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On 6 August, 1998, English Heritage revealed that a broken piece of Cornish slate had been found on Tintagel Island1 bearing the name Artognou. Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist with English Heritage, stated that the name was 'close enough to Arthur to refer to the legendary warrior king'. The story was picked up enthusiastically by the media. 'Word in the stone brings King Arthur to Life' declared the Weekend Australian. The Times, a touch more reserved as one might expect, led their article with 'Arthur: is this where myth meets history?', following this up with another article on 'The once and future king'. But what's the real story, though?
Arthur has been associated with Tintagel since Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain around 1136, though there may have been an earlier Cornish tradition on which Geoffrey based this association. Geoffrey claimed that Arthur was conceived there. Subsequent tradition expanded conception to birth, and by implication ownership and residency. Today Tintagel is the centre of a thriving Arthurian tourist machine, with King Arthur's Carpark, the King Arthur Arms Hotel, King Arthur's Bookshop, and so on, even though most people don't venture beyond the ruin of the 13th Century castle.
Archaeological excavation on the plateau of Tintagel Island was first carried out in the 1930s, from which it was concluded that the site represented an early Christian monastery, and had seen various phases of occupation. Tintagel became a 'type-site' against which evidence from other sites was compared, especially with regard to Mediterranean pottery and glass, of which a great deal has been found.
However, in 1983 there was a grass fire in the plateau which exposed a much larger number of building foundations, leading to a new excavation programme undertaken from 1990 onwards, led by Chris Morris from the University of Glasgow. The most salient conclusion from this programme was that the monastic attribution has now been abandoned. An enormous number of 5th- and 6th-century pot-shards were uncovered and it seems unlikely that a monastery would be that involved in trade with the Mediterranean. Now it is referred to as a 'high status secular site' or representing a 'post-Roman citadel'. It was during the most recent phase of this series of excavations that the piece of slate was revealed, on the eastern terraces below one of the sites excavated in the 1930s (Site C).
The piece of slate is approximately 20cm by 35cm, and acted as a cover for a drain, though possibly it was reused from the rubble of another building. The slate bears the remains of two inscriptions. The most obvious of the two shows the remnants of four letters, as yet un-interpreted. The second seems to have been incised with a knife, and is, to quote Charles Thomas from the University of Exeter, 'basically in Latin, perhaps with some primitive... British elements'. The forms of some of the letters appear in British inscribed stones from Scotland down to Cornwall after c.500, and in some late Classical inscriptions, so the epigraphy is basically accurate.
The inscription reads: PATER / COLI AVI / FICIT / ARTOGNOU. Charles Thomas has translated it thus: Artognou, father of a descendent of Coll, has had (this) made But, the translation is by no means clear: there is no certainty that this is how the words or letters were actually meant to be interpreted, and it must be kept in mind that the slate is broken, so other words might have been included originally.
The Arthurian designation of course rests on the name Artognou, which Charles Thomas states should be pronounced 'Arthnou', though we'll have to take his word for that. The first part of the name uses the Celtic element 'art-os', meaning 'the bear' 2. It is not surprising that the name has been taken to refer to Arthur, the so-called 'Bear of Britain'.
However, the art-os element was actually quite common in early British personal names, for example, Artgen, Arthwys, Arthien, and Arthmail. Therefore, and this is the salient point: unless Arthur was not really named Arthur, the inscription is about a different person.
The actual name Arthur does not turn up in any early Welsh genealogies, which is also interesting for a supposed great historical figure of Welsh tradition: he would undoubtedly have been claimed as an ancestor as many of the other post-Roman figures were, such as Vortigern (Powys) or even Magnus Maximus (Gwynedd). The first person in Welsh genealogies to bear the name is not until the 16th Century. When the personal name does pop up in early works – for example, in Adomnan's Life of Columba (c.700) - they are all Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), not British (Welsh or Cornish).
It is interesting to note that the archaeological team has been quite reserved about the inscription, despite English Heritage trying to make the most of it. And indeed Charles Thomas's preliminary conclusion was, to quote, 'all this stone shows us in the name Artognou, is the use of this Celtic element'. This is not to say the find is not useful: for one thing it demonstrates the continued use of Latin in the Cornish peninsula after the collapse of Roman Britain. More significantly, the slate provides the first evidence that the skills of reading and writing were passed on in a non-religious context. Thus, this is a unique discovery, though not for its Arthurian connection.