King Arthur [Part I]: Some Literary, Archaeological and Historical evidence

The article below King Arthur: Some Literary, Archaeological and Historical evidence” is written by Periklis Deligiannis and originally posted in the Delving into History website. The posting below is Deligiannis’ first part of the article to be followed later this year with his analysis of the North Iranian Sarmatian links to the king Arthur legend.

Kindly note that a number of images and accompanying captions inserted below do not appear in Periklis Deligiannis’ original article.

============================================================================

In 407 AD the Romans withdrew their last regular troops from the British provinces. The independent Romano-Britons had to fight hard against the Pict, Irish and Anglo-Saxon barbarians who were besieging their territory. Former Roman Britain was gradually divided into autonomous ‘principalities’ led by warlords. However they tried to keep united their “British kingdom” as they considered their common territory, and mainly to repel the invading Anglo-Saxons who had conquered the Southeast, advancing headlong. It seems that the Britons in order to maintain their unity, elected a military commander (Dux) as a senior politico-military leader, who led the operations against the invaders and took care on preventing infighting. A sequence of inspired Dukes (Voteporix, Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus) led the British resistance. Those who accept Arthur’s historicity usually consider him as one of these Dukes (a theory consider him Aurelianus’ son).

A Late Roman helmet rather of Persian distant origin (design), decorated with semi-gemstones. The Romano-Britons inherited this type together with the rest of the Roman weaponry and military organization (Periklis Deligiannis).

The Briton literary tradition and the archaeological evidence, mainly the Saxon burials, denote that the Anglo-Saxon invasion was halted on the verge of the 5th-6th centuries AD. Many scholars believe that the military action of the legendary king Arthur was the main ‘factor’ for the repulse of the newcomers. However, his historicity is strongly and justifiably disputed. In this series of articles I will deal with some additional literary, archaeological and historical evidence concerning his historicity.

The literary sources on Arthur

The first literary reference to Arthur appears in the Northern Briton epic “Y Goddodin” (“the Votadini” around AD 600) which recounts an attempt of the Votadini people (Celtic Goddodin) of the modern Scottish Lowlands and their allies, to check the advance of the Angles. Some scholars believe that the mention of Arthur in this epic was added later. The first ‘secure’ reference to the legendary commander comes from Nennius in his “History of the Britons” (“Historia Britonnum”, end of 8th century). Nennius’ work was based mostly on the local Briton tradition. Nennius describes the legendary figure as a warlord who repelled the barbarians around the 5th-6th centuries. This was followed shortly after by another reference of Arthur in the “Annales Cambriae” (9th c.). But the author, who developed most of all Arthur’s renowned image as a just and powerful warrior-king, was the Archdeacon of Oxford Geoffrey of Monmouth in his largely mythical “History of the Kings of Britain” (“Historia Regum Britanniae”, AD 1133). Geoffrey relied heavily on the two aforementioned works, and possibly on the local oral tradition. In France, the late medieval chronicler Chretien de Troyes holds an analogous contribution to the Arthurian legend. The later writers of the Arthurian epic circle are based on the works of the last two authors (mostly on Geoffrey’s work and less on Chretien’s) going on to the enrichment of the epic with elements belonging mainly to the Late Middle Ages, such as the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, etc.

In the 5th-6th centuries AD, the Anglo-Saxons brought to Britain many elements of the eastern Scandinavian Proto-Vendel and Vendel cultures, several of which are obvious on their arms and armor, i.e. on their helmets (Sutton Hoo burial, etc.), daggers, swords etc (reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon warlord wearing a Sutton Hoo-type helmet, by the Historical Association Wulfheodenas) (Periklis Deligiannis). Note: segmented helmets fitted with metallic facemasks were very common in the Sassanian army (Spah), a topic that was addressed in detail in: Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., & Kubic, A. (2016). An Examination of Parthian and Sassanian Military Helmets 2nd century BCE – 7th century CE (2016). THE THIRD COLLOQUIA BALTICA-IRANICA, Nov 25-26, Siedlce University.

Modern scholars who do not accept Arthur’s historicity, rely mainly on the fact that he is not mentioned in the main chronicle of the sixth century AD, the chronicle of the Briton churchman Gildas “The Disaster and Conquest of Britain” (“De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae”, mid-6th century) which deals with the events of the Saxon invasion. They believe that if Arthur really existed and halted the Saxons, his name should be referred by Gildas and not just once or twice. But Gildas does not mention him at all.

In fact this argument is not particularly strong, because during the same period a surprisingly large number of princes and nobles named “Arthur” are witnessed across Great Britain. The preference in this personal name appears suddenly, without any prior, and indicates that these aristocrats and warlords received honorary as infants the name of a politico-military personality who achieved great deeds just a little time before their birth. Concerning the fact that the contemporary Latin-speaking Continental writers do not mention Arthur (another argument of those who do not accept his historicity), this is explained by the fact that after AD 407 Britain is lost from their “vision” and interests. It is rater natural that there is no mention of Arthur in the Continental sources, although some scholars believe that the Briton commander is none other than the British king Riothamus of the “History of the Goths” (6th c.) Riothamus is analyzed to Rigo-tamos according to Fleuriot, meaning “Supreme Ruler” which is indeed the title of the Dux Britanniarum of this age. But for what reasons would Gildas have concealed the achievements of his almost contemporary Arthur?

The Lives of the Briton saints suggest in their texts that Arthur was using the money of the Briton Church to financially support his wars, and he was not distracting them with the consent of the Church. It seems in general that his contemporary Christians did not particularly like him and this may explain why Gildas is silent concerning his hypothetical decisive contribution to repulse the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey of Monmouth presented Arthur as a pious Christian king, as he had to be in the 12th century, but this presentation has very little significance. The references to the Christian faith of Arthur’s knights and soldiers are of the same small value. If Arthur was a real person, it is very doubtful that he and most of his men followed orthodox (official Roman) Christianity that had not many followers in Britain. Most British of this era rather remained faithful to the ancient Celtic cults or to the heresy of Pelagianism which was significantly removed from orthodox Christianity. It seems that the Britons who were almost permanently under arms, like Arthur and his men, followed mainly the traditional Celtic religion or the cult of Mithras, i.e. the renowned Iranian and later Roman ‘god of the soldiers’.

Location of Tintagel in red (Periklis Deligiannis).

Archaeological and Historical Evidence

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was born in the fortress of Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall. There lived Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall together with his beautiful wife Ygraine (or Igraine). Another Briton warlord, Uther Pendragon was in love with her. Ygraine responded to the feelings of Uther, who despairing of his love for the beautiful duchess asked the help of Merlin the magician. The latter agreed to help Uther on his sexual intercourse with Ygraine in exchange for the surrendering of the child to be born from their commingling. Uther agreed and Merlin gave to him the form of Ygraine’s husband. Gorlois had reduced his wife to their summer dwelling in Tintagel in order to protect her from Uther. The latter managed to make love to Ygraine, her husband was killed, and the child born in Tintagel, namely Arthur, was delivered to Merlin who later established him to the British throne.

Until recently, scholars did not generally consider Geoffrey’s reference on Arthur’s birth in Tintagel as a worthy one. The ruins at the top of the modern island Tintagel (a coastal cliff of Cornwall) belong to a late medieval fortress that was built a century after the writing of Geoffrey’s History. However, probably the archdeacon knew that Tintagel was a fort of the British Dark Ages and followed the local tradition that placed Arthur’s birth there. The archaeological findings reinforce this view. In the summer of 1983 a series of fires extended on Tintagel, where after burning the vegetation, revealed the foundations of strong fortifications. Excavations in the area revealed several findings of ceramics, based on which, the History of the island was divided into two periods. The first historical phase coincides with the Roman period. The fact that no other pottery was excavated in the region, shows that the Roman government was using Tintagel as a commercial post. This is reinforced by the discovery of a harbor on the island, which continued to be used during the 5th-6th centuries. These centuries are concerning Tintagel’s second period, contemporary with Arthur’s wars. The pottery of the 5th-6th century that was discovered on the island was made in the East Roman Empire, Gaul and North Africa, which denotes that the movement of goods by the Celts of Tintagel increased compared to the Roman period. But the large amounts of the excavated pottery, assume that a strong central government controlled the trade. Due to the historical period, this rather corresponded to a monarch. The discovery of a ditch on the island (which considering its use almost always surrounded walls made of tree trunks in Celtic strongholds) denotes that Tintagel was a fortified trading location. After all it would be dangerous for the local Britons to leave defenseless a natural fortress like Tintagel, because it could be captured by overseas enemies or invaders.

‘Tristan and Isolde’ in a classic artwork by Edmund Blair Leighton. Tristan appears in the Arthurian Circle as a worthy knight and a romantic figure as well, but in reality he was a powerful Pict warlord. Dunstan, being his real name, was an historic figure, the champion of the Cruthni (Picts) against the Scottish invaders in Pictavia (Periklis Deligiannis).

During excavations in 1998 an important finding was discovered: a plate (a culvert cover) with a Latin inscription of the 5th century. The name of Arthur was read in it. During the Early Middle Ages, very few could write and the literate usually lived in monasteries or palaces. Some decades ago it was believed that Tintagel was a monastery, but archeology has shown that it was the residence of a prince, judging by the fortifications and the broken utensils of the 5th-6th centuries. Most of the broken pieces came from expensive cups and jugs: such utensils were usually used by rich Celtic and Romano-Briton kings to drink Mediterranean wines. It is believed that the ruler of Tintagel was quite wealthy and powerful, and that his “palace” was in the fort. There are no ruins of it today, because the British “palaces” of the time were mainly made of wood. In conclusion, it seems that Tintagel was a Roman and then a Briton royal fortress that controlled the mouth of the adjacent Camel River. The kings of the 5th-6th century used it only a period of time, generally because the Briton rulers were “itinerant kings.” They did not maintain courtyards or permanent capitals but moved from one fort of their territory to another. Tintagel was possibly the summer residence of the local warlord-king.

The Arthurian legend indicates the existence of two “magical” swords.

Young Arthur was proclaimed king of the Britons when he pulled with ease Uther’s royal sword, which was spiked on a rock. The other pretenders of the throne failed when they tried to pull it. Several British archaeologists believe that the theme of the sword stuck on a rock, originates from the technical construction of the Bronze Age swords. The molten brass was poured into a stone mold, consisting of two parts which were connected tightly together by rivets. The mold was heated to the same temperature as the brass and then it was allowed to return to its natural temperature. Then the coppersmith removed the nails that held the two parts of the stone cast and pulled (using muscular effort) the sword that had been formed, as did Arthur with Uther’s sword. However, in my opinion this explanation is not convincing. The Sarmatian origin of the legend of the sword spiked on a rock is more likely (This will be discussed in later reports in September 2018, September 2019 and September 2020). The Sarmatians were an important North Iranian people of the Eurasian steppe, whose branches were scattered and settled in various regions of Europe, including Britain (members of the Iazygae and Alani tribes, as mercenaries of the Romans). It is significant that their main deity was worshiped in the form of a sword spiked on the ground or on  a rock.

Concerning the second magical sword, according to legend when King Arthur needed a new sword, the Lady of the Lake emerged from the water and handed him the sword Excalibur. The links between King Arthur, the Lady of the lake and ancient Iran’s Goddess Anahita are discussed in the following:

Arctic Mummy from Civilization with Links to Persia

The article below by Richard Grey entitled Riddle of the medieval ‘mummy’ discovered in Siberia: Child from unknown Arctic civilization found wrapped in birch barkoriginally appeared in the Daily Mail on July 6, 2015.

The article is of interest as it pertains to the remains of a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th centuries CE. The Body was discovered at the medieval site near Salekhard in Russia, near Arctic Circle.

Five other bodies found previously at the site were covered in copper plates.These are thought to have been part of a civilization with links to Persia.

================================================

The remains of a medieval ‘mummy’ wrapped in a cocoon of birch bark has been discovered at the site of a village that belonged to a mysterious arctic civilization.

Archaeologists discovered the remains, which they believe may be a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th century, while excavating near the town of Salekhard in Tyumen Oblast, Russia.

The site, which is 18 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is thought to be a medieval necropolis where several bodies have been buried in ways unlike anything else found in the region.

The Zeleny Yar necropolis was found just outside Salekhard in Russia, just 18 miles from the Arctic Circle (Source: Daily Mail Online).

Experts say bodies found at the site appear to have been naturally mummified in the permafrost as a result of being buried with sheets of copper in their shrouds and frozen conditions.

Archaeologists have now removed the latest body to be discovered from the sandy soil, which is now only frozen for part of the year – it is the first human remains to be found since 2002.

The remains, which are being kept in a special freezer in the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, are due to be examined next week.

The birth bark cocoon is around 1.3 metres (4 feet) long and 30cm (12 inches) wide and initial examination has revealed there is metal beneath the birch bark.

The human remains, which were found wrapped in a birch bark ‘cocoon’ shown above, are thought to have been mummified by a combination of copper buried with the body and the freezing permafrost (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times). Archaeologists have removed the body in its wrappings from the sandy soil so it can be examined at in Salekhard, Russia.

Experts say it is likely the body inside has been mummified much like others found at the site.

Alexander Gusev, a fellow of the Research Centre for the Study of the Arctic in Russia who led the excavation, told the Siberian Times the birch bark cocoon appeared to have been wrapped around the body. He said:

“It follows the contours of the human body. If there is really a mummy, the head and skull are likely to be in good condition. We think it is a child, maybe a teenager. The find is now in Salekhard, in the Shemanovsky Museum, in special freezer. We plan to return to Salekhard on 15 July and immediately start the opening of the ‘cocoon’ “.

The mummified remains are the first to be uncovered at the site since 2002 and were carefully removed so they could be preserved, as shown above. Scientists hope to open the bark cocoon soon (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

The mummy was discovered at the site of a medieval necropolis called Zeleny Yar, which has baffled some archaeologists due to its closeness to the Arctic Circle.

These images captured by local television crews from broadcaster Vesti Yamal show archaeologists studying the bark wrapped remains before removing them so they can be preserved and examined in more detail (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Previously they found 34 shallow graves at the site and 11 bodies with shattered or missing skulls.

Five mummies were found to be shrouded in copper and elaborately covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. Among them was a female child whose face was masked by copper plates.

The bark cocoon (above) appears to have been wrapped around the body of a child or teenager. Experts also used metal detectors and found there is metal – possibly copper – inside covering the well preserved body (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Three male infants, also shrouded in copper masks, were also found nearby. They were also bound in four or five copper hoops.

A red-haired man, protected from chest to foot with copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet, furs and a bronze head buckle depicting a bear was also found at the site.

Five other mummified bodies have been found at the mysterious Zeleny Yar site, including the red headed man above who was found covered in copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet and covered in furs (Photo source: The Siberian Times).

Geneticists who have used DNA from the bodies recovered from the site recently revealed that their mitochondrial DNA appeared to match those of modern populations living in West Siberia.

Natalia Fyodorova, from the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences said previously about the discoveries:

“Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes. It is a unique archaeological site. We are pioneers in everything from taking away the object of sandy soil (which has not been done previously) and ending with the possibility of further research.”

This copper facial mask was found on one of five other mummified bodies discovered at the Zeleny Yar site (Photo source: Natalya Fyodorova, The Siberian Times).

Artifacts found at the site, including bronze bowls, have led experts to conclude the people had links to Persia, some 3,700 miles to the south-west.

Article by Kaveh Farrokh and Taraneh Farhid on Achaemenid Era Edicts, Stele and the Cyrus Cylinder

An important recent contribution to the field of Iranian Studies is the publication in 2018 of the following textbook:

Arj-e-Xirad: Papers in Honour of Professor Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (edited by Farhad Aslani & Massoumeh Pourtaghi). Tehran: Morvarid Publications.

Professor Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (Hamburg University, Iranian Studies) is a doyen of Iranian Studies much like Dick Davis and those who have passed such as Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) and Shapour Shahbazi (1942-2006).

The above textbook includes scholarly articles by world-class scholars such as Dariush Akbarzadeh, Dick Davis, Richard Foltz, Shaul Shaked, Gholamreza Karamian, Jurgen Ehlers, Touraj Daryee, Kamyar Abdi and a slew of other scholars.

Kaveh Farrokh and Taraneh Farhid have also contributed the following article to the above textbook [this can be downloaded in pdf from Academia.edu]:

Farrokh, K., & Farhid, T. (1396/2018). [استوانه کوروش بزرگ و اسناد “دیگر” در بابل, مصر و ستون سنگی یادبود خانتوس] “Other” Cylinders and Records before and after Cyrus the Great: Kelar, Babylon, Egypt and Xanthus. Studies in Honor of Professor Jalal Khaleghi Motlagh (ed. F. Aslani & M. Pourtaghi), Tehran: Morvarid Publications, pp.379-394.

The above article challenges a number of new Eurocentric theories proposed since 1979 with respect to the history of Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder. The new theories were promoted in Spiegel Magazine (by Matthias Schultz, July 15, 2008) and the Daily Telegraph (by Harry de Quetteville, July 16, 2008) … these however were responded to by Kaveh Farrokh:

The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Photos of Resket Tower in Sari, Iran

The Resket Tower (Persian:برج رسکت), officially dated to the 11th century and described as having been originally built at the site of a meteor impact, is located in the city environs of Sari located in Mazandaran province in northern Iran.

A view of the Resket Tower whihc has been recently (partially) restored (Photo: Alireza Zabini, Mehr News & Payvand News).

The Resket Tower is a cylindrical tower built of bricks and is topped with an (somewhat elongated) conical dome.The tower is approximately 15 meters at its base and stands at 18 meters in height. The tower’s interior features a cylindrical chamber.

Close-up view of superimposed rows of V-shape brackets at Resket Tower (Photo: Alireza Zabini, Mehr News & Payvand News).

Interestingly this tower has both Sassanian (Middle Persian or Pahlavi) as well as early Kufic inscriptions. This would seem curious as the Sassanian empire had fallen by 651 CE, however northern Iran resisted the caliphates well into the 800s CE. The region (and the historical Azerbaijan in northwest Iran) retained strong cultural links with Iran’s pre-Islamic Sassanian past, even past the 800s CE which may explain the Pahlavi inscriptions on the tower.

A bottom-up view of the Resket Tower (Photo: Alireza Zabini, Mehr News & Payvand News).

The inscriptions on Resket Tower state that this is a tomb belonging to princes – and – of the local north Iranian Bavandid dynasty (651-1349). The Bavandids held sway in much northern Iran, known as Tabaristan at the time. As noted previously, much of Iran’s indigenous pre-Islamic identity was maintained, even as the Bavandids were reduced to vassal status.

A close-up view of the brickwork of Resket Tower (Photo: Alireza Zabini, Mehr News & Payvand News).

The observation below by Terry Graham sent to Kavehfarrokh.com on March 9, 2018 has been reprinted below for interested readers:

“So magnificent these inscriptions! Of course, the late conversion of the Caspian region is evidenced in this grand relic. It was in the following century that the Buyids poured out of neighboring Daylam, Gilan, to take over the caliphate and further Persianize it (given that the Abbasid caliphs themselves were Persian in every way but the language). Then farther west one had the Khurramiyya, who were a continuation of Mazdak’s movement, their very name reflecting both Mazdak’s and later Babak’s emphasis on ‘joy’ as an essential principle, expressed in the name of Mazdak’s wife, Khurram, as well. With her vigorously bold and eloquent defense of her martyred husband’s views, she was a model for Zaynab defending her brother in the time to come.

And of course, this was the era of the 9th-century Pahlavi books, representing an outpouring of work in that tongue far vaster than anything the Sassanians had written. The galvanizing of the non-literate Persians into the most massive writing activity in the world in both Pahlavi and Arabic (New Persian coming only a couple of centuries later) is one of the great wonders of world history in expressing the results of a revolution in Iran compared to which the Bolshevik one in Russia was no more than a tea party.”

Readers interested in reading more about this topic may consult:

  • Babaie, Sussan; Grigor, Talinn (2015). Persian Kingship and Architecture: Strategies of Power in Iran from the Achaemenids to the Pahlavis. I.B.Tauris.
  • Pope, Arthur Upham, ed., Phyllis Ackerman, assist. ed. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. 3, Architecture, Its Ornament, City Plans, Gardens, 3rd edited. Tehran: Soroush Press, 1977.
  • Uqabi, Muhammad Mahdi, ed. Dayirat al-ma arif-i binaha-yi tarikhi-i Iran dar dawrah-i Islami, 381. Tehran: Awzahi-i Hunari-i Sazmani-i Tablighat-i Islami, 1997.

Photos of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian Fire Temple) in Tbilisi, Georgia

The photos of the Zoroastrian fire temple or Atashgah of Tbilisi in Georgia were provided to kavehfarrokh.com in late 2017 by Dr. Nader Gohari of Durham University, who is an avid researcher and scholar of Iranian Studies.

Panoramic view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Georgia, like ancient Albania (known as Republic of Azerbaijan since May 27, 1918) and Armenia have stood at the crossroads between Anatolia, the civilizations of ancient Persia or Iran and Eastern Europe.

[A, C] Views of the stairway of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi; [B] Plaque at wall to right of bottom stairway providing a short history of the Atashgah and its protected status as a heritage site by the Georgian government (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Alongside the impact of the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the Caucasus continues to bear a strong ancient Iranian imprint as witnessed for example by the Kurdish Yezidis who live in both Georgia and Armenia to this day.

Concave structure at one of the top corners of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

As noted by the late British historian Mark Whittow (1957-2017) who taught as a professor at Oxford University:

The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west” [1996, pages 203-204; Whittow, M. (1996). The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press].

Despite the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century CE, Zoroastrianism continued to endure in local culture of the region. Officially, it was King Mirian (Persian: Mehran) who converted to Christianity in 337 CE. Despite this, the name “Ohrmazd” (Ahura Mazda) continued to be invoked by the local peasantry who referred to their deity as “Armazi”.

Platform providing access into the the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

The Locals of ancient Georgia are believed to have provided offerings to Aramzi or Ohrmazd in a locale in close proximity to what is identified as “Bridge of the Magi” (Lang, 1956, pages 22-23; “St. Nino and the Conversion of Georgia,” Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, translated by D.M. Lang (1956), London: Allen & Unwin).

Mock-up view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).