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A Palace Was Unearthed Where Legend Places King Arthur’s Birthplace

Archaeologists at Tintagel uncover walls and artifacts from a Dark Ages complex likely used by local kings

Excavations of a Dark Ages palace on the Tintagel Peninsula in Cornwall (Emily Whitfield-Wicks/English Heritage)
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The first extensive written account of King Arthur came around 1138, when historian Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote History of the Kings of Britain. Even at the time, Monmouth’s story was not accepted by many other scholars of his day. But over the centuries, the tale of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere has gained its place in popular imagination, even if evidence for their existence remains elusive.

But a new structure uncovered on the Tintagel peninsula in Cornwall adds a tiny sliver of credence to the Arthur legend. According to David Keys at the Independent, archaeologists are working to uncover a large palace with three-foot wide stone walls and flagstone floors in the area that Monmouth claimed was Arthur’s birthplace (or at least where he was conceived). The palace was likely built in the 6th century and is the most substantial structure from the dark ages uncovered in Britain to date.

The palace is just one of a dozen structures that ground penetrating radar surveys picked up on the Tintagel peninsula, some of which likely housed workman, soldiers and artists. Whoever lived in the main structure, however, lived a pretty glamorous lifestyle considering it was the dark ages. The researchers have evidence that they drank wine from the geographic area known as Turkey today, and used olive oil from the Greek Isles and Tunisia. They drank from painted glass cups from France and ate off plates from North Africa.

The global feast shows that although the Romans abandoned Britain in 410, they likely re-established trade with the island and Cornwall in particular to get access to Cornish tin a century later. “The discovery of high-status buildings ― potentially a royal palace complex ― at Tintagel is transforming our understanding of the site,” Winn Scutt of English Heritage, the government agency that is supporting a five-year excavation at the site tells Keys. “It is helping to reveal an intriguing picture of what life was like in a place of such importance in the historically little-known centuries following the collapse of Roman administration in Britain.”

Could the palace have any connection to a historical King Arthur? The complex likely belonged to the rulers of Dumnonia, who controlled that area of Cornwall during the Dark Ages. By the time Monouth wrote his story, those structures were likely abandoned, though their history could have been passed down orally.

“It is showing there could indeed be some truth behind the earliest stories about King Arthur’s birth at Tintagel,” Graham Phillips, author of “The Lost Tomb of King Arthur,” tells Tom Rowley and Nicola Harley at The Telegraph. “If nothing else, it means the legend about where Arthur was born isn’t so fanciful after all and deserves further investigation. It is going to start a whole new line of investigation by historians.”

Geoffrey Ashe, a historian who believes the Arthur story is likely a composite of tales about several early British kings, says the new find may give Geoffrey of Monmouth more credibility, as Rowley and Harley report. “Hollywood versions of Arthur never happened. But behind it, I would certainly say there is more and more evidence that there was a British ruler at about the right time and in about the right place. It is not the Arthur of the manuscript, but it is not wishful thinking either.”

Scutt, however, warns about jumping to conclusions and says the researchers aren’t looking for clues to Arthur. “We don’t know what Geoffrey of Monmouth was drawing on: his was a work of fact and fiction and disentangling the two is fraught with difficulties,” he tells Rowley and Harley.

If the researchers dig up a staff that says “Merlin,” however, we may start to believe.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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