Sunday 8 April 2012

Arthur's Stone

The last resting place of King Arthur? 

Arthur's Stone is one of the most notable of all Neolithic burial monuments in western Britain. Located at Grid Ref: SO319431, between the villages of Dorstone and Bredwardine, west Herefordshire, England. This dolmen is associated with the legend of the last resting place of King Arthur and set within a picturesque area of gently rolling countryside lying in the lee of the Black Mountains of Wales, with stunning views to the north-east over the Wye valley.

To find the tomb leave Dorstone by the B4348 heading towards Peterchurch. As the road crosses the river, turn off left at a sharp right-angled bend and head uphill past Dorstone Hill Wood. Some distance further up the western slope of the ridge turn into Arthur's Stone Lane. Continue along the lane, here on your left, overlooking the natural depression of the River Dore known as the Golden Valley, is Arthur's Stone. 

Arthur's Stone is Herefordshire's oldest man-made structure, constructed between 3,700BC and 2,700BC, meaning this stone chamber is older than Stonehenge. Excavations by George Nash in 2006 established that Arthur's Stone was a long mound and not a round mound as officially stated by English Heritage on the site information board.

Arthur's Stone is one of eighteen tombs that dominate the Neolithic landscape of the northern reaches of the Dore, Upper Wye and Usk valleys of Breconshire and neighbouring Herefordshire, that lie within the fertile hinterlands of the Black Mountains of mid Wales and the English Marches and is considered the best preserved of the group. The first phase of this monument comprised a circular mound with a 10ft passage with a sharp right-angled turn leading to a small rectangular gallery with antechambers either side. There appears to be intentionally no visual access between the chamber and the facade beyond; the 90˚ kink in the passage alignment presenting a restriction which appears to be a deliberate demarcation between the realms of life and death; it is at this point that the living would have come into contact with the dead.

The site is a northerly outlier of the Cotswold-Severn Group of chambered tombs yet similar to other monuments of the Black Mountains Group, such as Gwernvale and Pipton Long Cairn but contrasts to other members of the group in the form and nature of the chamber and passage which faces the distinctive mountain spur of Hay Bluff (Penybegwn) at 2,221ft on the northern tip of the Black Mountains providing a dramatic view when emerging from the passage. As with many other chambered tombs from this period Arthur's Stone is not on the highest point of Merbach's summit but slightly below. Significantly the tomb cannot be seen from any part of the Golden Valley; as with many other chambered tombs, clearly visual access played a major part in the siting of these monuments.

The northern edge of Arthur's Stone Lane runs past the monument and across the spine of Arthur's Stone ridge from Merbach Hill to Dorstone Hill which forms part of the Parish boundary between Dorstone and Bredwardine leading to suggestions that the monument may have once served as a territorial marker. The chamber and passage were originally incorporated into a long mound, aligned north-south, which extended well over 100ft in length with a south facing entrance. In the fields to the east of the lane is a selection of stones that do do not appear to be natural and may have comprised one end of the monument, the destruction happening at least before the early 18th century with one piece reputedly taken away for use as altar in the church at Peterchurch.

The low exposed burial chamber is topped by a huge cracked capstone, measuring 18ft x 8ft,  estimated to weigh between 25 – 30 tons resting on nine upright orthostats. A large section has fallen from its underside indicative of its decline in recent times; a century ago it measured 19ft x 12ft  and the mound is now almost completely eroded. The Old Red Sandstone capstone is oriented north-east/south-west, the line of the solar solstices, with the south-western end end directed toward the southern section of the Golden Valley.

Once referred to as 'Artil's Stone', other accounts refer to the tomb as Thor's Stone or Thor's Altar, locally it is know as Arthur's Stone. The name of the village Dorstone seems to be derived from 'dwr' meaning simply 'water' in Welsh, referring to the river Dore. We see similar usage of the word such as in the waterfall Pistyll Rhaeadr, one of the seven wonders of Wales, from Rhaea + dwr, 'the water of Rhea'. The massive capstone in all probability was originally referred to as the Stone at Dore, or Dore-Stone; it is not a massive leap to see the Thor element as a later corruption of this name. Like many chambered tombs and megalithic monuments of Wales and western Britain the site has a secondary name associated with the legendary King Arthur.

Legend claims the site is either the tomb of Arthur himself or a giant that he killed. One stone bears the marks of the giant's elbows when he fell dying,  another slab has marks said to have been made by Arthur's knees where he knelt in thanksgiving after the duel. Alternatively the identations may have been made by Arthur's fingers as he played quoits with the capstone; many cromlechs in Wales are named Arthur's Quoit and it is tempting to think that the name may once have also been used for the mighty capstone at Dorstone. By implication Arthur must have been a giant of a man himself; these huge beings were said to be the first inhabitants of the Island of Britain, indicative of Arthur's great antiquity and rightful association with these ancient monuments.

We find another Arthur's Stone, also known as Maen Ceti, or Coetan Arthur, in West Glamorgan, South Wales. One day, so the story goes, when Arthur was walking through South Wales near the site of modern Llanelli he became irritated by a pebble in his shoe. He removed it and threw it towards the sea. The pebble finally landed several miles to the south on a ridge of land in the Gower Peninsula just below the summit of Cefn Bryn. The pebble forms the capstone of another exposed burial chamber, a huge slab of granite measuring 14ft x 6ft, overlooking the estuary of the river Lougher.

All the guidebooks will tell you that these ancient monuments were in use some 4,000 years before the time of Arthur. But they fail to explain the association. Yet the names attached to these landscape features of natural rocks and prehistoric antiquities are the visible remains of the tales of  Arthur’s adventures and as such have had a remarkable persistence through the centuries in their portrayal of the earliest Arthur as attested by the Mirabilia of the 9th century Historia Brittonum.

As Oliver Padel points out, what is so impressive is the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas and the fact that this folklore remains largely unaffected by the later Arthurian literary cycle and retained its character throughout the period.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Notes & References
Mary Andere, Arthurian Links with Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1996.
Neil Fairbairn, Kingdom's of Arthur, Evans Brothers, 1983.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death, Logaston Press, 2006.
O J Padel, The Nature of Arthur, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No 27, 1994.

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  1. A somewhat esoteric query. Do you happen to know the meaning of the word Ceti or Coetan in the name of Arthur's stone in West Glamorgan?
    I mention this because, following Michelle Ziegler's mention of a bisop Coetti on Iona, I found a reference in "The Cambrian", an old Welsh American magazine, to "the bluestones set up by Merlin within the sacred circle of the Ambresbiri (the holy appointed stones of the Cor Y Coetti, the circle of the Dominion)" and I wondered what on earth it could mean.

  2. Hi David,
    I understand 'Coetan' to mean 'quoit' as in a flat discus for throwing. This is usually used as a name for the huge capstones of cromlechs and an obvious allusion to Arthur as a giant.

    Maen Ceti is thought to be one of "The three mighty achievements of the Isle of Britain" listed in the Myvyrian Archaiology Triads: "raising the stone of Ceti; the building of the Work of Emrys (Stonehenge) ; and the heaping of the Pile of Cyvrangon (Silbury Hill?)".

    The stone seems to have taken it's name from the district named after a man called Ceti. Located about 2 miles to the west of Swansea towards Gower is the district of 'Sketty', an anglicisation of the Welsh 'Sgeti', which has been interpreted as a corruption of 'Ynys Ceti', 'Ceti’s meadow, island'. A little further west in Pembrokeshire we find the village of 'Kilgetty' thought to have derived from the two Welsh elements 'cil' meaning ‘nook, retreat' and the personal name 'Ceti' which, in turn, may be derived from 'ket' meaning ‘gift, generous'.

    One would expect the popularity of the name of a generous man in this area of south Wales to reflect the activies of an early saint. Whereas there is a tradition of St David splitting the stone of Ceti with a sword to prove it wasn't sacred, I can't find anything on a Saint Cetti.

    I can find no other reference to 'Cor y Coetti', which does not translate as 'the circle of the Dominion' but looks suspicously like erroneous wordplay of the Welsh name for Stonehenge 'Cor Y Cewri', the Giants Circle, which clearly the passage you refer to in the Cambrian article alludes to.

    It appears 'Cor' can also be used for a place of learning such as 'Cor Tewdws', the College of Theodosius, an ecclesiastical school of learning in what is now Llantwit Major, Glamorgan.

    Is it possible that Cor y Coetti could be a reference to the divinity school of Bishop Coetti but here seemingly totally out of place on Salisbury Plain?

    Best wishes,

  3. Thank you ever so much for taking the trouble to make such a detailed and interesting reply.

  4. Quite Interesting Post! I have just shared with the visitors of my Celtic Sprite blog a short extract of it with corresponding links and credits!
    I love reading your researches upon Arthur's quest... thanx a lot for honouring his trail...
    Keep up the good work as always!
    Bliss and Blessings ☼