Changing History?

The ‘Arthur Stone’, a drain cover from Tintagel Island with 7th-century inscriptions

Slap-bang in the the middle of the silly season in 1998 Tintagel became a focus of interest with news of its so-called ‘Arthur Stone’. As the dust settled it became time to see what the fuss was about, examine its significance and assess the reaction.

A team from the Archaeology Department of Glasgow University, led by Professor Christopher Morris, had been re-evaluating Ralegh Radford’s pre-war excavations at Tintagel Island, Cornwall; the project was commissioned by English Heritage who are guardians of the site, itself owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Radford’s Site C is a terrace situated between the sea and the main plateau, on the north-eastern side of the promontory. On a nearby terrace Morris’ team had already discovered occupation from the late Roman to the 7th century, with evidence of cremation and sherds of imported East Mediterranean ware. Undisturbed, under Radford’s Site C, were further deposits, including drains running around the southwest corner. Re-used as a cover to the later of two drains was a piece of slate.

On this piece of broken slate the earliest fragmentary inscription consists of deeply incised letters. The first is an A, though it appears to be ligatured to a preceding letter, perhaps a V. Next is a large X, then a Greek-type E or epsilon, though this could be a C with a scratch. Taken in isolation, the whole is reminiscent of the traditional Christian alpha-omega (“the beginning and the end”) with a St Andrew’s-type cross between them and the omega on its side.

The second and more lightly scratched inscription has attracted most attention. This Latin text reads (with an apparent repetition)

Secondary inscription scratched on Artognou stone

Pater is ‘father’, ficit is a common variant of classical fecit, ‘made’. Professor Charles Thomas suggested that COLI may be a Primitive Irish name, perhaps Coll or Collas, and that AVI is also irish, meaning ‘of a grandson of’ or ‘of a descendent of’. Finally ARTOgNOU, or Artognou, is a Birtish name which reappears in late 9th-century Brittany as Arthnou.

The principal suggestion for the meaning of the inscription was “Arthnou, father of a descendant of Coll, made (or had made)” something (a structure?) to which the notice had been attached.¹ (A Site C ten by three metre stone building could be a likely candidate.)

No-one at the time seemed to be uncomfortable with the contorted genealogy implied. Would you refer to someone, say, as father of the grandson of someone else? Or is this to imply that a descent from Coll through the maternal side mattered more than that through Arthnou? [Avi is presumably cognate with Early Irish Ui, as in Ui Néill, modern O’Neill, ‘descendant of Niall’.]

Alternatively, some have detected a possible letter N after PATER which could be the Latin name Paternus in the nominative (Pollington 1998). This certainly resolves the ‘father of a descendant’ problem interpretation, making the phrase Paternus, descendant of Coll, made… and distancing Artognou from an alleged fatherhood!² The repeated COL … FICIT may moreover point to a trial piece with practice inscriptions; this raises the possibility that the finished noticeboard may still be lurking around!

Be that as it may, the lettering seems distinctively of the 6th century or later: the As have ‘handlebar’ crosspieces, the Ps and Fs have long ‘descenders’ and the Rs have not only descenders but also horizontal tails. The G is of half-uncial form, similar to a numeral 3 or the lower case Gs in many computer fonts.

The final date clincher, from the layer above the drain, were twelve pieces of a glass flagon, the closest parallels for which (unique for Britain at this period) are from Cadiz and Malaga in southern Spain.

So, we have a piece of slate with at least three uses: a fragmentary primary inscription, a secondary inscription exhibiting the name Artognou and possible Irish influences, and a drain cover, all of which seem to be datable to the 6th century (the last perhaps 7th century). And then, to judge from the rest of the site, nothing until the building of the castle in the 13th century, a century after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s connection of Arthur with Tintagel. What does all this mean?

Significance

It means that further evidence of a high-status secular site on the Tintagel headland, and not the monastic site that Radford believed he had found when digging earlier in the 20th century. It underscores the fact that a bleak clifftop promontory maintained Dark Age trading links with the Eastern Mediterranean via southern Spain, important goods such as wine jars and, as we have seen, a glass flagon. It suggests that a strong local authority was maintained for over a century in the post-Roman period.

What it certainly does not mean is that the 12th-century link between the site and Arthur has been corroborated. (In fact the first literary connection here is with King Mark, making mythical Tintagel “not Arthurian by Marks-ist” as Current Archaeology put it.) Arthnou-Artognou is not Arthur-Arturius or any other form of the name, despite sharing the initial element.² As Charles Evans-Günther wrote, “Artognou [is] just one of a large number of names in the Celtic languages that have the element arto, ‘bear’.” English Heritage favours the interpretation Arto-gnou, ‘known-as-a-bear’ or ‘known-to-be-a-bear’. Other Dark Age arth– names include Arthmail, Arthan, Arthen and Arthbeu.

Further excavations at Tintagel over a five-year period, undertaken by Cornwall Archaeological Unit, unearthed a two-foot-long piece of Cornish slate used as a window ledge, it was announced in summer 2018. Described as etched with “an eclectic combination of Latin writing, Greek letters, and Christian symbols” the stone included the Roman name Tito (Titus) and the Celtic Budic — equivalent to Victor in Latin — plus fili (son) and viri duo (two men) as revealed by Reflectance Transformation Imaging conducted by Tom Goskar:

TITO / UIRI DUO / A / FILI (credit: Tom Goskar)
BU / DIC (credit: Tom Goskar)
TU / A / ? (credit: Tom Goskar)

According to writing expert Michelle Brown from the University of London, “The lettering style and language used, as well as Christian symbols exhibiting Mediterranean influence and contacts, all reveal precious clues to the culture of those who lived at Tintagel in the 7th century.”

Responses

In 1998 reactions to the Artognou stone were hyperbolic on occasions. “Despite the obvious temptation to link the Arthnou of this stone to either the historical or the legendary figure of Arthur, it must be stressed that there is no evidence to make this connection,” English Heritage’s Chief Archaeologist the late Geoffrey Wainwright was soberly quoted in a press release. But the release also claimed that the fin “changes history” (really?) and Dr Wainwright was even later reported as saying “I hope [the stone] will put some meat on the historic figure [of Arthur]. He is one of the great British heroes, a tough, rough, leader of men” (Western Daily News).

In the USA The Weekly Telegraph had a tongue-in-cheek editorial headlined “Arthur was Here” (11.8.98): “These boffins! When will they desist from their caveats, their academic caution and appreciate the romantic splendour of their discoveries?” Of Geoffrey Wainwright it avers that “the archeologist has clearly spent too long carbon-dating potsherds and practising dendrochronology on roof-trees. Blinded by his own science, the man is missing what is obvious to the rest of us.” It confidently predicted that his trowel would turn up “one stone with a curious sword-shaped aperture; one Round Table; assorted chastity belts (picked)” and advised him to “dig, dig, dig, Dr Wainwright.”

The Times editorial thundered that the quest for Arthur “is a matter of romance and literature … rather than a subject for DNA fingerprinting or radiocarbon dating.” The “most powerful British legend … weaves together many of the strands in the diverse culture of this big offshore island.” The editorial left us with the insight that “the story of the fall of the Round Table suits the national taste for underdogs and heroic defeats.”

Locals were less circumspect. The vice-chairman of Tintagel Parish Council gleefully declared the find was “an absolute godsend for the economy” but was on less sure ground when he insisted that “it blows away the claims of other places that they are the birthplace and home of Arthur.” And the chief executive of the West Country Tourist Board showed no sense of irony when stating that “it is the closest proof that we have ever had that King Arthur was a true king and based in Cornwall. It will sort out these false claims by the Welsh, and as for Scotland — they should stick to the Loch Ness monster.”


¹ Gordon Mechan suggested this ingenious restoration:

+ PATERN[OSTER]
ARTOGNOV [MEMORIAM]
COLIAVI
FICIT

‘(In the name of) Our Father: Artognou erected (this memorial) of Colus, his grandfather…’, translating AVI in its Latin sense. Current Archaeology 160

Tintagel Roman milestone (English Heritage)

² Roger Irving Little from Boscastle suggested, in Current Archaeology 163, that the A X E insciption predates the Artognou wording: could this be part of the name of the Roman emperor Maxentius, he asked, who ruled the western empire between 306 and 312. Maxentius’ co-emperor Licinius (308-325) “just happens to have his name on a 5 ft high lump of sandstone in the parish church only 450 yards away from the the Arthur stone was excavated”. Restored this milestone reads IMP C G VAL LIC LICIN which translates as “Emperor Caesar Galerius Licinianus Licinius”. This coincidence would not only be “truly peculiar”, it would reinforce the context of the later Dark Age inscription for the Tintagel slate.

Other correspondents disagreed. Guy de la Bédoyère (CA 163) said that although the suggestion that the inscription represents the name Maxentius is “very sensible” this cannot be the Emperor Maxentius: “the style, particularly of the E, is unparalleled on Roman inscriptions in Britain.”

Keith Gardner also thought the suggestion quite plausible” but points out that “there is another Maxentius who would surely fit the model much more closely, and that is Maxentius, brother of Budic of Brittany referred to by Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum.” This Maxentius and Budic “would appear to have been part of those generations of British lairds whose interests spanned the west from Brittany to Demetia.” Unfortunately, the Maxentius and the Bodic [sic] I find mentioned in The History of the Franks lived a century apart, the first in the reign of Clovis and the second in the latter half of the sixth century.

References

  • Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, translated by Lewis Thorpe. Penguin Books (1974) 152, 273
  • “Tintagel” Current Archaeology 159 (1998) 84-88
  • — Letters: Current Archaeology 163 (June 1999) 278; Current Archaeology 164 (August 1999) 318-19
  • “Second inscribed stone found at Tintagel” Current Archaeology 342 (2018) 11
  • Pollington, Steve in Wiðowinde 115 (autumn 1998) 5

This piece was first published in Pendragon, Journal of the Pendragon Society XXVII No 3 (1998-9) 28-30, here with additions from Pendragon XXVIII No 1 (1999) 46-7 and updated with news from 2018

Author: Calmgrove

Book review blogger and piano accompanist

2 thoughts on “Changing History?”

    1. But Artognou isn’t Artogenous, is it? The syllable represented by your intrusive ‘e’ is missing, an ‘e’ which comes via Latin generare ‘to beget’ and not from the Indo-European root which gives us the Greek gnosis, French connaître and English ‘know’. Even a glance at the Wikipedia entry for the Artognou Stone would have told you that:

      “The name Artognou means “Bear Knowing”, from the Brittonic root *arto “bear” plus *gnāwo- “to know”, and is cognate with the Old Breton name Arthnou and Welsh Arthneu. ”

      The only apparent justification for suggesting Artognou is otherwise is to peddle the theory that this Artognou is somehow the same as or directly related to Arthur. He’s not, on this ‘evidence’ at least.

      Like

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