Medieval monks probably played up the association between Glastonbury and King Arthur, presumably so they could get some of that sweet, sweet pilgrim trade. I love these scumbag monks.
Archeology magazine reports on a new history of the site, a project led by University of Reading’s Roberta Gilchrist, which combed over findings from archeological expeditions all the way back to the turn of the century (h/t Ars Technica). Among their findings: a major Saxon glassworks circa 700 A.D., which recycled Roman glass. They also dug up proof that there were people knocking around the place in the fifth century, the period associated with King Arthur, which doesn’t make The Once and Future King nonfiction but will nevertheless be exciting to the Arthurian enthusiasts out there.
But perhaps the most interesting stuff relates to the purported grave of Arthur. Gastonbury was already a famous monastery in 1184, when it burned to the ground in a disastrous fire that presumably put a major dent in the abbey’s wealth. A few years later, the monks conveniently discovered the graves of Arthur and Guinevere nearby. At Ars Technica, former Gizmodo editor Annalee Newitz reports that this was very—ahem—fortuitous: “A few decades before, Geoffrey of Monmouth had popularized the legends of Britain’s early king by penning a document called History of the Kings of Britain.”
Gilchrist told Archeology that they simply weren’t on a mission of debunkery: “We didn’t claim to disprove the legendary associations, nor would we wish to,” she said, adding that, “Archaeology can help us to understand how legends evolve and what people in the past believed.” Nevertheless, their findings suggest that the monks were plenty willing to lay the Camelot on thick. Give the people what they want, and what they want is Arthur!
Analysis of the twelfth-century abbey church indicates that the monks themselves purposefully promoted the site’s historic reputation. As they rebuilt the church after the great fire in 1184, instead of using contemporary architectural styles, they inserted antiquated and retrospective elements, apparently to deliberately feign antiquity.
In a sense, these guys were the medieval English predecessors of the dudes who now run Florida alligator farms, and I fucking love it. Truly, the continuity of the human experience across the centuries is beautiful and moving.