THE GRAVE OF ARTHUR
It is not my purpose in this chapter to deal with what I consider to be the misidentification of
Glastonbury with Avalon. Others have presented a detailed case against the fraudulent claim of
Glastonbury as the final resting place of King Arthur, and I added some of my own arguments in my previous book, The Mysteries of Avalon.
Here I wish to restrict my attention to the only known place in Britain to actually have born the name Avalon prior to the time of Arthur as well as to this place’s proximity to both Arthur’s Camlann at Castlesteads and his possible ruling center towards the west end of Hadrian’s Wall.
Obviously, the possible location of his grave at
Avalon is of great interest to anyone seeking to demonstrate the reality of a historical Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Insula Avallonis’ or ‘Isle of Avalon’ is held by most Arthurian scholars to be a purely mythological designation - no matter where one chooses to localize it.
From a philological standpoint, the –on terminal of Avallon or Avalon demands an original terminal fronted by a broad vowel. Thus there is a problem trying to equate the word with Welsh afallen, ‘apple tree’, or Cornish avallen. This problem can be overcome in two ways: 1) by evoking an attested Continental place-name, e.g. Aballone, modern Avallon, in France or by 2) allowing for the possibility that the plural form of Welsh afal, afalau, cf. Cornish avalow and Breton avalou, at some point underwent a fairly common miscopying of u/w as n.
As it happens, the only known site in all of Roman Britain to bear an ‘Avalon’ name is the Aballava fort at Burgh-By-Sands, 5. miles west of Stanwix on Hadrian’s Wall. This fort is under
14 miles west of Castlesteads. The name Aballava is found listed in the various early sources in the following forms:
Aballava – Rudge Cup and Amiens patera
Aballavensium – RIB inscription No. 883
Avalana, Avalava – Ravenna Cosmography
Aballaba – Notitia Dignitatum
It is the one spelling in the Ravenna Cosmography that stands out here. The v of Aballava/Avalava has been rendered as an n, yielding the spelling Avalana. This is exactly the type of spelling we would need to end up with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latinized Avallonis.
The Celtic derivational suffix –ava of Aballava,
British *-aua, is now found in the –au of Welsh, giving as a meaning for Insula Avallonis ‘Island
of the Apple-trees’.
An Arthur who fell at Camlann/Camboglanna at
Castlesteads could easily have been carted along the Roman road or brought down the river system in this region to Burgh-By-Sands.
Camboglanna is on the Irthing, a tributary of the
Eden River. The Eden empties into the Solway
Firth very near Aballava/Avalana.
Two dedications to a goddess Latis were made at the Birdoswald Roman fort, 7 miles east of Castlesteads, and at Aballava. The first (RIB 1897) is addressed to DIA LATI and the second to DEAE
LATI. Latis comes from a British root similar to Proto-Celtic *lati-, ‘liquid, fluid’, and Proto-Indo- European *lat-, ‘wet’. Some authorities have seen in her a goddess of beer (cf. Old Irish laith, ‘ale, liquor’), but here she is manifestly a goddess of open bodies of fresh water, i.e. she is a literal ‘Lady of the Lake’. Burgh-By-Sands was, in fact, surrounded by vast marshlands. Although these lands have long since been drained, the area is still called ‘Burgh Marsh’. We can be fairly certain, then, that the Avalon fort was on an island of sorts, the true ‘Insula’ of Geoffrey of
Monmouth’s apple-tree Otherworld.
Topography dictated the position of the Aballava fort. There was an important crossing of the Solway at Burgh and the existence of this crossing may have influenced the siting of the Roman fort here. The fort sits atop a low hill on the highest ground at the east end of the village. The church sits within the south-east corner of the fort and is partly built of Roman stones. The modern road lies on the line of the Wall. Burgh is one of the least explored and understood of all the forts on the Wall. Although earlier visitors presumed a fort here, no remains were visible.
Excavations north of the church in 1922, when a new burial ground was formed, resulted in the location of the east wall, 6-7 ft thick, with an earth backing, and the east gate of the fort, with a road leading out. Within the fort, stone buildings running north-south were interpreted as barracks-blocks. The Roman levels and buildings were all badly preserved.
The sketch plan of the site prepared on the basis of these discoveries suggests a fort measuring 520 ft north-south by 410 ft east-west, giving an area of nearly 5 acres. Excavations on several occasions between 1978 and 2002 south and east of the fort has led to the discovery of buildings, presumably of the civil settlement. The bath-house, south of the fort, was destroyed in making the canal, itself replaced by the railway line, now also abandoned. Further south, the tombstone of a Dacian tribesman may indicate the location of the cemetery. Recent excavations have failed to clarify the location, size and date of the Wall fort at Burgh. We do know the stone fort lay astride the Wall, but the Wall ditch was infilled and re-cut before it was constructed. It is possible that the fort to the south of the Wall at
Moorhouse was retained for some time before being succeeded by a replacement astride the Wall.
As stated above, the actual Roman period cemetary at Burgh-By-Sands/Aballava is said have been to the south of the fort. When I enquired about the tombstone of the Dacian tribesman found in this cemetery, Tim Padley at the Tullie
House Museum in Carlisle informed me of the discovery of two other fragments. All three are listed in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain as follows:
IVL PII... TINVS CIVES DACVS
2047 (tombstone) D M S
2048 (tombstone) VII
Alas, according to Mr. Padley, the placement of the cemetary to the ‘south of the fort’ puts it, in his words, ‘near the vallum, possibly destroyed by the canal and railway.’
The tombstone fragments were in the care of Tullie House when they disappeared.
While it is impossible to know whether Arthur was buried in the Roman period cemetary of the Aballava fort, this cemetary must remain a primary candidate for the location of his grave.