I was brought up and still live, if not actually in the shadow of Castle Hill, only a short walk from it – although that walk is up a steep valley side which seems to get steeper every year. The romance and mystery of the hill no doubt influenced my interest in archaeology and in 1969 I went to watch Varley’s excavation. The received wisdom then, (though I’m not sure just where I personally received it from), was that the site was a Brigantian hill fort, and probably the Camulodunum of the Romans. As such it was associated with Queen Cartimandua and the story of her betrayal of Caratacus and war with her husband Venutius, who led the Brigantes last stand against the Romans at Stanwick.
Varley’s work in the early 70s produced radio carbon dates which forced a radical re-think of this colourful history. They pointed to an ironage occupation which ended in the late 5th century BC with the burning of the ramparts (Varley 1976). Consequently, there was no evidence of occupation at the time of the Roman invasion. The story of Cartimandua also went up in smoke, along with any claim that the site was of sufficient importance to be Camulodunum.
Despite this the association with Camulodunum persisted and in 1983 the Huddersfield Examiner printed an account of the hill claiming that Camulodunum was the site of King Arthur’s Camelot, and that the Anglian name of Huddersfield, Uther’s Field, was derived from Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur. (Huddersfield Examiner 28 January 1983) The speculation about Uther was current at least by the late 19th century, when D F E Sykes alluded to it in his monumental History of Huddersfield and its’ Vicinity (Sykes 1898. 28) The Examiner’s fabulous excursion into local history was dismissed by John H Rumsby, (then curator of Tolson Museum), in his chapter on Castle Hill in Huddersfield a Most Handsome Town published in 1992, (Haigh ed. 1992), where, regarding this and other local legends generated by the site, he concluded: ‘It is not surprising that Castle Hill has had the power to inspire fantasy.’ Some of this fantasy resurfaced during the bitter arguments about the future of the monument following the unauthorised demolition of the pub in 2002 which had stood there since the mid 19th century.
In 2005 in Huddersfield –a History and a Celebration, published by Frith in their series of popular photographic histories of British towns, I wrote what I thought was the 21st century’s epitaph on the fanciful story of the hill, declaring as unequivocally as possible, ‘Archaeological excavations have failed to reveal any occupation by Britons at the time of the Roman or the Anglian invasions – both Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes and King Arthur have been dethroned.’ (Kipling & Brooke 2005.12) By now, with both the academic evidence freely available on the internet and the notice it had received in two widely read local histories, one would have thought that the stranger flights of fevered imaginations had been exorcised for good.
Then came 2016 when two new claims for Camulodunum as the Camelot of Arthur appeared within months of each other, the last one apparently oblivious of the first. This time however it was not Castle Hill which was endowed with the honour, but the Roman fort and associated civilian ‘vicus’ at Slack, near the village of Outlane.
Camelot Found ?
On 2 Apr 2016 the Huddersfield Examiner splashed the sensational story over the front page under the flippant banner headline ‘King Arthur & t’Knights of Outlane?’ ‘ That’s the stunning verdict of a new book entitled Pennine Dragon: The Real King Arthur of the North.’ Simon Keegan, ‘…believes that the old village of Slack, which was home to the structure where Outlane Golf Club and its car park now stand, used to be called Camulod in Roman times.’ Perhaps, since the body of Richard III had been found under a car park, the Examiner considered it quite feasible that King Arthur, or at least his des res, may lay under one. Mr Keegan is a tabloid journalist, (coincidentally with the same group that produces the Examiner), a profession renowned for not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. His book is indeed packed with ‘facts’ and, as Mr Keegan showed on his brave visit to a meeting called by Huddersfield Civic Society, he is an enthusiastic devotee who genuinely wants to discover the real Arthur. However, he presents the ‘facts’ of his case in a disjointed, unstructured way, based on assertions rather than critical analysis. Nor is the ‘evidence’ backed up by any detailed referencing or bibliography. His style is exemplified by this extract available on the internet,
‘The settlement at Slack, near Huddersfield, may have its origins in the impressive Iron Age hillfort of Almondbury, only five miles away. Like modern Colchester, the Romans established a small military fort there and named it Camulodunum after the ancient Celtic War-God, Camulos.’
Within the real King Arthur’s kingdom was a fortress called Camulodunum – surely proof that we have identified King Arthur of Camelot.
Until recently Slack was thought to be a fairly minor Roman fort abandoned in the third century but new evidence has come to light that it was once a magnificent fortress, with giant amphitheatre and water spring, and was occupied until Arthur’s times.’
This short passage alone contains a series of factual errors and non-sequiturs which reveal that the foundations of Mr Keegan’s Camelot are built on something less substantial even than sand.
- There is no evidence that Castle Hill was ever called Camulodunum.
- There is no evidence for a small Roman fort there.
- Even if there was, this does not mean that the Slack fort was also called Camulodunum.
- The ‘real Arthur’s kingdom’ is just an unproven hypothesis which he uses to sustain another unproven hypothesis.
- Even if there was a place called Camulodunum it does not constitute ‘proof’ of Arthur’s Camelot.
- There is no evidence for ‘a magnificent fortress’ at Slack or a ‘giant amphitheatre’. The archaeology shows a standard auxiliary cohort fort with an external circular structure for equestrian training and displays.
- There is is no evidence that Slack was a major settlement after the fort lost importance in the 2nd century, although people may have lived there until the 4th century, nor any evidence that Slack was occupied until ‘Arthur’s times’, which Mr Keegan places around 500 AD.
In his talk at Huddersfield Mr Keegan conceded that the evidence was not cut and dried, but it has apparently not encouraged him to revise his views. When an even more tenuous claim that Slack was Camelot surfaced in December 2016, he hailed it as further proof of his own conclusions.
Again, it was the Huddersfield Examiner (19 December 2016) which announced the revelation , ‘ In a lecture at Bangor University Professor Peter Field appeared to solve a mystery dating back almost 1,500 years when he located King Arthur’s mythic base at the old village of Slack, near Outlane, in a parcel of land close to the M62 motorway’. The national dailies then picked up on the story, one of the more sensible, the Independent on line, reporting Prof Field as saying ‘The more I think of this at Slack, the more advantages I think it has got. It really seems to be the right place. It just stands out…It was quite by chance. I was looking at some maps, and suddenly all the ducks lined up…I believe I may have solved a 1,400-year-old mystery. ..The Romans called the fort at Slack “Camulodunum”, which means “the fort of the god Camul” and could be where the name Camelot comes from.’
Camelot Lost !
Whereas Mr Keegan claims to be no more than an Arthurian enthusiast, Prof Field, in the strangely few internet references to him, is referred to as ‘an expert in Arthurian literature’ and a retired Emeritus Professor of Bangor University. How someone who claims to be a lifelong ‘expert’ in Arthurian literature has only this year come to look at Roman place name evidence astounds me – then, having ‘found’ Camulodunum, has not looked at the mass of literature on the subject since William Camden, or gone back to the ancient sources. He does not seem to realise that the place name evidence itself is highly controversial, and that the placing of Camulodunum at Slack on the OS Map of Roman Britain is not based on any evidence. When, confronted with the archaeological evidence following a press release by the Huddersfield and District Archaeological Society (Huddersfield Examiner 29 December) his response was patronising and dismissive,
‘I took the trouble to find out what the archaeology was while I was working up my paper, and I’m not at all surprised…When I say ‘Camelot’, I don’t mean something off a film set, with a castle or a city or both, with battlements and moats and drawbridges. I just mean a real place called Camelot that was associated with a probably real war-leader called Arthur. What might have been there comes later, and I very much hope the archaeologists will try to work it out. He might have kept a detachment there, who could have been living in tents, which the Roman army made out of leather. Their successors may have, too. How much would that leave for archaeologists to discover?’
Not only does he imply that local archaeologists were stupid enough to think he meant a mediaeval Castle, but also that it is up to them to ‘try to work it out’, not for him to prove his theory. In the same breath he back-pedals so far that Arthur’s Camelot, once of such fame that it survived in memory and folk lore for over 600 years until rediscovered by Chretien de Troyes, is reduced to a few tents in a field !
His retreat continued in the North Wales Chronicle, ‘ I am not arguing for a Disney-like city and castle with battlements, just for an extemporized base in the ruins of an abandoned Roman fort…The evidence is not enough to be certain of anything and it does not mean Arthur was born there or buried there but it means the people who told the old stories, looking back nostalgically, to older tales, saw that it was his place. Legends of Arthur have been linked to so many areas, from Edinburgh, to Wales, to Tintagel.’
Not only are Prof Field’s ducks dead in the water but also his Camelot has proved to be a castle in the air, which has dissolved before the first breeze of archaeological criticism. However, the national newspapers which carried the original story about the Yorkshire Arthur don’t appear to have carried this semi-retraction and so the seeds of modern mythmaking have been planted in the popular imagination. Does it matter ? Does a bit of speculation do any harm ?
Archaeology and history rely for their evolution, and occasional revolution, on people formulating theories which can then be tested by further research. A good theory leads to fruitful research and the emergence of new theories. A bad theory leads only to a dead end where nothing new is discovered and no new conclusions arrived at. A theory has to be based on evidence as it is understood at the time. If it actually flies in the face of evidence, or claims evidence where none exists, it is not a theory, but merely a folly, if not a fraud. The fact is that there is currently no evidence for identifying Slack as Camelot, or believing that such evidence will come to light in the future.
Glyn Daniel, for 30 years the editor of the journal Antiquity, made a practice of sniffing out and dissecting what he dubbed, ‘frauds, fakes, forgeries and follies’ in archaeology. He defrocked modern day druids and their spurious links with Stonehenge and ridiculed ley liners. He delved into Piltdown, and tenaciously queried the authenticity of the mysterious finds from Glozel, the Kensington (Minnesota) rune stone and some of the cave paintings of Rouffignac. He concluded that self delusion was a powerful factor in the promotion of, and adherence to, crackpot theories, whether of the more outlandish Von Daniken kind, or more down to earth archaeological impostures. It sedated people with the ‘comforts of unreason’ that sustained their own narrow world view.
Should we, like Glyn Daniel, combat such follies, or should we just leave people to enjoy them? I have no objections to latter day Druids and Pagans indulging in whatever rites and ceremonies they want – so long as they make clear that these are their modern beliefs and don’t claim that they are authentically representing the religions and practices of the past. I have nothing against Arthurians who speculate about the whereabouts of the Holy Grail and Camelot. But when they claim to have found such things it is a different matter. Their subjective opinions take on the strength of objective facts, especially when the claim is widely disseminated by the mass media, with the potential to mislead thousands of people. Then a harmless folly becomes a fake since, as Glyn Daniel pointed out, – a fake only becomes a fake when it is claimed as genuine. Planting a false meme in the narrative of archaeology is as bad as planting a fabricated artefact in an excavation.
(Daniel, Glyn, Writing for Antiquity (Thames & Hudson 1992) ‘frauds’ etc, p.171, the ‘comfort of unreason’ p.41,61,65,71 ).
The point of archaeology and history is to try and arrive at an understanding of how human societies and cultures have evolved to create what we have today. The evidence is such that our understanding will always be limited to some degree or other. Misinformation that provides a diversion from the actual evidence only makes the task of understanding historical processes more difficult. One of the most obscure periods in our history is that formerly known as the Dark Ages – the disintegration of the institutions of the Roman Empire and the emergence of new cultures and societies resulting from the movement of people across the British Isles. The identification of Slack with Camelot does nothing to add to our knowledge or understanding of that period. If Mr Keegan and Prof Field had come up with suggestions of how to test their theory by excavation it would be a different matter.
The dispute about the ‘northern Camulodunum’ and whether this was in fact Cambodunum and if so where was its location, has exercised antiquarians, historians and archaeologists since Camden’s time. The second part of this article will examine how theory and practical research have interacted over the centuries to help our understanding of the Romans in the Huddersfield area, even though the questions which stimulated that research have still not been answered.