Glastonbury Abbey: fact and fiction

FACT: Glastonbury Abbey existed in the Middle Ages and still does – to a certain extent.

FICTION (maybe): King Arthur and his two-timing wife, Guinevere, were buried there.

First let’s distinguish between myth, legend and fiction Myth never happened (trust me – e.g. Greek and Roman gods, 6 headed monsters, one-eyed ogres  … actually, I do know someone who might fit that description); legend may have happened (e.g. Geoff Hurst’s 1966 World Cup 2nd goal did go over the line); fiction didn’t happen but some fiction is based on legend (e.g. politicians are honest). Get it? So, legend has it that Glastonbury Abbey was built on the site of a wattle and daub church erected by Joseph of Arimathea when he visited the town with the young boy, Jesus. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph revisited Glastonbury (or the island of Avalon as it was then) with the Holy Grail and buried it below the great hill of Tor – now the site of the Chalice Well.


Hill of Tor, Glastonbury

Chalice Well, Glastonbury, England_JPG

Chalice Well at the bottom of Tor Hill

Fiction (as legend) then moves forward to AD 540(ish) and the death of King Arthur. He was reputedly taken, mortally wounded, by boat to Avalon. There he died and was buried – at Glastonbury in the ancient burial ground (3 on plan), maybe.


morte d’Arthur (‘so long Art’)

Fact and fiction merge: In 1190 it is recorded that the monks dug up a grave in a cemetery just south of the Lady Chapel (not to mention St Dunstan and Galilee chapels) at Glastonbury Abbey. It contained two skeletons, male and female, and they were deemed to be Arthur and Guinevere. It is not clear what happened to them at that time, but in 1278 they were reburied in a black marbled tomb in the Choir/Chancel of the Nave before the High Altar. King Edward I was present, so it must be true (must it? Bit like reading the Sun or the Daily Mail). After the vandalising of the Abbey in 1539 the bones were no longer to be found.

Plan of Glastonbury Abbey (north at top) (shaded red is what remains)

 glast 1

Toby pointing out the site of King Arthur’s first burial place …. maybe (looking north with Lady Chapel in background)


King Arthur’s tomb of 1278 in the Chancel (looking east, High Altar chain-linked in background with ruins of Edgar Chapel behind that)

Back to fact: The first stone church at the site of the Abbey was built by the Saxon King, Inde, in AD 712 and it was enlarged (the cloisters) by Abbot Dunstan in 940. In 1077, after the Norman invasion, this church was destroyed and replaced with a larger one by Abbot Thurstin. Then, between 1100-1118, Abbot Herlewin demolished this church and built the main Abbey. The Domesday Book of 1086 records it as the richest monastery in the country. The building was destroyed by fire in 1184 and rebuilt. Historical records tell us that rebuilding went on until 1524 and the archaeology gives physical evidence of these previous buildings. The Abbey was finally ransacked in 1539 after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII (there’s someone who had a lot to answer for). Regardless, the remains of the Abbey are well worth a visit.glast4

Interior of Lady Chapel (looking east)

glast 3

Nave and Central Tower remains (looking east)

And, of course, Caburn Castle is Camelot …… (it said so in the Sun – or was it the Daily Mail)



Next week: The develoment of societies with archaeological interests

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

met an old American friend of mine the other day in the bar of London hotel of some note. It was Douglas Fairweather Jnr, a famous actor over from Hollywood. He was slumped over a whisky.

“Hi Dougie, what’s the problem?” I enquired detecting a state of morose.

“I’ve come over to make a movie of The Merchant of Venice and they want me to play Shylock.” He responded in some despair.

“But that’s excellent old boy,” I retorted with much enthusiasm, “What’s the problem?”

He replied, “But I want to play the Merchant.”


U-boats: U-671 and U-413 and the sinking of HMS Warwick

WE KNOW where most of the Second World War U-boat wrecks lie and how they met their watery graves but life histories can sometimes add to their memories.  I had the good fortune of speaking to Lt-Cdr Henry Lehmann RN rtd who served on HMS Wensleydale as a Petty Officer, under the ship’s Captain, Lt-Cdr Goodfellow RNVR, when she was involved in the sinking of two U-boats, U671 and U413 in August 1944. Both have been dived and identification confirmed by Innes McCartney (Lost Patrols, Periscope Publishing, 2002). Henry was able to give me first hand accounts of his recollection of the encounters together with the demise of HMS Warwick (this is an edited version and I have added the pics):


HMS Wensleydale


“On the 5th August 1944, we were off Normandy protecting landing craft and heard that HMS Stayner had contact with a U-boat some miles off Beachy Head, on the Sussex coast but, I think, it had run out of depth charges/hedgehogs. I was in the plotting room receiving information from the Asdic operator. We lost contact after our second attack but picked it up again shortly afterwards. A final depth charge attack was made and the U-boat was destroyed. We picked up four survivors but one died. Stayner rescued another one. Although a sad loss of life, it was satisfying to take out one of these menacing machines. If we had not have destroyed him, he may have done for us one day.


Lt Wolfgang Hegewald, captain of U-671, sadly died when she was sunk

“The Asdic operator was awarded the DSM and I was ‘mentioned in despatches’ for our part in regaining contact with U671 and our Captain received the DSC. On returning to Portsmouth the crew received shore-leave for the day and night as a reward – always a welcomed gesture.’

 HMS Warwick

“It was Sunday, 20th February 1944, around midday, off Trevose Head, north Cornwall. I was standing beside the middle machine gun mounting on the shelter deck of Wensleydale, smoking my pipe, when I saw a destroyer approach. It was HMS Warwick. I gave her a cheer and a wave. When she was some 100/200 yards astern, I saw a small mushroom of smoke rise from her followed, a split second later, by an explosion. Warwick had been hit by a U-boat. Men began jumping overboard and we turned in her direction. I moved to the stern guards and saw she had slowed down and began to settle by the stern. The stern and after compartments broke away with both propellers still turning and with the ‘A’ brackets to which they were attached, it floated along the starboard side of the ship, passing the bridge before sinking some distance forward of the ship. Warwick, itself, sank after about ten minutes.


HMS Warwick

“We approached the men in the water but suddenly turned away. In the space of a few minutes we had received a message from Mount Wise, HQ Plymouth, to rejoin and protect the convoy. As I turned to run to my action station I saw the track of a torpedo coming towards us. It missed us by 30 feet – luck was on our side at that moment. The survivors from the Warwick were later picked up by a Belgium trawler but the U-boat escaped.


Crew of Wensleydale – Henry is third row back, last man on the left (with beard)


U413 was responsible for the sinking of HMS Warwick and she had sunk the Warwick Castle two years earlier and so was certainly a target to be found and destroyed. It was the 20th August 1944, at around 0900, when we were again off the Normandy coast and asked to assist HMS Forrester who had located the U-boat. We rendezvoued around mid-channel off the coast of Brighton in Sussex, not far from where we had sunk U671. I believe Forrester had fired her depth charges and had missed but HMS Vidette had followed up with hedgehogs and succeeded in hitting the U-boat.


HMS Vidette

“At the time, I was at the plotting table in the wheelhouse, oil had been spotted and we were following its course. Naturally we were at action stations. As we were making an approach on the U-boat, I heard a shout, ‘man in water’. The attack stopped whilst he was rescued. He turned out to be Karl Hutterer, the U-boat’s Chief Engineer. He was questioned and tried to convince our Captain that the U-boat had been destroyed. It is possible that he genuinely believed this may have been the case which would have accounted for his decision to escape from the submarine alone.


Karl Hutterer, sole survivor of U-413

“However, our Captain did not accept this and the attack continued. Wensleydale dropped four pattern depth charges. I moved out of the wheelhouse into the open, heard a massive explosion and saw the largest fire flash on the sea that I have ever seen. Masses of paper came to the surface, some of which, I later heard, were confidential documents. I also saw large pieces of debris rise from the depths indicating severe damage to the U-boat.


Ob-Lt Dietrich Sachse, captain of U-671, died when she was sunk

“Sadly, there were no other survivors and we returned, with our single prisoner, to Portsmouth. Our Captain was mentioned in despatches but the crew received no shore-leave reward this time. However, the Warwick could now rest easy.”

Also sadly, Henry died the year before last (2012) at the age of 93 but his memory and oral history live on.


Henry with the ‘recovered’ Wensleydale ensign in 2008


Next week: Glastonbury Abbey: fact and fiction

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

One of my students had cancelled his tutorial due to sickness. I then happened to notice in the following day’s local paper a photo of him having won a golfing tournament the very day he alleged sickness. I called him to my office, showed him the newspaper and asked for an explanation. Without a falter he replied, “I think I was lucky. Just think of the score I could have got had I not been sick.”

Art Smth

Tutankhamun – road traffic incident or what?

DID YOU KNOW that Forensisis is Latin for forum and in ancient Rome the forum was where many matters, including law and justice, were discussed.  Pathos and logia are ancient Greek for suffering and study of respectively.  The definition of forensic pathology is, therefore, the study of bodies for both medical and legal purposes.


Naturally, one of the tasks of a forensic pathologist is to discover the cause of death of a deceased and to decide whether foul play was involved.  With Tutankhamun such a study proved somewhat confusing over the years.

In a Channel Four television programme, Tutankhamun Exhumed, x-rays in 1968 of Tut’s skull suggested that he had been killed by a blow to the back of the head – evidenced by a hole in his occipital (back of lower head).  Murder most foul?  Of course.  End of story …… or was it?


                                                              Back of Tut’s head

Well, maybe not.  Fortunately the whole of the skeleton, although damaged (by Howard Carter when he removed it in 1922) was mostly intact, and a CT scan by Dr Zahi Hawass, in March 2005, showed that the hole in the skull was not the cause of death. It has since been established that inside the hole there are traces of embalming fluid and so it was most likely part of the original mummification process, ca 1323 BC.

Picture2           Picture4

Howard Carter examining Tut in 1922               Dr Zahi Hawass (left) and CT scan in 2005

Hawass found evidence of a fracture in the lower femur (thigh bone) just above the knee. The bone had been completely broken and unhealed, with a fragment of torn skin evident. This may have been the result of a blow to the leg in battle, perhaps (or careless cooking incident). This, in turn, may have caused an infection (possibly gangrene) and death. More recent DNA analysis (2010) has identified malaria in Tut’s system. End of story …… or was it?


                                                               Tut’s leg bones

Now we know Tut was a warrior because we have ancient paintings of him in action (below). So, was the above leg break anything to do with a sword wound in a battle that he may have been involved in?  Maybe.

tut 2

The warrior Tut

But a further investigation of his skeletal remains in 2012 indicate a more calamitous possibility.  Firstly, a re-review of his 1968 X-rays show that he had several left and right ribs missing, no sternum (front bone of rib-cage), missing left side of pelvis, and no heart (see virtual autopsy pic below).  The heart was usually removed but buried with the body in a separate cask.  The fact that there was no heart in a cask may imply that it was so badly damaged that it was discarded, along with the ribs and left pelvis.  Such damage must have been the result of a very serious incident, although there were no injuries to the skull.  This information was revealed in another Channel Four documentary,  Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy, presented by Dr Chris Naunton in 2013.  It concluded that Tut may have fallen from his chariot and was ‘run-over’ by another chariot  –  in battle?

tut 3             tut4

Virtual autopsy pic           Chariot causing damage consistent with tut’s injuries                                                   (pics from TV prog)

A pressure test was carried out to show that if a chariot wheel hit the rib bones at the speed of 26 mph, the break and bone fragments would be serious enough to cause critical damage to organs behind ribs.  It could also account for the break to the femur (just above the knee).  The wheel would have missed the head, hence no injuries to the skull.

Perhaps it wasn’t a battle but just a road traffic accident – I’m sure they had bad chariot drivers in those days ……


Stop that chariot right there!



A more recent TV programme on the BBC of Tut suggested that he was in no fit state to drive a chariot due to a deformity in his foot which may have been a genetic disorder which he ‘inherited’ due to incest in the family (his mum and dad may have been brother and sister – keep the power in the family). A computer ‘virtual autopsy’ of the mummy revealed a possible club foot and also that he may have suffered from a severe form of epilepsy which could have caused the fall that resulted in his death – perhaps. The clubfoot would certainly account for all the walking sticks found in his tomb. The programme, however, did not address the issue of his missing pelvic and rib bones or the images of him firing a bow ans arrow form his chariot (poetic licence maybe)..

Tut with clubfoot


Next week: Back to submarines – but this time U-boats ….. U-671 and U-413 and the sinking of HMS Warwick



Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My colleague, Professor Waldorf Winklebatt, was stopped by the police around 2 a.m. the other night and was asked where he was going at that time of night. Waldorf replied, “I am on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse, smoking and the effects of staying out late on the human body.” 

The officer then asked, “Really? And who is giving that lecture at this time of night?” 

Waldorf replied, “That would be my wife.”

Art Smth

Spartacus: Hollywood fact or fiction?

“I’M SPARTACUS.  No, I’m Spartacus …. and so is my wife”.  So who was Spartacus? First of all I’m not talking about the TV series – which, what little I have seen of it, is a load of hocus pocus – but that’s only to be expected. I’m talking about the 1960 Hollywood film. Did Spartacus actually exist or was he  just a character of Hollywood invention to boost Kirk Douglas’ macho image? (see film trivia at the end for this latter observation).

spartacus poster

Admittedly the film was based on a novel, Spartacus, by Howard Fast (in fact, there have been at least five novels about him – Spartacus, not Fast) but, yes, Spartacus existed but he wasn’t THE leader of the slaves – there were at least two others, Crixus and  Oenomaus, and possibly two more,  Gannicus and Castus, but none of them had such a good PR agent as Spartacus.


Howard Fast (1914-2003)

We have three main ancient sources of Spartacus: Plutarch (c. AD 46 – 120), see his Crassus; Lucius Annaeus Florus (c. AD 74 – 130), see his Epitome of Roman History; and Appian of Alexandria (c. AD 95 – 165), see his Civil Wars. According to these chaps, Spartacus was from Thrace (present day Bulgaria) and either an auxiliary in the Roman Legions or a captive from Romans wars around Thrace. Whichever, he was sold into slavery (for some misdemeanour if an auxiliary) and ended up training as a gladiator at a camp near Capua belonging to Lentulus Batiatus (wonderfully played by Peter Ustinov in the film).


Peter Ustinov (Batiatus) and Charles Laughton (fictional Gracchus) – what a great pairing!

We have no information about Spartacus prior to his escape, so the film was ‘making it all up’ – well, Howard Fast was – Hollywood just followed. In saying that, Hollywood, of course, had  a love interest in the film, Spartacus and Varina (played by Jean Simmons) and this is highly likely as gladiators were allowed female companions. What we do know for sure is that some 70 slaves escaped from the camp and, as previously mentioned, at least three leaders were appointed, Spartacus, Crixus (played by John Ireland in the film) and Oenomaus (sadly for him, ignored in the film – but he was probably killed early on in the revolt). The sources aren’t clear on the actual role of the latter two  but both were Gallic slaves and gladiators.


Nope, no documentary evidence of this fight.

Aside: Of the types of gladiators, it is believed Spartacus was a murmillo who carried 35-40 pounds of arms and armour, wearing a bronze helmet, various arm and leg guards, large oblong shield and a broad straight bladed sword (a gladius – see the sword in the film poster above). His opponent in the film (played by Woody Strode) was a retiarius who fought with a trident and a nest. In ‘real Roman life’ a murmillo usually fought a thraex who was also heavily armoured but had a short Thracian curved sword and a small round or square shield. A retiarius, usually fought a secutores who was very similar to a murmillo but with a special helmet to protect against the trident.


Zliten mosaic AD 200: left to right:  retiariuas (leg wound and broken trident on ground) fighting secutores;  thraex fighting mirmillo;  hopolmachus (with sword and spear) fighting mirmillo (latter surrendering to referee).


Yep, grubby gladiators thinking of escape ……. or looking to see what’s for supper 

The break-out from the Capua camp took place early in 73 BC. What followed was the Third Servile War (the other two were slave related, as the title may reveal, but nothing to do with this one). The gladiators began fighting for their freedom – just like the Texans at the Alamo, a few blogs back, remember? Actually, nothing like the Texans at the Alamo a few blogs back. This was really a fight for freedom.


Cause of the break-out: “I told you I don’t like soup”

 map 2

The Romans didn’t take the rebellion too seriously at first thinking it just an agitation that would soon be put down. They were wrong. Gaius Claudius Glaber was sent to crush the slaves and he besieged them at Mount Vesuvius (just south of Capua). Spartacus was a bit of a tactician (hence leading historians to believe he had had military experience) and he climbed down the mountain (not alone – with his army… ok) and took the Roman camp by surprise killing nearly all in it (I never said this was going to be pleasant). He then defeated another Roman force sent against him under Publius Varinius. By now his own army had swelled to around 70,000 (although we cannot be sure about any numbers). Rome was a bit embarrassed and in difficulties as most of its legions were away fighting in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War (Asia Minor).

slaves 1

Spartacus winning the gladiatorial relay race

What happened next, in Spring of 72 BC, is disputed by the ancient sources. Appian suggests that Spartacus and Crixus split their forces and headed south to Thuri and Metapontum respectively (we assume Oenomaus is dead by now as he no longer gets a mention by the ancient historians). Then both armies turned and moved northward to march on Rome. If this is true, one can only assume the detour south was to gain more support. Crixus, with an army of 30,000 (or it may have been only 10,000) is defeated by a Roman force under Lucius Gellius Publicola near Mount Garganus (see map below). Spartacus arrived too late to save Crixus, who is killed (in the film he is killed in the final battle – John Ireland obviously had a good agent). Spartacus then defeated another Roman army under Gnaeus Cornelius Lentullus Clodianus (known as Gnat the Clod for short perhaps?) and executed some 300 Roman soldiers to avenge Crixus’ death – I know, Kirk Douglas would not have done that. After a change of mind about an attack on Rome, he headed back south to Thuri with, by now, around 120,000 men (maybe).

john-ireland-spartacus-2 (1)

“What am I doing here?” thinks Crixus played by John Ireland

According to Plutarch, after his victory over Lentullus Clodianus, Spartacus headed north to Mutina (present day Modena) with the intention of escaping into Cisalpine Gaul. This makes some sense. Here he meets, greets and defeats an army of 10,000  under the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Gaius Cassius Longinius. He and his followers are now free to ‘head for the hills’ – well, the Alps. However, for no explained reason, Spartacus and his crew turned around and headed south again. It may be that crossing the Alps was a too daunting exercise – but why head there in the first place? Spartacus may have been aware that Pompey’s legions were in Hispania and would be heading towards him in due course if he held up in Gaul. But he must have  realised a confrontation with the Romans was inevitable.

AppienSpartacus                 Plutarch 2

The events of 72 BC according to Appian                    The events of 72 BC according to Plutarch

So, who do you believe – Appian or Plutarch? Or neither – perhaps they were both guessing. They were both writing several years after the war and relying on reports given to them and we don’t know how reliable such reports may have been. It really depends on what Spartacus’ motive was. Was he trying to escape or trying to cause as much trouble to the Romans as possible, or trying to end slavery (ambitious or what?!). We don’t know and never will, so not much point dwelling on it.


Kirk Douglas as a determined Spartacus – what was his motive?

71 BC, enter Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Oliver). He is given eight Legions (approx. 40,000 men) and told to sort out Spartacus & Co. By now the slaves are moving south and after several successful on-route skirmishes by the Romans legions, Spartacus set up camp at Rhegium (see map below). Here it’s possible (as seen in the film) he did try and do a deal with Cillician pirates (led by Herbert Lom in the film) to transport his motley mob by ship to Sicily, but he was betrayed – the pirates took his money and ran.


Laurence Olivier as Crassus


           Bust of real Crassus

Spartacus broke out of the, then, besieged camp and headed to the mountains of Petelia (present day Strongoli) near Croton (see map below). The rebel force must have have split at some stage (possible dissension in the ranks) and a group under Gannicus and Castus was defeated at  Cantenna  (modern location unknown) by part of Crassus’ army. Crasssus then turned on Spartacus and the latter soon realised that a fight was inevitable.  We don’t know how many men there were in the rebel army but an estimate of around 30-40,000 may not be far off. It’s not entirely clear where the final battle took place – see map below, but there is another belief that it took place further northwest, at Senerchia/Caposele, in Luciana, evidenced by archaeological finds of armour and weapons. Take your pick!  However, the slaves were defeated and the ancient sources say the Spartacus was killed in the action but his body was never found. Some 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified on the Appina Way (the road from Rome to Capua) as an example to rebellious slaves, but there is no suggestion that Spartacus was one of them (and, sorry, Tony Curtis’ character was Hollywood fiction).



In the film, it is suggested that the main reason for the defeat of the slaves was because Crassus was reinforced  by Pompey and his legions coming from Hispania. It was true that Pompey was on route but he was not involved in the final battle (trivia: filmed in Madrid). Crassus knew he was coming and so had to defeat the slaves before he arrived otherwise the credit for victory would go to the reinforcing general. Pompey did arrive in time to wipe out some 5,000 fleeing slaves. He kindly gave Crassus the credit for winning the battle but he (Pompey) took the credit for ending the war by wiping out the remnants of the slave army. Generous or what?! Needless to say, Crassus was none too pleased and they weren’t to be best pals.


19th century depiction of the death of Spartacus – in battle

Film trivia: Kirk Douglas was intent on making the film because he had failed to get the lead part in Ben Hur (it went to some Heston chap). Douglas was executive producer and had to hurry to find finance for it because Yul Brynner was also planning to make a film about Spartacus. Universal Studios only gave Douglas the money once he had persuaded Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (no one knew who Tony Curtis was then) to appear in the film. Good reason as any in 1960.

spartacus_95 2012

Kirk Douglas in 2012 – not bad  at 95!


Next week: Tutankhamun – death can be fatal


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Hamish McCondor had a goodly quantity of fine vintage port which he took esteem pleasure in consuming in not too delicate quantities. I am pleased to report that, occasionally, he would share a glass or two with my good self. Well, my poor colleague took ill and his doctor ordered him off the port. Weeks went by and Hamish’s health began to seriously fade and so his doctor suggested that he had better take up the port again.

“Aye, doctor”, Hamish responded, “but what about the arrears?”

Art Smth