A four-year study has dramatically rewritten the history of Glastonbury Abbey, said to be the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the site of the earliest Christian church in Britain.
King Arthur's grave, allegedly found by monks in 1181, is nothing but a pit filled with rubble, say the researchers. And the church was not founded by Jesus's disciples in the first century A.D., but was built by medieval monks to raise cash.
Faced with a financial crisis when their abbey was destroyed in a fire in 1184, the creative monks rebuilt the abbey to look older and mystical. To draw on Arthurian legends, they even crafted a fake burial cross with the name of the king.
"The monks needed to raise money by increasing the numbers of visiting pilgrims – and that meant keeping the myths and legends alive," team leader Roberta Gilchrist, professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, UK, said.
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Gilchrist and colleagues reexamined and reinterpreted all known archaeological records from excavations at the site between 1904 and 1979, none of which have ever been published.
"Dig directors were led heavily by Glastonbury's legends and the occult. Using 21st century technology we took a step back from the myth and legend to expose the true history of the Abbey," Gilchrist said.
Her team carried out chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal, and pottery artifacts held in the Glastonbury Abbey Museum, and undertook a new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds.
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They also reexamined the work of British archaeologist Ralegh Radford who excavated the site in the 1950s and '60s.
Radford claimed to have discovered a Christian British cemetery, a Saxon cloister that was believed to be the earliest in England, as well as the location of King Arthur's grave, allegedly discovered by the Glastonbury monks.
But Gilchrist's analysis disputes his finding. Foundations revealed the walls do not line up and are unlikely to be those of a cloister, and the graves Radford dated to be "Dark Age" in fact date to later than the Saxon church and cemetery.
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Moreover, the site of Arthur's tomb turned to be a pit in the cemetery containing material dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, with no evidence linking it to the era of the legendary king.
"It's likely the judgement of excavators like Radford was clouded by the Abbey myths. They were also less critical of historical sources than we are today and did not have the luxury of 21st century technology," Gilchrist said.
Further analysis has also showed how the monks crafted the early Christian tales to restore the Abbey to its former glory after the devastating fire.
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"We found evidence that the monks laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasize the ‘earliest church' story," Gilchrist said.
She noted the monks deliberately designed the church to look older in order to validate its ancient heritage and preeminent place in monastic history.
"They used archaic architecture style and reused material to emphasize the Abbey's mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers – and the Abbey's coffers," Gilchrist said.
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Indeed, the monks' strategy paid off. Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages.
"Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot's lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister," Gilchrist said.
But it's not all bad news for Glastonbury Abbey.
The study found evidence the site was occupied 200 years earlier than previously estimated and housed an important complex of five glass furnaces radiocarbon dated to about AD 700.
"This represents the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England," Gilchrist said.