Tintagel And The Arthurian Controversy
Mysteries remain surrounding English Heritage's "find of a lifetime" a decade ago, of some 6th-century quasi-Arthurian graffiti at their prime Arthurian-tourism location, Tintagel.

PATER COLIAVIFICIT / ARTOGNOV / COLI FICITArthurian Graffiti ? The ‘Artognou Stone’
You can see how the inscriber had reused a previously-inscribed slate. Archaeologists referred to the later carving as 'graffiti.'  The stone's original, larger top inscription is late-Roman, though indecipherable [possibly MAXE-]. There may also be letters missing to the right of the ‘Artognou’ inscription as the slate has clearly been broken here. As the archaeologist who found it said when he saw the first 3 letters of the name were A-R-T-, he thought, Uh-oh ....

In 1998, English Heritage, the keepers of England's premier "Arthurian" tourist site, Cornwall's Tintagel Castle, announced, in the words of their chief archaeologist, Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, "the find of a lifetime" there. The find was of a piece of roofing slate about the size of a car visor with the inscription


It had been found only a month before and EH had obviously been trying to evaluate the find quickly. (Normally on archaeological digs nothing is published for months or even years - sometimes not until the excavating head archaeologist dies and someone else takes over, as happened at EH’s other prime site, Stonehenge.) A translation was quickly obtained from Prof. Charles Thomas, the retired Director of the Institute Of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter, and a former President of the Council for British Archaeology. The founder of the journals Cornish Archaeology and Cornish Studies, he was author of The Early Christian Archaeology Of North Britain (1971), Britain And Ireland In Early Christian Times (1971), Christianity In Roman Britain (1981), Exploration Of A Drowned Landscape: Archaeology And History In The Isles Of Scilly (1985), Celtic Britain (1986), Tintagel: Arthur And Archaeology (1993), and most recently, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions In Western Britain (1994). He translated this as: "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has made [this]." (Latin script had no "u," using a "v" instead, so Artognov = Artognou.)
     Initially dated as 7th-C, it was then quickly redated from its script to the 6th-C, closer to Arthur’s putative dates (death in 539 AD in some chronicle versions). Dr Wainwright suggested it was a link to a Dark Ages ‘prince of Cornwall:” "Tintagel has presented us with evidence of a Prince of Cornwall, in the Dark Ages, living in a high-status domestic settlement at the time Arthur lived. It has given us the name of a person, Arthnou. Arthnou was here, that is his name on a piece of stone. It is a massive coincidence at the very least. This is where myth meets history. It's the find of a lifetime." He said the inscribed name was 'close enough to Arthur to refer to the legendary warrior king'.
     The EH-sponsored dig, the first for 50 years, and headed by Prof. Chris Morris of Glasgow U. was actually a follow-up to an earlier dig begun in spring 1991. The Arthurian link had been played up even then (cf "Digging For Secrets Of Arthur's Castle" Guardian 23/03/91). This dig had been prompted by a 1983 grass fire revealing traces of a Dark Ages village, suggesting it was more than just a Celtic monastic site, as had been thought -- perhaps even the citadel of a regional Dark Ages princeling. But Prof. Morris now pointed out at the time that Arthur's existence, never mind any link to Tintagel, was still in question. Then, seven years into the dig, one of the archaeologists cleaned up an inscribed roof slate, and as he put it, “when I saw the letters A-R-T, I thought, uh-oh...”.
     Press coverage was enthusiastic and international. Finally! After archaeologists had spent decades denying that Tintagel had any Arthurian link, evidence seemed to have been found the old legend was true! Was Tintagel the real Camelot, or perhaps where Arthur was conceived with the help of Merlin’s magic? (If you’re not familiar with the legend, this incident is dramatised in the 1980 John Boorman film Excalibur.) The tourist people were pleased, Tintagel being the most commercialised of all ‘Arthurian’ sites (not just Merlin’s Cave, but King Arthur’s Restaurant, King Arthur’s Car Park, King Arthur’s – well, you name it, it’s there.) The press dubbed the inscribed slate the “Arthur Stone.”
     There may have been some pressure from more conservative elements in the community as the initial publicity was followed by some back-tracking. EH head archaeologist Prof. Wainwright was more enthusiastic than Morris, who told the press any historical Arthur would be nothing like the King Arthur of Romance and legend. Like other academics before him, Morris no doubt wanted to disassociate himself from the vicinity's high-profile tourist trappings based on Tintagel's being used as a setting for Mediaeval and later Arthurian Romance tales. Morris stated that Arthur did not enter written records till the 12th century - referring to Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 pseudo-chronicle Historia Regum Brittaniae which makes him a mighty monarch of 30 nations from Iceland to Rome.
     This chimes with the claim by some English historians Arthur was just wishful thinking by a group of Celtic fantasists. The response predictably drew the ire of Celtic and Arthurian scholars in the Letters column of The Times [12/08/98], including authors Michael Senior, author of Myths Of Britain (1979), and Rosalind Kerven, author of a new book, King Arthur (1998). They pointed out there were references to an historical Arthur centuries before that -- on which indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth's legend drew heavily. Cornish nationalists in the form of three members of the Stannary Parliament (an ancient Cornish tin-trade body) later took down English Heritage’s signs proclaiming ownership of Tintagel (from the Cornish, Din Tagell), creating an embarrassing political debacle for EH and the site’s official owner, the Duchy of Cornwall, i.e. Prince Charles. Morris had in fact written an earlier account for British Archaeology’s new journal back in May 1995, which gave his views in an article titled “Not King Arthur, But King Someone,” and summarised editorially as “Legend may be half-right about Tintagel after all.” He said the wealth of Mediterranean pottery found there suggested the summer palace of a regional king, on the main sea-borne trade route. The 1983 grass fire on the peninsular island had uncovered 100 unsuspected building foundations. And there were trade goods from southern Europe. This did not fit the archaeo-orthodoxy that Din Tagell had been a remote, unimportant monastic site.
     Though Prof Morris was cautious, the matter had been taken out of his hands by that point. One is reminded of EH's and Glasgow Uni’s spectacular success with its "Can this then be Camelot?" ambivalent approach to its 1960s South Cadbury Camp dig led by Leslie Alcock, which got him appointed Glasgow U.’s Chair of Archaeology, even though his full site report was not published for nearly a quarter-century (1995). At the time, Prof Alcock had continually fed Arthurian press speculation, and even had a plastic skeleton buried and then excavated as a press photo-opportunity. Alcock wrote a 1972 paperback book, By South Cadbury Is That Camelot..., which was careful not to cross the line of academic sobriety. (Alcock could use this seemingly uncritical title as it is a literary citation from the account of Henry VIII’s antiquary Leland, to which he avoided adding the question mark other academics would have.) To a certain extent, he was allowing the press and public to have their cake and eat it – to indulge a wish-fulfilling dream the legend was based on fact. The Guardian's editorial at the time, "Arthur's Slate", subtitled 'Is He Better As Fact As Fiction?' addressed this saying, "Whether we want facts to intrude any further is a moot point. Legends like that of King Arthur often have greater power to influence us than real events.” Alcock had then gone to dig at Tintagel, with inconclusive results.
The story seemed to have stalemated between excitement and scepticism. However we can try and take the mystery further now.
     Subsequent examination had revealed an additional “N” on the end of “PATER” suggesting it was a typical abbreviation for PATERN[OSTER] COLIAVI FICIT ARTOGNOU [MEMORIAM] COL[IAVI] FICIT, or "Artognou erected this memorial of Colus, his grandfather". The ‘grandfather’ part was an emendation to the EH translation, the –AVI suffix in COLIAVI [COLI being the possessive of COLUS] doesn’t mean "descendant" but "ancestor" – usually a grandfather. This put Artognou two generations after, not before, Col. This raised the possibility “Colus” was Coel Hen, an influential and long-lived founder of a powerful post-Roman dynasty based at York. (Brittonic hen means old, and he is thought to have been the inspiration for the Old King Coel of nursery rhyme.) Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 Historia Regum Brittaniae lists Coel Hen as one of Arthur's relatives.
     Robert M. Vermaat on the Vortigern Studies website also suggested patern = paternus, with the rest of a conventional paternus filius [=name, son of] dedication broken off, giving "Paternus son of Colus erected this to the memory of Artognou". This brings us back to our mysterious 'Artognou'. An interview published in the summer of ’99 in The Heroic Age online magazine’s premiere issue, the GU archaeologist who found the slate (the one who said Uh-oh when he saw the letters ART-) noted: “The British name represented by the Latin ARTOGNOU is Arthnou. The first element uses the Celtic element art-os, Irish -art, Welsh -arth (meaning the animal "bear"). This is similar to many other Celtic names such as Arthmail, Arthien, etc. It does not, however, read as "Arthur".
     Artognou seems to translate as Known-As-A-Bear or Known-As-The-Bear. Art- is a Celtic and Greek-classical root meaning a bear, a creature venerated by ancient peoples. Celtic Names For Children (Dublin 1988), a baby-christening guidebook by linguist Loreto Todd of the U. of Leeds, suggests the derivation of the root-name Art is related to the Greek for bears, specifically "Keeper Of Bears": arktourous (cf Arcturus), and that the name Art(h)ur itself could mean Strong As A Bear. The -ognou suffix may mean born of or springing from (cf genitive, genetic). Prof. Jean Markale, Professor of Celtic History at the Sorbonne, in his 1976 Le Roi Arthur Et la Societe Celtique [translated as King Arthur King Of Kings], mentions [p145] a similar name, Artogenos, translating it as The Son Of The Bear. The case ending -os would have atrophied, and the final -s is in French being silent, Artognous would have been pronounced Artognou.
     The ‘Bear’ interpretation offers an interesting link. The only surviving contemporary account of the Dark Ages, the work of the monk Gildas, mentions the British victory at Badon Hill but famously does not mention Arthur – something always cited by English historians to cast doubt on Arthur's legend. (Welsh tradition has it Gildas and Arthur had a feud after Arthur killed Gildas’s brother Heuil.) Gildas’s account does however later mention a 6th-century regional king as once being (presumably in his youth) "charioteer to The Bear." This may be as close as we ever get to an identification in this context.
     The alternative interpretation given here is that Arth-Ur, The Bear, was the public nom de guerre of a war leader whose birth-name we do not know. Arthurian researchers have become caught up in this idea, that "Arthur" was only a nickname and therefore he could have been a historically attested figure – perhaps one of the 5-6th-C. Welsh kings. Martin Keatman & Graham Phillips's popular 1994 book The Search For King Arthur plumped for a Welsh prince called Owain Ddangwen -- about whom nothing is known, neatly solving the old problem of reconciling details. The Web now supplies a list of such “real Arthur” candidates using the same gambit.
     A variation on this is that there was a dynasty of Bear-Kings. With this theory, we enter the territory of the conspiracy theory of history, of the Templars, Rennes-le-Chateau, the mystery of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. There were a pair of bears on the 12th-C family crest of the Plantard de St Clair family which speculative histories identify as keepers of the Grail secret, linked to France's Dark Ages dynasty, the Merovingian kings. The two bears wear collars marked Arkas and Kallisto. This is a Greek classical reference: Kallisto, a nymph of Artemis and also the Great Bear, Ursa Major, was Arkas's mother, and in their genealogy the ancient Greek Arcadians took their name from mother and son the way Romans later took their name from the wolves Romulus and Remus. The two bears stand above the famous crest, "Et In Arcadia Ego" (I Too Am In Arcadia), which is the subject of so much speculation. (Usually taken as the motto of Death, it appears in paintings by Poussin and the bestseller The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail claimed this was a clue to the whereabouts of the tomb of an historical Jesus who survived the Crucifixion and whose family later fled to southern France).
     This is not the version I want to suggest here, but rather that of Col. John Whitehead, a retired civil servant whose 1959 book Guardian Of The Grail suggested Arthur was based on the Roman resistance fighters Caractacus and his more successful but less known brother Arwiragus, arguing that when the language lost its case-endings, the latter would have become something like Arquir. Whitehead's idea was that the name Arthur, originally Arquihir-auc, Latinised as Arviragus [with v pronounced w], was a functional designation meaning Bear-Folk-Chief. He argued this could apply to a line or dynasty of such leaders -- hence the legend being carried forward from Roman times to the Dark Ages and beyond. This has proven attractive to other writers who are also enthusiasts of mystery cults, and they have taken it up in their books, (such as the Right Honourable Brinsley Le Poeur Trench, in his Men Among Mankind and Temple Of The Stars). Could it be that "The Bear", like Le Dauphin (The Dolphin) in France, was a Royal title, based on an ancient totemic cult?
     There is also an interesting lexi-link in the name Artognou if considered as a dynastic name in the light of the Continental connections of the Arthurian legend to the historic name d'Artagnan. Alexandre Dumas based the young hero of his 1844 Les Trois Mousquetaires on a real 17th-C captain-of-the-royal-guard figure, Charles d'Artagnan. So it’s a genuine family name, meaning "of Artagnan," or more possibly "of Artagne". In the old Celtic languages, the final -n or -an is a suffix which indicated the possessive. The young hero is of course not d'ArtOgnan, but d'ArtAgnan, but an o>a shift is not unusual, occurring often in Irish. In the novel, the young hero is a peasant, but since he is descended from an ancient and noble family, will stand no insult. He gets plenty of these as he speaks an old Gascony dialect named after his home village of Béarn (as in Béarnaise sauce) in the Pyrenees. Béarn is close to “bear” though the etymology is unclear.
     But what does Artagne mean? It sounds suspiciously like Prof Markale’s Artegenos and our Artognou. Could the distinguished French surname derive from the former Celtic name? Ultimately, could it be a common dynastic name, and not just a tradition of swordsmanship which connects the legendary wielder of Excalibur with the Finest Swordsman In All France?



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