The Chronicle Review

Treasures Not Yet Found

Jonathan Twingley for The Chronicle Review

April 08, 2013

If you look at a map of the small town in Southern England where I grew up, you will see a familiar dotted line marking the course of the Roman road from Calleva Atrebatum to Londinium. Known colloquially in those parts as the Devil's Highway, it was constructed in the first century AD during the fragile early years of the new province of Britannia. The road heads in from the west, skirting the edge of a suburban golf course before vanishing for a while beneath modern housing developments, then emerges once more as a recognizable track through the pine forests that still fill up the empty spaces of that part of Berkshire. Passing close to an Iron Age hill fort known as Caesar's Camp, the old Roman highway disappears at last beyond the orbit of my childhood knowledge.

The proximity of this road to my house led to the idea of an archaeological dig. My friend and I, suitably equipped with spades and trowels and Wellington boots, set out one Saturday morning for a distant corner of my back garden. Our plan was somewhat reminiscent of earlier efforts to dig to Australia, but by this time we were far beyond such childishness; we were sophisticated young field investigators who knew what we were about.

As I recall, my collaborator was doubtful that we would find anything of interest, but I was more optimistic. I had a theory, you see, and it was especially clever and convoluted. I had recently become a devotee of the works of Tolkien, shamelessly immersing myself in his mythic tales of Western lands fallen beneath the waves, poetical glimpses of ages long past, and powerful rings forged in the dawn of the world, awaiting rediscovery by humble mortals. In the course of my obsessive reading and rereading of these stories set in Middle Earth, I had come to imagine Southern England as the Shire, the Welsh borders as the approaches to the Misty Mountains. Why should our very own landscape not hold comparable secrets, signs and symbols of a distant enchanted history?

My scholarly detective work had convinced me that the most promising candidate for this long-lost magical era was a period commonly known as the Dark Ages, the shadowy centuries that followed the Roman withdrawal from Britain. According to one prevailing theory, this was the time when a leader known as Arthur emerged to fight off the Saxons marauding from the east. I imagined Arthur and his band of warriors flitting through the dark woodlands that had begun to encroach on the settled provincial landscape of villas and well-tended farmland. Lying in wait on the fringes of the forest, they would pick their moment to ambush the vulnerable enemy cohorts heading west on the old Roman roads.

And here we were, no more than a hundred yards distant from the Devil's Highway. Why should we not find some token of the Arthurians, perhaps even a shield or a dagger bearing the emblems of their leader? With a bit of luck, we would recover a human bone or two, evidence that we had chosen to dig in the very spot where Arthur fell in battle.

In the end, our excavation was less a dramatic unearthing of ancient Celtic relics than a lesson in local geology. Raking aside a foot or more of rotting leaves, we cut through rich layers of humus, clumpy Bagshot sand, London clay laid down 50 million years ago in a warm Eocene sea. There were tantalizing moments, to be sure: encrusted, spade-stopping objects that resolved themselves into grayish pieces of flint; rounded ceramic fragments that turned out to be pieces of old pipework, builders' rubble regretfully dated (with the help of my parents) to 1960 or thereabouts. Muddy water seeped inexorably into the hole.

Such is the life of the aspiring young archaeologist. I never did take up that line of work, nor anything like it. My bookish interests prevailed, transporting me at last by a circuitous route into a scholarly publishing job at Oxford University Press. It was while I was working at the press that I conceived the idea of writing a novel in which the true secrets of Arthur's origins would be uncovered by an enterprising archaeologist. And why not? He would just need to be lucky enough to dig in precisely the right place.

In the years that followed, as I struggled to control the willful complexities of my unfinished novel, I tried to hold on to one image that took me back to my youthful Arthurian investigations. I would often think of all that remains buried beneath the British soil, the treasures not yet found. In my mind's eye, I saw the emergent surface of ancient metal or bone presaging the recovery of some great bejewelled sword, the disinterment of a mythical king.

Such exciting finds do happen from time to time. In September 2012 a team of archaeologists dug up the twisted skeleton of King Richard III, reputed murderer of the "princes in the tower," from beneath a car park in Leicester. He was positively identified by the injuries to his skull (corresponding to historical accounts of his last moments at Bosworth Field), by the severe scoliosis in his spine, and, more definitively, by a comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of a living descendant.

King Richard is one thing, but Arthur would be a far greater prize. The search for his burial place has long been a matter of both academic and public interest. William of Malmesbury, beloved of scholars for his careful approach to the writing of history, stated in his Gesta Regum Anglorum (The Deeds of the English Kings, c. 1125) that "Arthur's grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return." I suspect it was William who put a clever scheme into the mind of the resourceful Henry of Sully, Abbot of Glastonbury. In the year 1191, monks acting on Henry's instructions uncovered a massive hollowed oak trunk containing the remains of a very tall man and his female companion. Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia, they said. Here lies buried the famous King Arthur in the isle of Avalon. It was a hoax, of course, a monkish publicity stunt designed to bring the curious flocking to Glastonbury, as they still do to this day.

Perhaps Arthur does still lie undisturbed in a quiet corner of a British field, but I must confess to a change of heart about wanting to track him down. I would prefer to reserve that privilege for my fictional protagonist, and leave the real Arthur—if there ever was such a person—undisturbed. If we were to dig everything up, we would be in danger of solving all our mysteries, turning our legendary heroes into heaps of old bones, our Camelots into crumbling stone walls, our holy grails into tarnished silver cups. Some treasures, after all, are not meant to be found.

Sean Pidgeon is vice president and publisher at John Wiley & Sons. He is the author of the novel Finding Camlann (W.W. Norton, 2013).