) of Edinburgh may be a corruption of the Gaelic Ard-na-Said, meaning “height of arrows”. We find a further Arthurian associations with arrows on a mountain in Wales where Arthur is said to sleeping inside a cave on mount Snowdon just below the “pass of the arrows” (Bwlch y Saethau) where local legend claims that he was fatally wounded in the battle of Cwm-y-Llan (Camlann). Arthur's knights that survived the battle are said to be sleeping in Ogof Llanciau Eryri (the Cave of the Young Men of Snowdon), below the cliff on the left-hand side near the top of Llyn Llydaw.

The cave was discovered when a shepherd climbed down the cliff to rescue a sheep. He found an opening in the rock, partially hidden by loose stones and turf. On clearing these away he saw a vast cave stretching into the depths of the mountain where he saw a host of warriors all asleep, with white hazel wands in their hands. On entering the cave he struck his head on a bell hung above the entrance. On the ringing of the bell all the warriors awoke, and, sprang to their feet, giving out a terrific shout. The frightened shepherd scrambled off down the cliff-face. It is said that from that day on he never again enjoyed a day's good health, and died before his time. No one has since found the mouth of the Cave of the Young Men of Snowdonia.

We cannot rule out the possibility that the dolmen and cromlech Arthurian associations are linked to the concept of a sleeping king imprisoned within  a hollow hill.  In the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) we find that Arthur is listed with the “Three exalted prisoners of the Island of Britain; Llŷr Half-speech, and Mabon son of Modron and Gweir son of Geirioedd, And one was more exalted than the three [of them]. He was three nights in a magical prison beneath the Stone of Enchantment. And he was Arthur.” One of Arthur's tasks in Culhwch and Olwen, is to release Mabon before he can hunt the giant boar, the Twrch Trwyth.

The exalted prisoner is certainly of ancient construct. Writing on the location of Ogygia, an enigmatic island mentioned in Homer's 8th century “Odyssey”, the Greek historian Plutarch, (c.46 – 120 AD),  says, “there is one island where Cronus is confined, guarded while he sleeps by Briareus; for his sleep has been devised as a bondage for him, and round about him are many demigods as attendants and servants.”  [17] Plutarch continues, “For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold.”  [18] Similitudes to the Arthurian legend that requires no further emphasis.

And so we come to the end of our journey, through the Otherworld and the return, and to Arthur's survival as the exalted prisoner:

“But the flames of which once burnt around the memory of Arthur have long ago sunk into grey ashes. He wakes no national passions now. He has been taken up......with all who died fighting against odds, into the Otherworld of the heroic imagination. His deeds are the heritage of all peoples; not least of the English folk against whom he battled. To this outcome many men have worked; the good clerk Wace, Chrétien de Troyes, the unknown author of the Lancelot and the Mort Artu, our own Thomas Malory. But most of all are we bound to praise that learned and unscrupulous old canon of St George's in Oxford, Geoffrey of Monmouth. And withal we still do not know where is Arthur's grave." [19]

Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent?


1. E K Chambers, Arthur of Britain, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1927, reprint edition 1966, p.109.
2. Ibid. p.251.
3. Roger Sherman Loomis, The Legend of Arthur's Survival, in  Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Ed R S Loomis, Oxford University Press reprints, 1959.
4. Thomas Malory, The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table, 1469, Book XXI, Chapter 7. Published in 1485 by Caxton as "Morte d'Arthur".
5. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992, pp.226.
6.  Chambers, op cit. p.18.
7.  Ibid. p.184.
8.  O J Padel, The Nature of Arthur, CMCS 27, 1994, p.6.
9.  Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
10. Padel, op cit. pp.25-26.
11.  Ashe, op cit.
12.  Thomas Green, Arthuriana, The Lindes Press 2009.
13.  N J Highman, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge, 2002.
14.  Green, op cit.
15.  Ibid.
16.  Robin Heath, The Quest for the Prehistoric Arthur, in The Secret Land: The Origins of Arthurian Legend and The Grail Quest, Paul Broadhurst with Robin Heath, Mythos Press, 2009.
17.  Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum.
18.  Plutarch, Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon.
19.  Chambers, op cit, p.232.

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