According to popular lore, Arthur’s Stone, a roughly 5,000-year-old tomb in the West Midlands of England, boasts ties to King Arthur, the mythical leader of Camelot. One legend holds that Arthur found a pebble in his shoe while marching to battle and threw it aside, at which point it grew in size out of “pride [at] having been touched by [him],” per Atlas Obscura. Another story suggests that Arthur clashed with a giant whose elbows left massive impressions in the earth when he fell in battle.
Myths aside, the Neolithic tomb has long mystified experts and the public alike. Now, reports James Thomas for the Hereford Times, the first-ever excavation of the site is poised to shed light on its enigmatic history.
Researchers from the University of Manchester and English Heritage, the charity that cares for the monument, are unlikely to unearth the remains of the legendary king. But they do hope to find traces of the actual Neolithic Britons who built and used the chambered tomb. Though archaeologists initially suspected that Arthur’s Stone formed part of a wedge-shaped stone cairn like those found in South Wales and the Cotswolds, recent excavations indicate otherwise.
“I think it has considerable potential,” Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, tells the London Times’ Jack Blackburn. “It’s a monument of an entirely different kind to the one that we’d imagined.”
Per a statement, only the inner chamber of the tomb—made up of nine upright stones topped by a massive capstone weighing more than 25 tons—survives today. A previous dig conducted outside of the monument showed that Arthur’s Stone extended into a field to the south and underwent two distinct phases of construction.
At first, reported Current Archaeology in August 2021, the tomb consisted of a long, southwest-facing mound surrounded by wooden posts. After this mound fell, the region’s Neolithic residents rebuilt the site with a larger avenue of posts, two rock chambers and an upright stone. This time around, the posts faced southeast.
“[T]he initial emphasis is on the internal relationships between the monuments that make up the complex but … later, the focus shifts outward,” Thomas told Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe last August.
The archaeologist posited that Arthur’s Stone, along with two “halls of the dead” that once stood nearby, may have been part of a complex “that people came to for gatherings, meetings [and] feasting, … a place that retained its significance for centuries.”
Excavations at similar sites in the region have unearthed incomplete human remains, flint flakes, arrowheads and pottery, according to the statement. The public will have the opportunity to watch the researchers as they work at Arthur’s Stone, with archaeologists offering tours of the site throughout the dig.
Whether the Arthur of legend actually existed is the subject of much debate. Per the British Library’s Hetta Elizabeth Howes, historical records show that a man named Arthur led resistance against the Saxons and Jutes around the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.; some Welsh accounts reference a similarly gifted warlord. The king of modern myth, however, only began to take shape in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138).
Arthurian legends were widely shared throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, via manuscripts for the wealthy and oral storytelling for the broader population. Though earlier tellings emphasized Arthur’s strength in battle and nation-building skills, the tales eventually became part of the medieval romance tradition, wistfully yearning for a time of morality, chivalry and righteousness.
Arthur’s Stone was first linked to the mythical king prior to the 13th century, according to English Heritage. Its fame continued in the centuries that followed: Charles I camped in the area with his troops during the 17th-century English Civil Wars, and writer C. S. Lewis, who frequently walked by the site, based the Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on it.
“Arthur’s Stone is one of this country’s outstanding prehistoric monuments, set in a breathtaking location—yet it remains poorly understood,” says Thomas in the statement. “Our work seeks to restore it to its rightful place in the story of Neolithic Britain.”