Excalibur found in Scotland?
Excalibur, the sword in the stone, has up until recently been thought of as merely a poetical fancy by serious archeologists. This cosy dismissal has been challenged by recent work to decipher the ancient codes of the Picts. Treasure hunters are downheartened by the prospect that the fabled blade of Arthur may in fact turn out to be a Pictish artistic device carved on standing stones on the wild slopes and villages of modern Scotland.
The Abernethy Excalibur
photo © A. Descartes - used with permission
Excalibur first appears in the Arthurian mythos in 1135 with Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain' (the Arthurian section being translated and added to later in John Steinbeck's exceptional 'The Noble Acts of King Arthur and his Knights'). He stole the idea of a 'sword in the stone' from a Welsh poem of the ninth century (written at the same time as the last Pictish carvings) called 'Culhwch and Olwen' where the sword is known by the name of Caledfwlch and in an eleventh century copy as Caliburnus.
In the evidence discussed below we can illustrate how both the gritty vision of a post Romano-British warlord Artorius and a more romantic King Arthur of Camelot fame can be reconciled. It appears now that the strength of Arthur in his battles against the Saxons came from bands of Pictish warriors. And this evidence comes from the symbols of the sword carved in stone which appear still across modern Scotland.
The enigmatic symbols which grace some of the ancient stones and more recent crosses of the Scottish Highland landscape are not from the same period as the majority of other megalithic artistic devices. The spirals and axe heads common in other sites range from about 5,000 B.C.E. to about 1,400 B.C.E. Whereas the symbols relating to Pictish stones (the cresent and V-rod, the double disc and Z-rod, the Pictish elephant, the double disc, the mirror case and many others) begin to appear in the fourth century and disappear with the Picts in the ninth century when they joined with the Dal Riada Scots of the West to form the basis of Modern Scotland. It has been strongly argued that the practice of engraving stones in the Pictish manner was discontinued in an attempt to minimise Pictish nationalism within the new nation.
Less than 2% of the truly Pictish artwork on standing stones (some oghamic carving within the Pictish territory has been attributed to the Atecotti, the last aboriginal tribe of the British Isles) contains the element refered to by current historians as the tuning fork. This popular form of descriptive nomenculture has replaced the 1963 description of a 'notched rectangle with curved end'. For the better I think.
The 'tuning fork'
It has been suggested that this symbol is a representation of a ram's head. The curved top pieces forming the horns of a totemic device. I find this theory attractive but feel that it deals too specifically with too small an area of the device. As the long legs of the tuning fork are so much larger in area than the curved section it indicates (taking into account that these devices were intended to illustrate a point in easily understandable imagery) that these legs would be the element which carried the meaning of the device. If the curved end section is indeed relating to a ram's head then I believe that it would be in association or secondary to the main meaning. A tribal/clan symbol perhaps.
It has also been noted what close resemblance the tuning fork bears to a stalled chambered tomb (for an excellent example of this I can recommend no finer site than Victor Reijs' Maes Howe page with webcam bringing mystical sunsets/rises from Orkney). I don't buy into this theory for two reasons. Firstly I don't think that it is likely that people thought in 'floor plans' like we do, I can't imagine a Pictish herder or a foreign intruder looking at the device and thinking to themselves 'Blimey, that's a nice floor plan of a stalled chambered cairn.' And secondly, it's not a very good representation of a stalled chambered cairn in my opinion for the plain fact that it doesn't actually look much more like one than it looks like a timber and turf lodge with a hall at one end. I feel that the stalled chambered cairn idea bears little analysis.
The last of the 'conventional' schools of thought compares the tuning fork to a broken sword. This has been dismissed fairly out of hand by respected writers such as W.A. Cummins and others. Their issue with the tuning fork representing a sword is quite reasonable when looking at how the 'blade' is divided. Firstly if it was broken across the blade it is likely that the break would be shown with a jagged line and not the two flat ends common to the tuning fork. And secondly it is unlikely that the blade could be broken into two equal rectangular halves with a corresponding regular piece in the centre missing as that missing section is where the strength of the blade would lie. The idea that the tuning fork relates in any way to a sword has been dismissed by the studies of three of the major investigators into Pictish devices. I was prepared to take them at their word when I remembered an optical illusion from one of my nephew's puzzle books.
It was the area where the blade joined the handle that made me think of this illusion. I wondered if the Pictish artist who conjured up this design was trying to portray an image of a sword with mythological properties. This is what it does in a non-linguistic manner for me. And then I started thinking about the issues that would have been contemporary to the artist, the fall of the Roman Empire, a series of foreign invasions and most exciting of all ... Arthur.
I think that the root of the Excalibur legend could be carved on some of these Pictish stones.
There are a number of ways that the Arthurian blade could refer to the Pictish carvings. Firstly the drawing of the sword from the stone could be an allusion to an alliance made with the Picts by the Arthurian Romano-British. This was a common strategic tactic begun in the strictly Roman period and continued in the post Roman period with the settlement of the first Saxons to save the Eastern seaboard from the raiding Picts. With alliances changing daily after the fall of Rome, it is not unthinkable that even the Picts themselves might be enticed into a short term treaty. Hence an implacable enemy (the stone) is made into a valuable ally (the sword).
If the tuning fork symbol is merely an indication of clan as W.A. Cummins suggests, then the description of a sword in the stone may just indicate which of the Pictish tribes joined the British warbands. Pictish tribes, so skilled in war that they are the most feared of all his weapons. His Excalibur?
At the end of the Arthurian romantic tale, Excalibur is to be cast back into the waters when Arthur is finished. This may have a more mundane explanation than a fantastic sword being thrown back into the mystic waters of Avalon. This could in fact refer to a treaty that was made with the Picts, that they should return by their coracles, they were sea raiders after all. Also it would be unwise to have several hundred armed men walking from their battles in the south east of England all the way back to Pictland with sharp hungers and swords. Or on a darker note it could be that Arthur planned a pogrom for his allies, 'cast back into the sea'.
Finally, to the idea that the tuning fork symbol could not be a sword because a broken blade would not be portrayed with two flat ends. What if the irregular blade shape is not because the sword is broken (and the antiquarians demand that this would have one irregular end instead of two flat ends) but because it actually is a representation of a sword piercing stone. A sword in the stone, Arthur's Excalibur.
Much of the inspiration for this piece and my interest in Pictish symbols in general came from a visit to Alligator Descarte's Symbolstone site. The site editor asked me to state that they don't necessarily endorse the previous or new interpretation of the tuning fork symbol.