New archaeological technology is now uncovering some exciting things about the past: for example, the Mayan world was as major as Ancient Egypt; there are large underwater cities all over the world; and an advanced ancient civilisation once flourished in Galloway, Ireland.
I recently heard about another new discovery – how the Dark Ages in Britain were not so dark after all. This demolishing of conventional history took place on a BBC programme on Arthurian Britain. In the documentary, researcher Alice Roberts set out to find out if King Arthur ever really existed. She focused on the findings made through new archaeological techniques.
The results were surprising. Perhaps disappointing in some ways, as those treasured old tales about Arthur were revealed as nothing more than that – just stories. In other ways, however, it was exciting to see the curtain finally lifted on the world of so-called ‘Dark Age’ Britain.
We’ve always been told that after the Romans left, Britain entered a time of chaos. The people reverted to a primitive way of life. Then, to make it worse, invading hordes of Anglo-Saxons poured in to take over the land. At this point the tale of Arthur the great defender pops up, apparently killing 470 enemies on one day with his magical sword.
Except none of that ever happened. There were no invading hordes. Forensic examination of thousands of skeletons reveals that most people from that time died of natural causes. There are no signs of great battlefields from that era, with lots of hacked corpses left lying around.
However, there is a lot of proven physical evidence that different peoples – the Angles, Saxons, Britons and so on – did mix in peaceful ways. They shared and traded things like their pottery and jewellery designs. They also inter-married.
This was because people in those days didn’t think of themselves as nations. There were no borders or passports. They likely thought of themselves much more locally than that. So it was easy for people to range freely as far as they wished. If they found a place they liked, they simply settled there. No warfare was necessary. In those days, the population was small, and the land was big enough to absorb all kinds of different settlements.
The original story of King Arthur came from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain. I think the date that was written is very significant – around 1136. At that time, the country was still suffering under the yoke of the truly unpleasant Norman invasion of 1066. It looks like the legend of Arthur as protector and saviour arose to give people hope during that traumatic time.
Over the years, Arthurian legends were further embellished with the values of later times, such as chivalry, honour and spiritual quests. Although it’s all mythology, I don’t have a problem with that. The Arthurian ethos was a highly civilising influence, and has created a rich background for our culture.
However, I think the new view we now have of the Dark Ages is also significant. Surprisingly, it was a time of peace, when people traded and mingled far more than making war with each other.
The archaeological discoveries about Tintagel were especially exciting. It turned out to be a huge, wealthy, almost palatial centre of international trade. Ships would come from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, to trade luxury commodities in exchange for Cornwall’s greatest asset – tin. Maybe that’s how the name Tintagel evolved.
Tin was essential for making bronze, which created the Bronze Age. Cornwall’s tin mines were its backbone and strength for centuries before the Romans came and long after they’d left. So it was natural to say that the legendary King Arthur was conceived at an important place like Tintagel.
The Arthurian legends are beautiful. They have civilised and enriched our culture with poetry, art and spirituality. I’m happy for what has been called ‘The Matter of Britain’ to keep its much-loved place in our world.
But I’m even happier to discover that the so-called Dark Ages were actually quite civilised. Maybe even more civilised than the world has become since the development of nation states? It’s food for thought.