Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist


The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, Geoffrey Ashe editor.
Pall Mall, 1968.

The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot. In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee. Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated.

Most of the contributors to this 1968 volume were directly or tangentially associated with this Committee, and preparations for the book began as the results of the first year of excavation were being processed. The result was a compendium that was, for the time, an authoritative summary of the history, archaeology, literature and continuing cultural appeal of the Arthurian period and the Arthurian legends, plentifully illustrated with maps, line drawings and photos. After its appearance in hardback it was frequently re-issued as a paperback by Paladin, thus literally extending its shelf-life.

As a snapshot of what was known or could be surmised about the Arthurian ‘reality’ it was of its time, but in retrospect much of it still stands up to scrutiny four decades and more later, despite advances particularly in archaeological research. Its influence was immense, so much so that non-academic writers still ill-advisedly use it as their Arthurian bible, when Christopher Snyder’s more up-to-date 2000 study The World of King Arthur would provide a better overview (though even this is very dated now).

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain is particularly nostalgic for me as I spent part of one season as a volunteer digger at South Cadbury helping to excavate the southwest gate and part of the summit, and also met or knew some of the contributors to this volume; sadly most of them have since passed away.¹ Although the text only hints at this, the dig captured the public’s imagination and made archaeology very rock & roll (in much the same way as Time Team was to do in its way at the end of the century); it’s difficult now to fully appreciate what an impact it made in popular culture, though it certainly made a lasting impression on me.

First published 15th December, 2012 at Calmgrove,

¹ Geoffrey Ashe died in 2022 at the age of 98. The other contributors were the archaeologists Leslie Alcock (d 2006, aged 81), C A Ralegh Radford (d 1998, aged 98), Philip Rahtz (d 2011, aged 90) and textile designer Jill Racy.


Arthur’s cross?

Detail from The last sleep of Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones (1898): Wikimedia Commons

A discussion centred on the Glastonbury Cross, an object claimed by the 12th-century monks of Glastonbury Abbey to have been excavated from above a Dark Age grave in their cemetery and inscribed with the name Arturius or Arthur. The text is substantially that of an article written for Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in late 1997.

Cross purposes

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, an extraordinary story broke nationally in the UK. Back in November 1981 Derek Mahoney, while searching through mud excavated from an Essex lake, found a small lead cross. At the British Museum the Keeper of Medieval and Later antiquities noted that the cross was within an eighth of an inch of the size of the cross alleged to have been found above King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury in 1191. But, following on from his family’s dispute with solicitors over a house sale, Mahoney said he had subsequently buried the cross in a “completely waterproof” container “well down in the ground” because possession of the cross gave him “power and authority”.

Where exactly had he got this cross? Dredging operations at the lake at Forty Hall, Enfield in Essex had revealed, he said, some old Elizabethan bricks in a wall, and later a knife — and the cross. These were all photographed. When the foreman involved in the pond-clearing apparently raised no objections,¹ Derek Mahoney took the objects home. Enfield Council, after hearing of the cross from a report in The Enfield Advertiser, successfully prosecuted him for retaining an object discovered on their land. He was jailed for contempt of court.

After nine months, Mahoney was brought before a High Court judge to reconsider. He refused. With remission his sentence would have ended in July 1983. But then, on March 21st 1983 , he was released. The judge said there was “no point” in his serving any more of his sentence as he was prepared to stay in prison “until doomsday” rather than give up the cross. A curious legal decision!

Suspicions were aroused, however, when it emerged that Mahoney was once employed by Lesney Toys as a mould maker. Geoffrey Ashe considered the whole affair to be “a false alarm”. And yet there were attenuating circumstances.

Continue reading “Arthur’s cross?”

%d bloggers like this: