Research Paper

‘Have You Come to Take the King Away?’: A Survey of Archaeology and Folklore in Context

Author: Tina Paphitis (Institute of Archaeology, UCL)

  • ‘Have You Come to Take the King Away?’: A Survey of Archaeology and Folklore in Context

    Research Paper

    ‘Have You Come to Take the King Away?’: A Survey of Archaeology and Folklore in Context



The past two decades have seen a significant increase in archaeological investigations implicitly, or explicitly, encompassing folkloric material. Many such publications begin with a brief mention of the early historical connection between the two disciplines via antiquarianism, and the problems and possibilities of engaging with folklore in archaeological research. However, it is apparent that many archaeological researchers have little or no understanding of the historical, theoretical and methodological development of folklore or its close relation to archaeology - thus limiting potential engagement and generating (sometimes invalid) assumptions about folkloric materials and folklore as a discipline. Through a case study of an archaeological site with a long and rich folkloric history, this paper will explore the almost identical development of the two disciplines, and their shifting interaction in relation to disciplinary changes and the socio-political contexts. It will also provide some key references for researchers wishing to study the subject further with the hope that better-informed critiques will demonstrate the potential for collaboration between the two disciplines.

How to Cite:

Paphitis, T., (2013) “‘Have You Come to Take the King Away?’: A Survey of Archaeology and Folklore in Context”, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1), p.Art. 16. doi:



Published on
25 Sep 2013
Peer Reviewed


The past two decades have seen a significant increase in archaeological investigations implicitly, or explicitly, encompassing folkloric material. Many such publications begin with a brief mention of the early historical connection between the two disciplines via antiquarianism, and the problems and possibilities of engaging with folklore in archaeological research. However, it is apparent that many archaeological researchers have little or no understanding of the historical, theoretical and methodological development of folklore or its close relation to archaeology - thus limiting potential engagement and generating (sometimes invalid) assumptions about folkloric materials and folklore as a discipline. Through a case study of an archaeological site with a long and rich folkloric history, this paper will explore the almost identical development of the two disciplines, and their shifting interaction in relation to disciplinary changes and the socio-political contexts. It will also provide some key references for researchers wishing to study the subject further with the hope that better-informed critiques will demonstrate the potential for collaboration between the two disciplines.

It is first necessary to consider how ‘folklore’ can be defined, since many researchers outside the discipline may be unaware of the scope and specifics of the term, often due to a misunderstanding of the terms ‘folk’, ‘lore’ and ‘folklore’. Folklore is notoriously difficult to define and can vary considerably between scholars. Generally it is perceived as the creation, enactment and reproduction of practices or traditions1 of a group of people sharing one or more commonalities in relation to the social, cultural, religious, political or environmental contexts (see Noyes 2012). It can be transmitted orally, by imitation or by other practice-based or active means (after UNESCO 1989). Folklore may also be used as a shorthand reference for ‘folklore studies’ or ‘folkloristics’ - the collection, study, analysis and interpretation of this material. The word folklore is used here as a reference to the discipline and the materials of study of that discipline (Sims and Stephens 2011: 1). It is not proposed that this is a complete or exhaustive definition but serves for the purpose of this paper, which primarily deals with one of the earliest facets of collected folklore: narratives (namely legends and folktales). Indeed, this particular form of folklore and its accumulation and study is intrinsically linked to discipline and nation-building exercises from at least the Early Modern period (Bendix and Hasan-Rokem 2012: 10), which often parallel early archaeological agendas and is evident in the archaeological site examined here.

The case study considered is Cadbury Castle - or South Cadbury hill fort - in Somerset, south-west England (Figures 1 and 2), and the site’s association via various folk narratives (and archaeological investigations) with the folk hero, (King) Arthur. Cadbury Castle has a long and complex history as an archaeological and folkloric site; in fact, the two are thoroughly intertwined (Foster 1966: 255). The site had a long period of intermittent occupation from the Neolithic to Medieval periods, making it an archaeologically impressive location (Figure 3). It was extensively excavated in the 1960s and 70’s by the Camelot Research Committee (CRC) (Alcock 1972; 1995), under the direction of Leslie Alcock, with a number of smaller-scale investigations undertaken prior and since (Barrett et al 2000; Bennett 1890; Davey 2005; Dymond 1883; Gray 1913; Tabor 2008). Major activity is seen at the site during the pre-Roman Iron Age, when most of the huge ramparts were constructed and a substantial settlement developed, until the eve of the Roman Conquest. Roman activity can be detected in the excavation of barracks and a ‘shrine’ or ‘temple’ on the hill-top, but Cadbury’s importance declined significantly during this period with the development of the Roman town at nearby Ilchester (Leach 1982, 1994). Substantial resettlement took place during the Early Medieval period. Indeed, a major contribution to archaeology afforded by the excavation of the site was a reassessment of the role of southern British hill forts in the sub-Roman period (Bradley 2006: 666). A large hall dating to the fifth and sixth centuries AD was uncovered, along with a large assemblage of Mediterranean pottery from the same period (so-called ‘Tintagel-ware’). The CRC - as its name implied - was partly concerned with investigating the possibility that an Arthur figure was once resident at the site, based on Early Modern assertions that this was a traditional belief held by the local people. From this claim, a number of tales pertaining to Arthur have developed at Cadbury Castle over the centuries, including that he was asleep under the hill, that he guarded fairy treasure within it and that he rode about the area at certain times of the year. Whilst the folklore of Arthur at Cadbury Castle has, on various occasions, prompted archaeological interest of the site, they have also been strenuously rejected, or even ignored. These reactions can be seen to link to the development of archaeology as a discipline and the wider historical contexts in which both archaeology and folklore developed.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Aerial view of Cadbury Castle and location, inset (©2013 Google Maps)

Figure 2
Figure 2

Survey plan of Cadbury Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 3
Figure 3

General archaeological chronology of Cadbury Castle (after Alcock, 1972: 210–11)

Popular Antiquities

It is well known that archaeology and folklore began as one and the same thing (Burström 1999: 36; Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf 1999a: 8; Harte 1986: 5; see Dorson 1968; Piggott 1976; Schnapp 1996; Trigger 2006). The study of popular antiquities - or antiquarianism - can be seen as having its roots in Early Modern European movements in religion, politics and society, as well as drives towards nation-building. In the Medieval period, interest in the remains of the past is evident in the chronicles of monks and priests (Trigger 2006: 81). These chronicles recorded ancient sites and local tales associated with them. These narratives often linked sites to events and characters from the Bible and Classical texts, establishing a strong continuity with a Christian past through parts of the British landscape. This was also achieved, although less extensively, through the excavation of sites. A prime example of this is the excavation of the supposed remains of Arthur and Guinevere by monks at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191 on the order of Henry II, and again under Edward I in 1278 (Gerrard 2003: 5). Both kings were Arthurian enthusiasts, and excavation of the hero’s supposed tomb not only served to reify the figure, but also demonstrated to the Welsh - whom the English were attempting to subdue - that their traditional redeemer-hero would not return to aid them (McColl 1999). Royal interest also aimed to appropriate Arthur as English by having him buried in England rather than Wales.

In Britain, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–1541) under Henry VIII instigated the recording of monuments and other landscape features by an emerging kind of scholar: the antiquarian (Gerrard 2003: 5–6; Trigger, 2006: 84). The rise of the antiquarian indicated that official reproductions of the past were no longer the domain of monks (Dorson, 1968: 2), but had shifted to another elite group, often at the behest of royalty and noblemen. This period saw the destruction of familiar monastic landmarks; this changing landscape (see Walsham 2011) and other ruins of the past prompted individuals to visit and record them. Literary interest is demonstrated in contemporary ‘metaphysical poetry’, which often focussed on ruin, death, decay and the transience of life and human achievements (see Schwyzer 2007: 72–107). Antiquarians such as John Leland (c.1503–1552) and William Camden (1522–1623) developed systematic approaches to touring the country during which they recorded what they saw and any associated local customs. Here, tangible aspects of the landscape were not separated, nor distinguished, from narratives and other ephemeral practices, but seen as wholly representing the past whilst commenting on or contributing to the present. Some of these customs were, of course, dismissed as ‘rude’ or ‘vulgur’, whilst others were accepted as having some bearing on the interpretation of sites and landscapes, especially if they could be used to demonstrate the natural sovereignty of the monarch over the land (Abrahams 1992: 36–7).

This development is seen at Cadbury Castle, where the folklore of King Arthur and his supposed residence there was widely popularised - if not invented - during the sixteenth century. Writing about the site, Leland (Itinerary 1710 [1535–43]: 38–9) stated that, ‘The People can telle nothing ther but they have hard say that Arture much resorted to Camalat’ (see also Leland 1582 [1544]) and went on to note surrounding place-names, such as Queen Camel, to support this claim. Since subsequent antiquarians, such as Camden (1586: 136) and Stukeley (1724:142), relate that local people were unaware of this name for the site - instead referring to it as ‘Arthur’s Palace’ or ‘Cadbury Castle’ - it is often argued that Leland invented this tradition (see Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Caroline Shenton (1999), however, has argued that, based on an interpretation of reconstructed itineraries of Edward I in 1278 and Edward III in 1331, the connection between the site and the figure was extant as early as the thirteenth century. It is possible that the name ‘Arthur’s Palace’ arose among local people as a result of Leland’s assertion that the site was the famous Camelot, although it is not unusual for such landmarks to be onomastically connected to folk heroes such as Arthur2. Whether Leland was the first to connect the folk hero with Cadbury Castle or not, his promotion of the site as Arthur’s Camelot is the catalyst for later connections and explorations of this folklore, and represents the bridging of the remains of the past with ideological narratives of the present (see Utz 2006).

Leland was commissioned by Henry VIII to conduct antiquarian investigations around Britain (England and Wales) and his claim that Arthur lived at Cadbury Castle, proving him to be a historical figure, came at a time when many antiquarians – most notably the Italian chronicler Polydore Vergil (1534) – were doubting Arthur’s historicity. An attack on this keystone of English/British identity, especially by a foreigner, was considered outrageous, and Leland set about presenting the case for the veracity of the Arthur legend by linking him to places in the British landscape (Higham 2002: 236; Utz 2006) in both his Itinerary and specifically Arthurian tracts such as his famous Assertio Inclytissimi Arturii Regis Britanniae (1544). The legend of Arthur and his empire was also integral to Henry’s dealings with Scotland and his separation from Rome, just as Arthur separated from Rome in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1966 [c.1136]). Thus Cadbury Castle and its Arthurian ‘tradition’ represented the culmination of the ambitions of a monarch to demonstrate his sovereignty over the land and rightful inheritance of the kingdom, through the supposed fossilisation of local tradition, whilst at the same time underscoring the development of antiquarianism as a scholarly pursuit.

Whilst Leland was recording the apparent tradition that Cadbury Castle was Arthur’s famous residence, Elis Gruffydd, a Welsh chronicler, noted another Arthurian tradition attributed to Cadbury Castle. In his Welsh language history of the world, from Creation to 1552 (National Library of Wales MSS 5276 and Mostyn 158), Gruffydd recorded a number of popular tales and traditions, including the following:

And yet they [the English] talk more about him [Arthur] than we [the Welsh] do; for they say and firmly believe that he will rise again to be king. They in their opinion say that he is asleep in a cave under a hill near Glastonbury. And, indeed, if credence could be given to the word of various people in that region, he has for three hundred years been appearing to and conversing with many people in many a marvellous way.

(trans. Jones, 1966: 179)

The king asleep in a cave in a hill or mountain is a popular folktale type (ATU 766; see Uther 2004) and motif (D1960.2. King asleep in mountain; see Thompson 1966) associated with various European heroes, including Siegfried, Barbarossa and Charlemagne, but is hugely popular in Wales (Rhŷs 1891: 465–79) where the motif is linked to a number of Welsh heroes: Hiriell, Cynan, Cadwaladr, Owain Lawgoch (Yvain de Galles) and Owain Glyndŵr, as well as Arthur. It has been suggested that this connection between Cadbury Castle and the cave legend is the earliest recorded tale to refer to Arthur as a sleeping king in England (Ashe 1995: 7). If this is the case, Cadbury Castle represents a landmark in the spread and development of narrative traditions and their attribution to specific features of the British landscape. Gruffydd’s inclusion of this tale in his chronicle, although related with incredulity, could be seen to demonstrate the shared culture and inheritance of England and Wales which was, again, useful to the establishment and continuity of the Tudor dynasty. The search for and study of popular antiquities in Early Modern Britain (and Europe) thus underscored and emphasised the nation-building activities of the monarch, and, furthermore, set the basis for both archaeology and folklore when they eventually diverged.


The use of peasant customs as demonstrative of the monarch’s natural rule over the land led to the notion that peasants and their traditions represented remnants or ‘survivals’ of the distant past (Dorson 1968: 5; Schnapp 1996: 192; Trigger 2006: 106). Such ideas were expanded upon by John Aubrey (1626–1697), who introduced the concept of ‘comparative antiquity’, whereby antiquities were compared and placed within a structure of ‘natural development’ giving rise to a cultural evolutionary framework. During the eighteenth century, however, the notion that tangible remains of the past were more reliable and ‘scientific’ than folkloric tradition began to gain ground (Schnapp 1996: 181).

The nineteenth century saw the emergence of solid disciplinary distinctions with the creation in 1818 of a Chair in Archaeology in Leiden and a professorship founded by John Disney in Cambridge in 1851 (Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf 1999a: 8). An increased use of the term ‘archaeology’ to refer to the study of past material culture was paralleled by the coining of the term ‘folk-lore’ by William Thoms in 1846, who suggested that this ‘good Saxon compound’ replace ‘Popular Antiquities’ as a phrase for collecting and studying ‘the Lore of the People’ (Thoms 1846: 862, original emphasis). The British inheritance of, and connection to, the Saxon world was further underscored by Thoms in his proposal that scholars should aim to generate a mythology in Britain equivalent to that of the Brothers Grimm in Germany, since the tales of both nations, and thus people, were so closely connected (Thoms 1846: 862). Nationalistic, ethnic and romantic ideologies were thus not only inherent in the results of work conducted by antiquaries/archaeologists/folklorists, but a driving factor in their expansion and methodological underpinnings, as seen in the two major approaches to archaeological and folkloric materials at this time.

The development and employment of a cultural evolutionary approach was popular during the mid-nineteenth century, gaining supposed scientific backing via biological evolutionism in the wake of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 (Dorson 1968: 160; Trigger, 2006: 166, 170–1). One of the most famous proponents of this evolutionary view within the anthropological school of folklore was Edward Burnett Tylor, a follower of Adolf Bastion’s ‘psychic unity’ (see Köpping 2005). Burnett argued that myths could be categorised and ordered into an evolutionary system - from animistic myths about savages to sophisticated philosophic and historic myths - explaining the mysteries of the universe (see Tylor 1865; 1871). Here, folklore was viewed as ‘tattered remnants of savage myths’ (Dorson 1968: 191) preserved by peasants. Thus, customs of the present could be explained by linking them to myths of the past (Bronner 2006: 411). This found an equivalent view in archaeology, championed by John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), who claimed that modern primitive societies could shed light on the behaviour and mentality of prehistoric human beings by way of direct analogy (see Lubbock 1865, 1870).

The nineteenth century concurrently saw the rejection by scholars of cultural evolutionary models in favour of migratory or diffusionist theories of cultural development. Culture-historical archaeology is considered to have arisen as a result of the growing awareness of geographically distinct technologies, concerns with uniform time, the development of a chronological-typological approach, an increase in nationalist fervour and the professionalisation of prehistoric archaeology (Burström 1999: 37; Trigger, 2006: 211). In contrast to the notion of independent development represented by cultural evolutionary thought, culture-historians inferred that it was the migration of peoples and diffusion of ideas that accounted for differences, similarities and changes in material culture. Early culture-historical archaeology was often concerned with the movement of Germanic, Slavic and Vedic peoples (see Kemble 1863), an interest that was echoed in folklore and sustained until the early twentieth century. Max Müller (1856) developed his ‘comparative mythology,’ based on comparative philology, through which elements of ‘barbarism’ in the mythology of ‘civilised’ cultures could be explained by tracing myths back to their apparent Vedic roots. According to Müller, as Aryan peoples migrated, stories and gods from this mythology altered through the ‘disease of language’, but by tracing these alterations in folklore, it was possible to propose models of movement and common Aryan ancestries. Both archaeological and folkloric approaches therefore took the view that peoples from a superior civilisation migrated and it was by this mechanism that various cultural indicators, such as myths and material culture, expressed similarities and variations. A number of sources for this migration were proposed, including Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (cf. Childe 1925, 1926, 1928; Smith 1911, 1915, 1933), but whatever the source, it was believed that the ruling classes and particular nations represented the purest descendants of these ancestors - justifying the control and colonisation of supposedly lesser peoples, and legitimation of claims to land (see Trigger 1984).

These developments led to overt manipulation and appropriation of archaeological and folkloric materials for nationalistic agendas - most famously in Germany - although it is important to note that such practices were widespread across Europe, where they were used to support romantic ideologies, notions of racial superiority and arguments for ethnic cleansing (Trigge, 2006: 236). The works of the Brothers Grimm and Johann Herder were used by writers such as Leopold von Schroeder (1851–1920) - paralleled by Kossinna’s (1858–1931) archaeological work (Arnold 2006: 11; Dow and Bockhorn 2002: 11) - to support notions of an Aryan origin, pure descent and thus superiority, of the German people (see Arnold 1990, 2006 for an examination of totalitarian archaeology in Germany, and Dow and Lixfeld 1994 on folklore in Nazi Germany). At the same time, the establishment of regional and national folk museums in Britain (Wingfield 2011: 255–256) and across Europe provided settings in which traditional culture and inheritance could be played out in tangible form. In relation to these aims and ideologies, this period saw overt collaborations between folklore and archaeology with the aim of demonstrating folkloric survivals archaeologically, or theorising that living folklore retained strains of prehistoric memories (Allen 1881; Fleure 1932, 1948; Johnson 1908; MacCulloch 1932; MacRitchie 1893; Sayce 1934)3 and was thus representative of the deep-rooted indigenousness of the people of a particular land.

The distinction drawn between archaeology and folklore during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and concurrent harmony, can be seen in the investigative history of Cadbury Castle, where folktales were extensively collected alongside early archaeological investigations (see particularly Bennett 1890). This was not for the purpose of demonstrating or assessing the historicity of Arthur, but in order to gather tales from the local people and simultaneously undertake research into the prehistoric past as two distinct aspects of the history of Cadbury Castle. What was collected represented the interests in folklore in Britain at the time, within a site that demonstrated the ancientness of the people.

Sleeping king narratives at Cadbury Castle continued to be reproduced, and featured in a number of variant tales, including the belief that Arthur guarded fairy treasure under the hill4 and made appearances at certain times of the year. When a party of antiquaries visited the hill, an old local resident enquired if they had come to take the king away, suggesting a continuing belief in the physical presence of the hero in the hill, or at least a light-hearted acknowledgement that such tales continued to be reproduced. Sleeping king narratives have often been identified as a ‘Celtic’ folktale type (see Chambers 1927; Rhŷs 1891), as have fairy narratives; the recording of these tales at the same time as the expressed interest in ‘Saxon’ material remains reflects this concern with the maintenance of a link with a more ancient past. Whilst Thoms announced a desire to collect English tales in the interest of connecting with the country’s Saxon past, there continued to be a certain appeal in an ancient, unbroken past, which was best exemplified by the invention of the ‘Celts’ at this time and an identification with such peoples (see James 1999). The use of the word ‘Celt’ in modern culture has an affiliation with an ‘ethnic heartland’ such as Wales, Scotland or Ireland (Dietler 1994: 585), and concepts of an ancient Celtic past play an ideological role in European unity and community (Dietler 1994: 584). The concept of the insular ‘Celticness’ of Britons was introduced in the early eighteenth century by Edward Lhuyd (see Lhuyd 1707), and the idea quickly became ‘established fact’, with the term ‘Celtic’ applied to archaeological remains of the ancient Britons (James 1999: 44–7) and British folktales recorded and published as ‘Celtic’ (Jacobs 1892, 1894). That Britain underwent successive invasions of peoples was known as early as the Medieval period, and thus scholars and other groups who appropriated the past - for whatever means - could not claim an unbroken descent from a ‘pure’, indigenous people. Instead, these invasions were seen to represent the incoming of superior peoples and the retention of their best features, with the result that the British embodied the best stock in Europe (Trigger 2006: 214). The idea of the Celts, with a ‘deep indigenous ancestry’, fulfilled the British need to create national identity and unity at this time (James 1999: 47), fulfilling both nation- and empire-building agendas. Thus, the notion of the Celts as a cultural label was quickly transformed into an ethnic one (James 1999: 18).

The collection of folktales at Cadbury Castle, then, connected contemporary British people to their pre-Roman Iron Age, Celtic past as represented by the archaeology of the site. This deep ancestry of land and culture was tempered by the later Saxon legacy of Britain, and nineteenth century interests therein, as seen in another immensely popular folkloric theme at Cadbury Castle, which portrayed Arthur as leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a common narrative across (predominantly Northern) Europe, most frequently linked to the god Odin, wherein a spectral or Otherworldly band ride furiously across the landscape, often leading to unpleasant or disastrous consequences such as the death or insanity of the viewer, or acting as a portent of doom. There are three variants of the tale at Cadbury Castle, with Arthur as the leader of the Hunt in each case. In one tale, Arthur and his knights ride around the hill on horses shod with silver, stopping to water their steeds at King Arthur’s Well. A silver horseshoe was recorded by Leland (1710 [1535–43]: 38–39) as having been found at Cadbury Castle ‘within the memory of man’, and this is often cited as attesting to this event, although the antiquarian does not explain the presence of the item: it could have been incorporated into the tale in order to explain it (Grinsell 1976: 103), or may have inspired the tale in the first place. In another tale, Arthur rides down King Arthur’s Lane or Hunting Causeway to Glastonbury (12 miles north-west of Cadbury) on rough winter nights. This path was recorded by Stukeley (1724: 142) as ‘King Arthur’s Hunting Causey’. By the time the Rev. Bennett conducted his investigations in the late nineteenth century it had fallen largely into disuse (Bennett 1890: 5). A local labourer working for Bennett on excavations at the hill fort reported having heard the king and his hounds pass him on the Causeway on his way home some years earlier (Bennett 1890: 5). A third variant of the Wild Hunt tale at Cadbury Castle relates that Arthur and his knights ride down to the village of Sutton Montis (to the immediate south-west of the hill) on Christmas Eve and drink water from a well by the village church.

Whilst tales of the Wild Hunt taking place around a hill are common, it is likely that it was the figure of Arthur that led to the development of this tale at Cadbury Castle, since it would explain his appearances in between bouts of sleep inside the hill. Indeed, Arthur is often connected to other figures linked to the Wild Hunt, such as Odin and Brân the Blessed - sharing similar traits such as their association with battle and transformation into ravens (Green 2007: 259, n.6). The increased popularity of Germanic and Scandinavian tales in Britain, with the circulation of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812, first English edition 1823; see Grimm and Grimm 2002) and the publication of Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology (1851) could be a contributing factor to the increase and variation in such tales. Although Arthur is traditionally the enemy of invading Saxons (Geoffrey of Monmouth 1966 [c.1136]), his connection with Wild Hunt narratives at Cadbury Castle during the nineteenth century can be seen to draw him into these popular ‘Germanic’ traditions. Thus the traditionally ‘Celtic’ motif of the sleeping king persisted alongside, and mingled with, ‘Germanic’ tales of the Wild Hunt. Here, again, the folklore of Cadbury Castle represented wider interests and views of the past, which had a direct influence on the development of both archaeology and folklore.

Archaeology and folklore during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could be seen to have a distinctly harmonious relationship (Burke 2004), whereby methods, theories and goals had acknowledged commonality. Archaeology’s use of ethnology for cultural evolutionary explanations relied heavily on folklore and mirrored the anthropological school of folklore that focussed on ‘survivals’ in modern groups. Likewise, comparative mythology’s framework and application mirrored that of culture-history in archaeology (see Bronner 1984). Beyond theoretical considerations, the practice of the two disciplines reflected wider socio-political and cultural interests, representing ancestry and inheritance of the people in both folkloric and archaeological remains, seen in the investigation of Cadbury Castle.

Science and Boundaries

Out of the criticisms of the culture-historical approach, and responses to its uses by regimes prior to and during World War II, a New Archaeology arose, marking a decided shift in the interaction between archaeology and folklore. It has been suggested that the reluctance of historians and archaeologists to engage with folklore at this time was due to its perceived role in romantic nationalism but, of course, history and archaeology may be criticised on the same grounds (Ben-Amos 1975: 4; Burke 2004: 135; Hopkin 2001: 218).

The New Archaeology was characterised by technical and theoretical developments largely borrowed from and influenced by other disciplines, such as anthropology, geography, biology and mathematics (Clarke 1973: 8), which were also developing new theories and methodologies after World War II. Developments in technology (see Clarke 1973: 9–10) allowed more ‘precise’ observations to be made, reducing or eliminating the need for oral and written data – indeed, such information could be deemed ‘unscientific’. A more ‘scientific’ approach to archaeology was advocated, based on hypothesis-testing and positivistic approaches to data. Models derived from this observational data were generated, which sought to explain the processes that lead to archaeological materials, giving rise to ‘processual’ archaeology. Material culture was no longer seen as a marker for cultural similarities and differences arising from diffusion and migration, but as a functional response to systemic factors such as the environment (Binford 1962). Ethnographic observation was deployed to enable anthropological inferences to be made about archaeological material (see Binford 1962; Longacre 1964). This was different from the ethnological studies in archaeology (and folklore) in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, which were used to infer ‘mentality’ and belief systems. Archaeology now sought to understand the systems and structures of technology, economy and social organisation in a behavioural approach to archaeological materials.

Material culture studies were largely rejected within folklore from the 1960s as a result of its use as a ‘tracing device’ in earlier paradigms (Löfgren, 2012: 171). Likewise, a reaction against earlier evolutionary approaches led to the development of a structuralist approach to folklore (Bronner 2006: 406; see, for example, Dundes 1962 1976). This approach was again influenced by developments in anthropology, whereby folklore was seen as a process which developed within a system of cultural invention (Abrahams 1992: 40). It was these structures therefore that governed what folklore was reproduced and how it operated generally. Thus, like archaeology, folklore attempted to provide explanatory models for observation drawn from their respective datasets.

Another development in folklore studies (particularly in the United States) - which it is important to note - was the concept of ‘boundary-work’, headed by Richard Dorson (see Dorson 1950, 1959, 1973: 199). Although boundedness was largely atheoretical, its construction and implementation marked an attempt to create a disciplinary identity for folklore in the twentieth century. The emphasis of boundary-work was on keeping non-academics and non-specialists out of folklore studies, ironically at a time when there was a revival in interest around, and practice of, folk traditions (Abrahams 1993: 380–381) or perhaps even as a response to this. Dorson attacked amateurs, popularisers, mass media and academic interlopers, arguing that ‘pure’ folklore was only collected and studied within academically-trained folkloristic circles, whilst everything outside this boundary was ‘fakelore’. This, and the particular approaches used within archaeology and folklore, led to a distancing of the two despite certain similarities.

Glassie (1977) noted the commonality of the two disciplines, but this was largely ignored and during the 1960s and 70s the coming together of archaeology and folklore was an ‘uncommon encounter’ (Glassie 1977: 23). Yet despite the emphasis on subject specialisation and distance, this period also saw the cross-fertilisation of archaeology and folklore in two major ways. Firstly, collections of folklore associated with archaeological sites were made, most notably and most extensively by the archaeologist Leslie Grinsell (1937, 1939, 1976, 1978). Grinsell’s impressive collection, undertaken under the auspices of the Folklore Society and supported by the Prehistoric Society, began before World War II, and his preliminary perspectives on the collection of such material reflected those of his contemporaries – namely that, just as archaeology can tell us of the material culture of prehistoric groups, folklore can tell us something of their mentality (Grinsell 1937: 246; cf. Fleure 1932, 1948). This viewpoint subdued after the War, which disrupted work and delayed publication (Grinsell 1939), but his efforts eventually culminated in his Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (1976). This and other such works, however, went little beyond collecting and cataloguing, with limited commentary on the folkloric themes most commonly associated with certain monument types (Grinsell 1976: 16–75).

Secondly, between the 1930s and 1980s, a number of archaeologists undertook projects to evaluate the historical accuracy of folkloric narratives at archaeological sites (see Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf 1999a: 11–12). Most notable of these is Leslie Alcock’s assessment of the historicity of the folk hero Arthur at Cadbury Castle. Full-scale archaeological investigations were instigated by the discovery of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean pottery sherds by a walker, who reported her finds to archaeologists (Alcock 1972: 21; Foster 1966: 254). The presence of the pottery suggested occupation of the site by an important local chieftain, and Ralegh Radford, who had discovered and classified such pottery at Tintagel years earlier (Radford 1956), argued that this confirmed the legends of Arthur at the site (Radford and Cox 1955). The CRC (Camelot Research Committee) led by Mortimer Wheeler (President), Leslie Alcock (Director) and Geoffrey Ashe (Honorary Secretary), was formed to answer this and other archaeological questions and aimed to investigate the site from its earliest to its latest occupation via surveys and excavations undertaken between 1966 and 1970. Yet the ‘Arthur’ question, inherent in the name of the Committee, indicated one of the principal preoccupations (and perhaps prefigured conclusions) of the project, although Alcock (1972: 19) emphasised that he was only concerned with ‘historical facts’ pertaining to the figure of Arthur and not the folktales that had developed around the site, such as the sleeping king and Wild Hunt narratives referred to above.

As noted above, the CRC excavations at Cadbury Castle uncovered evidence of substantial early medieval occupation, including a large hall, gate-tower and defences (Alcock 1995). From these, and his readings of historical texts, Alcock (1972: 23) concluded that, ‘my own historical researches during the course of the excavation brought me to the position [of] the affirmation of Arthur [at Cadbury Castle during the Early Medieval period]’. This is not the place to assess Alcock’s conclusions (cf. Dumville 1977), but to assess the implications of these investigations within their historical context.

On a disciplinary level, the CRC investigation can be seen to reflect the incoherence of thought in medieval archaeology as it responded to processual developments (Gerrard 2003: 173). This lead to neglected or delayed engagement in the theorisation of such materials by considering ‘unscientific’ data, such as historical documents and oral traditions, as having some kind of historical basis whilst at other times such data was rejected altogether with a similar lack of considerations (cf. Hodges 1982). However, the project did reflect the ‘positivistic’ attitude of archaeological researchers at the time, who believed that the use of such material was only valid within an exercise ascertaining its veracity.

On a wider contextual level, the instigation and conduct of the CRC investigation took place within a post-War Britain that sought to distance itself from its Germanic heritage (Higham 2002: 27–28; Simpson 2001: xi; Utz 2006: 36). Arthur was thus an ideal figure to reconnect with, since he was a ‘British’ or ‘Celtic’ king who legendarily fought off Saxon invaders. The ‘excavation’ of this hero and his court thus affirmed this ‘native’ British heritage through physical remains (see Higham 2002: 27–28; Utz 2006) and also the legitimacy of the ‘lore of the people’, as demonstrated by Leland’s antiquarianism over 400 years ago and the excavations undertaken by Glastonbury monks nearly 800 years ago. This sovereignty of the British people over British land, through the bridging of the present with the legendary past (Utz 2006), is aptly demonstrated in the following extract from The Birth of Britain, Winston Churchill’s first volume of his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples:

And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls on. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.

(Churchill 1956: 46–47)

Here, then, Cadbury Castle, its folklore, the rationale for its excavation and the interpretations derived therefrom, became a beacon for the Britishness and ancientness of the nation, representing national unity and identity in the aftermath of threatened Germanisation. As such, although this project fell broadly outside the general trend of disciplinary thought and practice at the time, it still echoed the consciousness of these disciplines regarding their previous positions and uses, as well as the perpetuation of contemporary ideologies.

Interpretation and Meaning

The CRC investigation was funded by donations from members of the public as well as public and private charities, companies and institutions (Alcock 1972: 19) - a strategy previously employed by Wheeler at Maiden Castle (Wheeler 1943: 3). Whilst the excavation of such an intriguing hill fort may have drawn in some funding, it is unlikely that it would have attracted anything near what it did without the Arthur connection (Higham 2002: 27; Pryor 2004: 19), illustrating how the public imagination was captured by the folklore of the site. The discipline-building agendas of archaeology and folklore, however, with their emphasis on science and professionalisation, resulted in the exclusion of other voices and discouraged direct public engagement with the disciplines and their materials. The language of ‘scientific’ archaeology meant that non-specialists were excluded from understanding the work of archaeologists (cf. Hawkes 1968). In the case of boundary-work, it was implied that tradition-bearers and practitioners could not consciously analyse their own lore and were therefore ‘outside’ folklore’s boundary (Bronner 2006: 414; Briggs 2008: 99. See Bendix 1997; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1989; Stetkert 1986; Voigt 1980 for further critiques of and responses to ‘fakelore’).

By the 1980s, both folklorists and archaeologists considered current approaches within their disciplines as having little interest in the socio-political significance of the contexts in which they worked (Fox 1980: 244; Shanks and Tilley 1989; Tilley 1989). This was aptly demonstrated in Dorson’s (1962: 163) incredible claim that ‘the democracies of course do not use folklore as propaganda, but for knowledge and insight’. As Noyes (2012: 21) stated, ‘Functionalist social theory turned nationalist ideology into science by positing that the world was naturally divided into organic self-maintaining collectives’ (see also Abrahams 1993), an argument similarly levelled at processual archaeology’s environmental determinism and generalising models.

A lack of consideration around this perpetuation of the national ideal can be seen, of course, in the failure of the CRC to comment on the meaning and implications of their investigation within their particular historical contexts. Both disciplines, influenced by social theorists such as Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, moved towards the view that individuals were agents that actively responded to, and sometimes conflicted with, social structures, rather than passively adhering to and reflecting them. Functionalist and systemic approaches to their respective materials were viewed as limiting, with an emphasis on explanation rather than interpretation (see especially Bronner 2006, 2012; Shanks and Tilley 1992: 29–45). Folklorists discovered a renewed interest in material culture, considering the production and consumption of which to be an active, meaningful practice that represented the semiotics and symbolism of a particular group (Löfgren 2012: 172). This, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the work of contextual/interpretive archaeologists and views of material culture as ‘meaningfully constituted’ (Shanks and Tilley 1992: 105–117; see especially Hodder 1982, 1989). This was further reflected in the ‘performance turn’ in folklore, focussing on practices in context, and its consciousness of the contribution of historical research to resolve or address contemporary conflicts (Noyes 2012: 25–26; for example, Herzfeld 1997). Just as archaeologists noted that the past is always created in the present, whereby interpretations of the past reflect current ideologies and motivations, so archaeology can be a form of socio-political action in the present (Tilley 1989).

In considering this, both archaeologists and folklorists attempted to reinstate dialogues with the public: folklorists through practice-based approaches and archaeologists through the acknowledgement of multiple ‘pasts’ and the recognition that they were only one group out of many with interests in, and views on, the past (Collis 1999: 129). However – ironically – yet again highly theoretical post-structuralist, interpretive approaches could also be seen to be as exclusive as the structuralist-processual frameworks they criticised (Briggs 2008: 27; see Hodder 1991 attempting to remedy this in suggesting reflexive and multivocal positioning; for example, Bender et al 2007; Hodder 2000). Both, though, broadly advocated increased engagement with the public; ‘public folklorists’ noting challenges by the public and tradition-bearers to the folklorist’s ‘authority’ (Briggs 1999). One of the major critiques of such an approach to archaeology has been the charge of reducing archaeology to a hyper-relativist discourse, thus damaging the legitimacy of the subject (for example Renfrew 1989), although in practice uncritical acceptance of all interpretations is rare - if not unheard of - with archaeologists instead supporting a critical, contextual appreciation of different pasts that represent meaningful discourse (Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos 2009: 72; Shanks and Tilley 1989: 10). We can thus see immediately how folklore can figure in interpretive archaeological research.

Such reflexive, holistic and interpretative approaches in both disciplines allowed for a degree of ‘rapprochement’ between the two (Burke 2004). Archaeologists have recognised that folklore can represent a kind of ‘metaphorical history’ of the people that (re)produce it (Voss 1987) which is meaningful and symbolic. In relation to archaeological sites, these narratives can embody part of a monument’s life-history (Bender 1993, 1998; Holtorf 1997, 1998, 2005) which do not necessarily leave a material trace, but are nonetheless just as crucial to its biography (see Evans 1985: 82). They can also illustrate the role of archaeological sites within wider historical contexts. Others (for example Clark 1994) have considered how legends have arisen about archaeological sites through their physical features, or the role folklore has in the siting of archaeological monuments (Brown and Bowen 1999). Medieval archaeologists in particular have considered the role of folklore in archaeological landscape studies and how this can be incorporated into the consideration of experiential practices and world-views in the past (Franklin 2006; MacGregor 2010; Reynolds 2009; Semple 1998; Thompson 2004; see also Rippon and Gardiner 2007: 234).

Some archaeologists, particularly working in African-American contexts (Leone and Fry 1999; Powell and Dockall 1995), have employed folklore as a means of enhancing archaeological knowledge by which archaeological materials may be interpreted where ‘traditional’ archaeological avenues have failed to produce adequate explanation and interpretation. In the case of Powell and Dockall (1995), engaging with the folklore of descendent communities helped to diffuse a sensitive and potentially volatile situation, demonstrating the usefulness of folklore in public engagement and public archaeology (see also Glazier 2005; Riley et al 2005; Shankland 1999; cf. Orange and Laviolette 2010). In this vein, Matsuda (2010) has considered how both archaeological findings and folkloric narratives of a site may be presented to the local community in a way that relates archaeological interpretations whilst not discrediting the validity of their own folklore (see also Matsuda 2009: 141–142, 242–256).

Leone and Fry’s (1999) investigation of African conjuring deposits in a Virginia plantation house illustrates the mutual contribution each discipline can offer the other - not simply relating the one-sided ‘enrichment’ archaeology might gain by engaging with folklore - whilst producing an excellent analysis of such deposits. Ralph Merrifield’s study (1987) also archaeologically examined folk ritual objects, but often discussed them in terms of ‘survivals’, suggesting an archaeologist’s failure to understand how folkloristic perspectives of such materials changed. Gazin-Schwartz (2001) further considered folk objects in a reassessment of how archaeology might approach notions of ‘ritual’ and ‘the everyday’. A number of other archaeological projects have examined archaeological materials according to folkloristic semiotics (VanPool and VanPool 2009), or folk material culture in archaeological perspective (for example Herva et al 2010; Wingfield 2010). An example is the ‘The Other Within: An Anthropology of Englishness’ project (Petch et co. 2009) undertaken by the Pitt-Rivers Museum on English ethnographic objects, underscoring archaeology’s focus on tangible material culture and ethnographic object analysis. Wallis and Blain (2003; Blain and Wallis 2004, 2007) have examined material culture and ‘ritual litter’ as residual deposits of contemporary pagan groups at archaeological sites, and attempts to resolve contestations over sites between such groups and archaeologists.

Disciplinary developments and awareness of the contexts in which archaeological and folkloric research is conducted has thus led to a number of collaborations between the two disciplines, as can be seen in the examples of research outlined above and edited volumes such as Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf’s seminal Archaeology and Folklore (1999b; also Falk and Kyritz 2008; Wallis and Lymer 2001), as well as an increase in conferences and sessions exploring this theme. However, these developments are not appreciated or recognised by all. At Cadbury Castle, the most recent and on-going archaeological investigation, represented in the South Cadbury Environs Project (SCEP) (see Davey 2005; Tabor 2008), actively avoids any engagement with the folklore of the site in what can be seen as a reactionary rejection of the vast public interest in folkloric narratives linked to the site, and their perceived uselessness to a ‘proper’ archaeology of Cadbury Castle. Participants of SCEP actively battle against any references to the folklore of the site (Davey 2005: 3), focussing on the archaeologically ‘real’ and tangible. Here, the writing of the archaeology is highly romanticised, whilst the folklore is rejected on the basis of its perceived lack of historical value and the belief that it is only of interest to tourists/‘outsiders’ (see Tabor 2008). This, of course, need not be the case, since many of the tales told of Cadbury Castle are not usually considered to be ‘historical fact’, but, as we have seen, place the site within wider narrative traditions, disciplinary developments and socio-political contexts.


As we have seen in the examination of the development of the disciplines of archaeology and folklore, a detailed study of the various folk narratives about a site reveals the motivation and engagement of the reproducers of such narratives, placing the site within its wider social, political and cultural contexts, as well as understanding the mechanisms by which archaeological places acquire such folklore. We can examine the material engagements people have had with various archaeological features of a site (much of the folklore evidently generated from direct experience with such features), sometimes, but not always, tracing where these practices come from, for how long they were reproduced, and when and why they disappeared. Whilst there has been a longer convention of involving indigenous groups and their traditions in the archaeological process, folklore of non-indigenous groups, including those in western societies, post-colonial and diasporic communities, is largely ignored despite the potential they offer for the investigation of social histories in relation to archaeological remains. Folklore as archaeological data, then, can tell us about historical interactions with sites without necessarily having to consider these tales as accurate depictions of history, or ‘projecting back’ to an earlier period. This sort of approach also differs from that usually taken when examining Arthur and similar folk heroes. A consideration of such figures within archaeology often aims to assess their historicity, but we can see that a more meaningful commentary can be constructed in their examination (cf. Barczewski 2000 in literature studies).

The developments of archaeology and folklore as disciplines are, as we have seen, analogous to each other, with the theoretical, methodological and appropriative aspects of one mirrored in the other. This can be seen at a basic level by looking at the history of the two, but a deeper examination of the investigative history of a case study site such as Cadbury Castle shows that we can say much more about it than its simple ‘archaeological’ narrative, and view it within wider contexts through its folklore, which is just as important as, say, finding out what clay was used for a particular pot. Archaeology’s fear of engaging with folklore can be seen to have led to the debunking or removal of tales from the site, metaphorically taking the king away. In so doing, they remove a substantial body of archaeological data on public engagement, life-histories and meaning. Folklore need not be taken literally, but by considering how folklorists approach their own material (not so different from how archaeologists approach theirs), we can engage in a more meaningful discussion of the range of data we have on the past and present.


An earlier form of this paper was presented at the XIIIth Nordic TAG in Reykjavík, April 2013. I am grateful to the conference and session organisers and for the feedback received, particularly to Cornelius Holtorf. My attendance would not have been possible without financial assistance from the UCL Institute of Archaeology Awards and UCL Graduate School AHRC Student Conference Fund. My thanks go to the two anonymous reviewers of this paper for their helpful comments, and to Andrew Gardner for providing feedback. My gratitude also goes to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding my doctoral research, from which this paper derives.


  1. Dundes (1965: 3) suggests that a list of examples of folklore remains the most effective way of communicating its scope, and offers the following: myths, legends, tales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, greetings, leave-takings, costume, dance, drama, craft, art works, superstition, medicine, music, songs speech (colloquialisms), similes, metaphors, nicknames, place-names, poetry, epitaphs, latrinalia, limericks, playground rhymes, finger/toe rhymes, dandling rhymes, counting-out rhymes, games, gestures, symbols, prayers, recipes, market cries, commands/calls to animals, mnemonics, sealers, sayings, rituals and festivals. [^]
  2. As with many folk heroes and characters, Arthur is often connected with conspicuous landscape features, through both narratives and onomastic associations, including megalithic monuments, hill forts, Roman fortresses and medieval buildings. Inventories of these have been made by Fairbairn 1983; Glennie 1869; and Green 2009. See also Ashe 1996; Grinsell 1976; and Westwood and Simpson 2005. The figure of Arthur is often interchangeable with, or assumes the features of, other folk characters, typically giants. [^]
  3. One of the most popular ideas at this time was the notion that tales about fairies represented a memory of an earlier race of inhabitants who were overwhelmed by incoming, superior, metal-wielding peoples. These ‘fairy ancestors’, who were supposedly of much smaller stature (or subsequently diminished in stature), were forced into marginal sites such as megalithic burial chambers. This also explained why fairies were often associated with such sites and why, traditionally, fairies fear iron (see Allen 1881, following the archaeological work of Dawkins 1880). This concept was fictionalised by Allen in his 1892 short story Pallinghurst Barrow (in Luckhurst 2005; see Paphitis 2012). [^]
  4. In addition to tales of Arthur, Cadbury Castle is the location of a distinct piece of fairy lore, which appears to be no earlier than the nineteenth century, and seems to be virtually unknown today. It was said that fairies once grew and gathered corn on the hillside, and carried it up to the top. This tale is likely to have arisen from an observation and recognition of strip lynchets on the hill as remains of ancient farming practices, coupled with the earlier discovery of quern stones on the hill, as recorded by Stukeley (1724: 142). The fairies of Cadbury Castle were also said to have kept treasure inside the hill, and left it there when they departed the area, on account of the installation of the church bells. [^]


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