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British Village Makes No Bones About Camelot : King Arthur: Arthuret, a tiny hamlet near the Scottish border, is one of many sites that claim a link to the reputed commander of British forces that resisted 5th- or 6th-Century invasion of Germanic tribes.

August 15, 1993|DONALD SMITH | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

ARTHURET, England — The bones lie in a jumble beneath the 400-year-old floor of St. Michael and All Angels Church, a stone's throw from the place that might have been Camelot.

Sometimes, for a joke, one of the elders will pry up a floorboard and, in reverent tones, inform some saucer-eyed village youngsters that they are beholding the mortal remains of King Arthur.

Of course, they're not. The skeleton more likely belonged to a medieval parishioner who was laid to rest when burials beneath church floors weren't uncommon.

But the claim that the legendary British ruler's castle once rose from the nearby hill--and the ironic twist of history that led to the site's destruction--are no jokes.

"It's a reasonable supposition," said the Rev. John L. Higgins, vicar of St. Michael's, gazing past tombstones at the spot in question. It is now an empty swath of grass adjacent to the church cemetery.

"If there was a man called Arthur, it seems to me the claim that this site was his military headquarters is extraordinarily strong."

Arthuret, a tiny hamlet in Cumbria County, near the Scottish border, is only one of about 160 sites stretching from Cornwall to Scotland that claim some connection to the shadowy reputed commander of native British forces that resisted the invasion of Germanic tribes at the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Almost 30 years have passed since the most ambitious investigation in modern times of the Arthur legends was launched, involving some of the foremost British archeologists and historians of that time.

But the true story of the Fifth- or Sixth-Century war leader, if he did exist, remains buried beneath thick layers of myth and speculation--and considerable academic controversy.

"I don't think you can say it will ever be proved," said archeologist Ralegh Radford, who, at 93, is considered the elder statesman of the Arthur-hunters. "People will always be skeptical."

Radford, long acclaimed as a leading figure in Dark Ages studies in western Britain, is generally credited with touching off the 20th-Century search for Arthur.

As a young man in the 1930s, Radford dug up evidence that a powerful and wealthy household existed at Tintagel, the wind-swept promontory on the coast of Cornwall that is reputed to be Arthur's birthplace, during the period when Arthur would have been born.

Radford concedes that no one has yet discovered incontrovertible evidence that such a person existed. But neither, he points out, has a man behind the legends been disproved, and circumstantial evidence for his existence remains strong.

"Personally, I think there is sufficient evidence for saying that he was a historical figure," Radford said.

This opinion is far from unanimous. One of the latest archeologists to dig at Tintagel, Charles Thomas of the Institute of Cornish Studies, reflects the attitude of the current generation of academic skeptics.

"We aren't remotely interested in Arthur, whom we regard as irrelevant and probably nonexistent," Thomas said. "We've found a great deal, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Arthur."

The ongoing combat among academicians notwithstanding, Arthur remains a principal hero of English-speaking people.

Winston Churchill recalled Arthur's warrior image to buck up British spirits during World War II. The image of Camelot as the shining capital of an ideal civilization continues to tantalize today's strife-weary world.

"The question of Arthur, his existence or not, is taken much more seriously in America," said author and lecturer Geoffrey Ashe, who lives near a supposed Arthur burial site in Glastonbury, England. "It seems to have started in the wake of President Kennedy, who was sort of mythicized as an American Arthur after his death."

If there was an Arthur, he certainly was not the founder of a chivalrous Round Table society of knights bedecked in shining armor, as he is portrayed in medieval romances.

If he existed, Arthur more likely was a British warlord who led horse-mounted troops in a series of battles against European invaders, culminating in a climactic confrontation at a place identified as Mt. Badon.

The major contender for the site of Arthur's main military headquarters--the "Camelot" of later romances--is Cadbury Castle, near Glastonbury. Not a castle in the modern sense, Cadbury is a large, Iron Age hill fort that archeological studies have shown was massively refortified about the time that Arthur supposedly lived. But the 1966-70 Cadbury excavations failed to turn up any positive link to a man named Arthur.

It is mostly in literature such as early Welsh poetry and medieval manuscripts that the case for a northern Camelot, at a place such as Arthuret, is found.

"We're now standing on a Second-Century Roman fort," said local businessman and amateur Arthur scholar James Kenneth Campbell, who believes he knows where Arthur's tragic final battle took place.

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