According to legend, King Arthur rose to power in the fifth or sixth century C.E., overcoming adversity to usher in the golden age of Camelot—a singular bright spot in an era often referred to (perhaps misleadingly) as the Dark Ages.
In reality, Arthur probably didn’t actually call Britain home during what is also known as the early medieval era. The ruler is widely believed to be either a folkloric figure or a composite of several historic kings. But hundreds of real-life kings and queens did wield power at the time—and now, reports David Keys for the Independent, archaeologist Ken Dark says he’s identified the long-overlooked tombs of up to 65 of them.
The findings—published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland—are poised to expand researchers’ understanding of the enigmatic era, which began with the Romans’ departure 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 probable royal graves surviving from post-Roman western Britain,” Dark, formerly of the University of Reading in England and now an archaeologist at the University of Navarra in Spain, tells the Independent. “Ongoing investigations are likely to help change our understanding of important aspects of this crucial period of British history.”
Dark’s analysis centers on 20 probable royal burial sites, each housing up to five graves, in western England and Wales. Most appear to date to between the fifth and sixth centuries.
At the time, Great Britain was home to a patchwork collection of kingdoms of varying strength and size. Indigenous Celtic rulers controlled the western and northern parts of the island, while Germanic, or Anglo-Saxon, invaders seized territory in the south and the east.
Per Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe, past researchers probably underestimated the tombs’ significance due to their simplicity and lack of grave goods. While the burials may not be especially elaborate, they are noteworthy because they differ from other early medieval Celtic graves in a key way: Most rest at the center of rectangular or square enclosures probably once surrounded by fences and gates.
“The royal graves are very standardized,” Dark explains to Live Science. “They have some variation, just like the ordinary graves do—some are bigger, some are smaller, some have only one grave in the center while others have two or three.”
Of the thousands of early medieval burials studied by scholars in the region to date, only a small number (fewer than 0.1 percent, according to the Independent) are laid out like the ones Dark studied.
“We know that the main political rank in those societies among those people was royalty, so if we see some burials standing out in this way, it’s possible that they are the burials of kings,” Dark tells BBC Newsround.
Until now, archaeologists knew of just two potential burial sites of early Celtic rulers. At Anglesey in northern Wales, a stone dated to the mid-seventh century bears a Latin inscription that translates to “King Catamanus, the wisest, most illustrious of all kings,” per Wales Online. At Tintagel, a site in Cornwall, England, long associated with King Arthur, five royal burial mounds closely mirror ferta, or graves found in Ireland.
For the study, Dark compared the newly identified Welsh and English burials to 43 ferta covered by burial mounds or bounded by circular (versus rectangular or square) enclosures.
As he writes in the paper, “Although differences exist between the two areas … plainly the Irish and Britons shared much in common in this regard.”
Speaking with Live Science, Dark adds, “The enclosed grave tradition comes straight out of 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 wasn’t.”
The similarities between early medieval Celtic and Irish graves are all the more striking when compared with Anglo-Saxon graves of the period. Exemplified by the Sutton Hoo ship burial, these ornate tombs were reserved for royalty or high-status members of society; their rich array of grave goods, from gold jewelry to weapons to armor, symbolized “both social and religious identity,” per the study. To the Christian Celts and the Irish, however, such ostentatious displays were considered unacceptably pagan.
“This is a period of history that we know very little about. In fact, it’s possibly a period of history we know least about,” Dark tells BBC Newsround. “Before this there were only two possible burial sites of Celtic British rulers from this period that we knew of, but now there may be over 20.”