While archaeological evidence is scanty in support of Arthurian documentation and its more fanciful literary/mythological/folkloric aspects, it has begun to reveal the way in which Britons lived in the fifth century. Though fifteen hundred years of rebuilding over and over in prime potential sites has destroyed valuable clues, the British soil has given up some of its secrets, and more are waiting to be dug up.
If not for the far reaching popularity of the legend’s literary side, excavation of Arthurian sites might not have happened at all. Though much of the literature is fictional, it has prompted enough interest in the historical side to search for physical evidence of the “Arthurian Fact.”
One of the unifying discoveries is that hillforts, built in the Iron Age and abandoned since the Roman conquest, appear to have been refortified in the fifth century. This suggests a need for protection from invasions from the outside or civil war among the many kingdoms of Britain.
In conjunction, after the period of fortification, occupants remained, traded and worked, indicating a period of peace and prosperity. This corresponds to the era of stabilization that a strong and capable leader like Arthur could have produced.
Pottery (amphorae in which wine and oil were stored), dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, has been found in great quantities in the hillforts. Pottery has also been found in sites previously considered exclusively Roman and in monasteries built in the fifth century. Such extensive quantities indicate flourishing trade occurred between Britain, Gaul, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean region. Other excavations have revealed a well-developed metalworking industry, slave trade and tin exports.
Of the important sites most closely associated with Arthurian history, two belong to the early period: Dinas Emrys and Tintagel. While the archaeology does appear to support the Arthurian Fact, no specific item has ever been found to definitively prove Arthur’s existence.
Dinas Emrys is an early Iron Age hillfort located in Snowdonia, North Wales, along the Afon Glaslyn. According to Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain, when King Vortigern tried to build a stronghold on the site, the walls continuously fell down. In frustration, he intended to use Merlin (a young boy at the time) as a sacrifice to appease vexed spirits that were causing the walls to break. Instead, Merlin revealed a pool lay beneath the building site that undermined the foundations. Two dragons were seen fighting in the pool, and Merlin saw them as the metaphor in the bitter fight between Briton and Saxon. He prophesied that Vortigern would lose his life, but the Britons would win against the Saxons.
In concurrence, excavations have revealed a man-made cistern dating to the fifth century exists beneath Dinas Emrys. And like many other hillforts, it shows signs of refortification in that period as well. The name Emrys is Welsh for Ambrosius, a name that has been sometimes attached to Merlin and his family.
The story of Arthur’s conception and birth is tied most closely with Tintagel on the Cornish coast. Tintagel consists of a small village and an adjacent headland, which is a round, humped promontory of rock that juts out into the sea and is connected to the shoreline by a narrow causeway. Below the causeway, small, rocky beaches lie to each side, and a cave, called Merlin’s Cave, cuts through under the rock from beach to beach.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in drawing on his various sources, describes Arthur’s conception and birth as taking place in a fortress on Tintagel. During his life, Geoffrey would have been familiar with a Norman castle and later medieval castles rebuilt on the headland. In the 1930’s Ralegh Radford led an excavation of ruins on both the headland and the shore side of Tintagel. A long period of occupation was discovered, from a Roman settlement close by, to the foundations of a large Celtic monastery dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. Large amounts of imported pottery suggest it was probably occupied by a high-ranking Briton.
Several other sites have revealed significant fifth and sixth century findings. These include Castell Dore in Cornwall (King Mark, Tristan & Isolde), Dinas Powys near Cardiff (probably held by a Welsh chieftain contemporary to Arthur), South Cadbury in Somerset (possible site of Camelot) and Glastonbury in Somerset (Avalon). While these have possible associations with Arthur and may overlap with the early period, they belong to the middle and later portions of the era.