Did Famine Destroy ‘Camelot’?

South Cadbury Castle is well known for its suspected association with King Arthur as the site of his infamous castle, Camelot.

Excavations have shown that the site was indeed strengthened in the period formally known as the Dark Ages, at the time of the legendary Arthur. However, there is one question that remains an enigma – why was the site abandoned?

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There is no archaeological evidence that shows there was destruction or an invasion at the site of South Cadbury at the beginning of the sixth century – it simply went out of use. Its abandonment is perplexing for it was strengthened and inhabited in the fifth century as evidenced by the pottery sherds, but by the early sixth century it was uninhabited.

South Cadbury has undergone some extensive excavations, especially by Alcock (1965-1970), who tells us ‘On the basis of archaeological evidence – and there is no other – the Cadbury II occupation had come to an end before 600AD’ (Alcock 1005, 152).

The archaeological evidence he is referring to is the absence of the imported E-Ware pottery, but the presence of A and B-Ware. A-Ware dates to between 400-500AD and included bowls ‘with a cross or other motif’ (Fox 1964, 162); B-Ware dates to between 500-600AD and comprised of amphorae which held both oil (for cooking and lighting), and wine. A and B-Ware consists of both native and imported pottery, with the imports originating in the eastern Mediterranean.

E-Ware dates between 600-700AD and included native grass-marked ware and imported grey-ware with its origins in the Rhineland (Fox 1964, 162). The question then arises as to the dating of the pottery sherds and the overlap between the two types and other sites where the pottery may be found in south-western England, including any patterns that can be observed in their distribution and availability. Two other well known sites show the same pattern as South Cadbury and these are Tintagel and Congresbury.

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Tintagel also has the Arthurian connection that has been attributed to South Cadbury, so can the two sites be tied together through their dating and abandonment? Both sites have A and B-Ware but ‘lack imports of E-Ware’ (Alcock 1995, 152) suggesting that they were occupied and then abandoned around the same period.

Tintagel, at that time, was a monastic site, and imported their goods via the Mediterranean, then heading into the sixth century, Tintagel lost its economic supremacy in south-west Britain and consequently disappeared from the archaeological record until the twelfth century. Cadbury Castle, Congresbury, Glastonbury Tor and High Peak vanished at the same time’ (Alcock 1995, 152). The trade pattern seems to have changed and this may have been a result of the changing politics of the Mediterranean area at the time.

If there were no more imports the people would have needed to find a local alternative to the goods, and bearing in mind that Purchase was not the ‘natural’ way in which a household in the Dark Ages strove to satisfy its needs. Its ambition was to become as self-sufficient as possible (Grierson 1959, 128).

Imports increased along the south eastern coast, and merchants may have found these areas provided better trade than the western peoples, whose main exchange seems to have shifted to the Bristol region. Now we know that four main sites ceased to be occupied at around the same time the question arises as to why? One hypothesis would be warfare.

The Dark Ages were considered to be a part of English history where little is known except for constant raids from the continent by Germanic and other peoples trying to claim land following the withdrawal of the Romans, but the evidence for this area is lacking. Wessex was pushing its borders further west and this is one possibility, however, the Westward extension of Wessex into Somerset was part of a general wave of aggressive and expansionist activity by the English kingdom from the mid sixth century onwards’ (Burrow 1981, 14).

With dating placed during the mid sixth century it does not explain the abandonment of the other sites by the sixth century. We need to look elsewhere. With no evidence of fighting and the Wessex advance placed at a later date, it would appear that there is no other logical explanation as to the abandonment of these major sites.

There is one tiny clue that may be able to answer the question, and I emphasise the may in this statement. It is extremely small and could offer some answers but would need to be further examined. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia just after the time of the abandonment there was a possible famine in England.

The entry is given under the information relating to St. John the Almsgiver 550-616 and states, He assisted people of every class who were in need. A shipwrecked merchant was thus helped three times, on the first two occasions apparently without doing him much good; the third time, however, John fitted him out with a ship and a cargo of wheat, and by favourable winds he was taken as far as Britain where, as there was a shortage of wheat, he obtained his own price…. (Knight 2009, np).

Could the above quote give some clue as to the economic status of Britain at a time which is recorded as being one of upheaval and raids? Looking at the topographical layout, The southern and eastern parts of the area are of a lowland character consisting of calcareous Oolithic hills fronted by complex and varied Lias and alluvial deposits which provide a range of soil types (Burrow 1981, 12).

In the area around Queen Camel there are well developed limestone beds where turnips were grown in the brashy clay; wheat and beans can be cultivated in the other clay areas as well as pasture for animals.

This indicates that the production of crops was possible; however, what also needs to be considered is that some geological changes have taken place since the Roman times (Victoria County History 1906, 1-36). Could this have contributed to poor harvests during the Dark Ages? Famine was not just bought about through lack of food, you also needed the manpower to cultivate a crop. ‘The fifth century was a century of woes – raiding, wars, plagues, peasant revolts’ (Mattingly 2006, 538), all of which contributed to a fall in population, especially of males. Add to this the possibility of slight shifts in the seasons, due to climate change, and the result would be disastrous for a population of people with no centralised structure or authority in which to assist those in need. Research into the Somerset Levels area has shown that ‘a growth of raised deposits ceased after a change in the climate and a reduction in the annual rainfall in about 400AD’ (English Nature 1997, 10).

Climate change would have had an effect on agriculture and also in the changing landscape. We know that South Cadbury had, ‘one unusual advantage; a ready supply of water was available at the north-east entrance, actually within the lines of defence’ (Alcock 1995, 171), this would have proved very useful in the day to day occupation of the fort, but not much use if there was no food to feed the inhabitants. In summing up the evidence, we see that four major sites, South Cadbury, Tintagel, Congresbury and High Peak, all appear to have been abandoned around the same time period; imports dropped dramatically; a change in climate occurred; raiding, warring, plagues and peasant revolts have been noted; there were possible geological changes around the time the Romans left; and there was a shortage of wheat in Britain.

Famine may be plausible and would certainly explain the abandonment of a site, or several, where no military action or raiding is visible in the archaeological record. It certainly would explain why people just moved away from an area and left no trace.

Header Image Credit : Tim Heaton

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Sue Carter
Sue Carter
Sue Carter is a research archaeologist living in Western Australia, and founder of the webpage . Sue’s passion lies in fortified sites, especially hillforts, and researching prehistory in both Australia and Britain. Having spent time in the Pilbara region of Western Australia recording Indigenous sites, Sue is keen to see that Australia’s prehistory is recorded, saved and the knowledge shared, to improve the understanding of Sahul’s settlement thousands of years ago.

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