According to legend, King Arthur rose to power in the fifth or sixth century AD, overcoming adversity to usher in the golden age of Camelot – a singular bright spot in a time often (perhaps incorrectly) called ) the dark ages.
In reality, Arthur probably did not call Britain home during what is also known as the early medieval era. The ruler is generally thought to be either a folk figure or a composite of several historical kings. But hundreds of real-life kings and queens wielded power then — and now, reports David Keys for the Independentarchaeologist Ken Dark says he has identified the long-ignored graves of up to 65 of them.
The results—published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland– are set to expand scholars’ understanding of the enigmatic era, which began with the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 and ended with the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
“Before this work we were completely unaware of the large number of surviving probable royal tombs from post-Roman Western Britain,” said Dark, formerly of the University of Reading in England and now an archaeologist at the University of Navarre in Spain. Independent. “Ongoing investigations are likely to help change our understanding of important aspects of this crucial period in British history.”
Dark’s analysis focuses on 20 likely royal burial sites, each with up to five tombs, in western England and Wales. Most seem to date from between the 5th and 6th centuries.
At the time, Britain was home to a patchwork of kingdoms of varying strength and size. Native Celtic rulers controlled the western and northern parts of the island, while Germanic or Anglo-Saxon invaders seized territory to the south and east.
By Live ScienceAccording to Tom Metcalfe, ancient scholars probably underestimated the significance of the tombs because of their simplicity and lack of grave goods. Although the burials are not particularly elaborate, they are notable because they differ from other early medieval Celtic tombs in one essential way: most rest in the center of rectangular or square enclosures probably once surrounded by fences and gates .
“Royal tombs are very standardized,” Dark explains to Live Science. “They have variations, just like regular tombs – some are bigger, some are smaller, some have only one tomb in the center while others have two or three.”
Of the thousands of medieval burials studied by specialists in the region to date, only a small number (less than 0.1%, according to the Independent) are arranged like those studied by Dark.
“We know that the main political rank in these societies among these people was royalty, so if we see any burials standing out in that way, it’s possible they are the burials of kings,” Dark told BBC Newsround.
Until now, archaeologists only knew of two potential burial sites of early Celtic rulers. In Anglesey, North Wales, a stone dated to the mid-seventh century bears a Latin inscription which translates to “King Catamanus, wisest and most illustrious of all kings”, by Wales online. At Tintagel, a site in Cornwall, England long associated with King Arthur, five royal burial mounds closely reflect Fertaor graves found in Ireland.
For the study, Dark compared the newly identified Welsh and English burials to 43 ferta covered with barrows or bounded by circular (as opposed to rectangular or square) enclosures.
As he wrote in the diary, “Although differences exist between the two regions… it is clear that the Irish and the British have much in common in this regard.”
Talk with Live Science, Dark adds: “The tradition of closed tombs comes straight from late Roman burial practices. And that’s a good reason why we have them in Britain, but not in Ireland, because Britain was part of the Roman Empire, and Ireland was not.
The similarities between Celtic and Irish tombs from the early Middle Ages are all the more striking when compared to Anglo-Saxon tombs of the time. Illustrated by the burial of the ship Sutton Hoo, these ornate tombs were reserved for royalty or high-ranking members of society; their rich array of grave goods, from gold jewelry to weapons to armor, symbolized “both social and religious identity,” according to the study. For the Christian Celts and the Irish, however, such ostentatious displays were considered unacceptably pagan.
“It’s a period of history that we know very little about. In fact, it may be a period of history that we know the least about,” Dark told BBC Newsround. There were only two possible burial sites of Celtic British rulers from this period that we know of, but now there may be more than 20.”