The discovery is a major breakthrough in archaeologists’ and historians’ understanding of the nature of dark age society. As investigations continue, it may also shed crucial new light on the currently often poorly understood political geography of post-Roman Britain.
Prior to the new research, only one final resting place of an indigenous British monarch from that time was known, along with half a dozen other potentially royal graves.
But now, at least 20 probable royal burial complexes (each containing up to five graves) have been tentatively identified – with a further 11 potentially royal burial complexes under consideration.
Most of them appear to date from the fifth and sixth centuries – a time when Britain was a patchwork quilt of dozens of small kingdoms.
In what is now the east and south of England, a whole series of these tiny states were ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings of fully or partially Germanic origin.
These mainly or partly continental-originating dynasties had acquired their lands and positions through conquest, marriage or alliances in the decades following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in around AD410.
But in the west and the north, where initially there was virtually no Anglo-Saxon penetration, the post-Roman royal dynasties that emerged were mainly Celtic ones (ie, of indigenous British or Irish-originating dynastic origin).
But, until now, virtually nothing was known about where those dark age British Celtic monarchs were buried. Although archaeologists had found nine Anglo-Saxon royal graves, only one definite indigenous British royal burial site had ever been identified.
Now new research by a leading expert on that period, Professor Ken Dark of the University of Reading and Spain’s University of Navarra, has succeeded in tentatively pushing that dark age Celtic British royal graves tally dramatically up – to between 55 and 65.
The new discoveries are in Wales, Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. The newly published research suggests that they are royal final resting places because they have very unusual designs that are quite different and clearly much more high status than the thousands of other dark age British graves. Indeed some key examples are associated with high status probably royal Celtic locations – and have similarities with Irish royal tombs.
Although the names of the monarchs buried in these graves are, on the whole, not yet known, they appear to have been kings, sub-kings or other royals associated with the British kingdoms of Gwynedd (northwest Wales), Dyfed (southwest Wales), Powys (central east Wales), Brycheiniog (modern Breckonshire) and Dumnonia (now southwest England).
Among the most important graves, those of probable over-kings have been identified at Caernarfon and in Anglesey (both in north Wales) and near Tintagel in North Cornwall.
A further 43 dark age graves have also now been identified by Professor Dark as likely royal burials in Ireland.
Unlike early Anglo-Saxon pagan royal burials, the Celtic British (and Irish) ones normally had no grave goods.
That’s because the Celtic British and Irish monarchs were Christian (and would have therefore generally regarded the use of grave goods as a distinctly pagan and thus unacceptable practice).
Unlike investigations into Anglo-Saxon tombs, the study of early Celtic British royal graves is still in its infancy – and, as a result, the names of the kings buried in them are not yet known (apart from one burial location where there is an accompanying stone inscription).
However, as research continues, it may ultimately be possible to date the graves more precisely or to determine whether their occupants were over-kings or sub-kings or princes or princesses. Associating specific graves with specific rulers may therefore become theoretically possible at some stage.
The graves, tentatively identified as royal, represent less than 0.1 per cent of British Celtic dark age burials. They are unique in that most of them have rectangular or square ditched enclosures around them – and many appear also to have had entry gates and access causeways, as well as timber posts and stone-lined pits (perhaps for commemorative libations) within the enclosures. Up to 10 metres square, some of these enclosures also appear to have been protected by fences or palisades. The graves were found over many decades – but, in most cases, archaeologists and historians had not, until Professor Dark’s newly-published research, realised their probable royal status.
Popular interest in dark age Britain has, over the years, been assisted by public fascination with the mythological or quasi-mythological figure of King Arthur.
However, the new research into dark age British royal graves is unlikely to shed any new light on that era’s most famous (and legendary) “king”.
There is, as yet, no unambiguous evidence for Arthur’s existence – and accounts of his exploits (written hundreds of years after the era associated with him) don’t even refer to him as a king, but merely as a “war leader”.
Nevertheless, the discovery of so many dark age royal graves in western Britain is likely to lead to new research that will at least help further illuminate the so-called Arthurian age (and some of the key places associated with it), even if it doesn’t shed any new light on dark age Britain’s most elusive legendary figure himself.
“Before this work, we were completely unaware of the large number of probable royal graves surviving from post-Roman western Britain. Ongoing investigations are likely to help change our understanding of important aspects of this crucial period of British history,” said Professor Dark.
The new research on early British and Irish royal graves is published this month in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.