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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > Arthurian Articles > Robert Vermaat (1)

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A New interpretation of the 'Artognou' stone, Tintagel

Robert M. Vermaat

The Excavations at Tintagel

As fate would have it, it took a disastrous grass fiSite "C" at Tintagelre that raged across the surface of the Tintagel promontory to rekindle the interest of the archaeologists for this famous Dark Ages site. The fire laid bare the remains of many building-foundations, which since the 1970s had been interpreted by Professor Leslie Alcock as –most probably- the remains of an ‘Early Christian’ monastery. The exposure of these building dramatically showed all foundations at once, a view never before encountered during our times. While most visitors to Cornwall usually come take a look at Tintagel, most never go beyond the remains of the 13th century castle. And those that do cross -the views, after all, are exceptional- are usually not tempted by the overgrown remains of long-deserted buildings to think of a different use for the site than the eminent and still well-read Professor. As neither did I, as I must confess, during a visit in 1992. Indeed, why should one, Tintagel seems so far removed from the centres of Dark Age power that it is difficult to see it as a centre of great political power.

This general perception, however, has been dealt a death-blow as a result of excavations which started in 1990. English Heritage invited the University of Glasgow and Professor Chris Morris to investigate a terrace below building "C", the building itself, and the ‘Great Dithe buildings at site "C"tch’ on the landward side of Tintagel, the latter two having already been investigated in the 1930s and 1955. These investigations confirmed the growing perception that Tintagel had been a major economic and political centre, illustrated best by the view that it were the Dumnonian kings that controlled an international trade-network from the Mediterranean up the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. In this view, Tintagel was not a remote place, far from the dark Age British kingdoms, but a well-known trade-centre and an important destination for Dark Age shipping. But was it also associated with Arthur, as the traditions of the 12th century have made us believe?Professor Chris Morris and the Artognou Stone

Tintagel has been made famous as the birthplace of Arthur by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred Lord Tennyson. A spectacular find in June 1998 led to massive attention by the media. All attention focused on a small, inscribed piece of slate, which was found next to one of the excavated buildings, and which had apparently been used as a drain cover.[1] The slab measures 35 by 20cm and is only 1cm thick (see picture: Professor Chris Morris and the Artognou Stone).

The find was made within as sealed 7th century level,[2] but later dated by professor Charles Thomas to the 6th Century, which supplied even more fuel for any theories that ‘this was proof of King Arthur having actually existed at Tintagel’, as could be read often in the press at the time. Unfortunately for many enthusiasts (or luckily?), the mysteries about Arthur were not solved at that time. It appeared soon after that the name on the ‘Arthur’ Stone, though using the same Celtic element for ‘bear’, did not really show the name of the famous king. So what is written on the stone?

The 'ARTOGNOU'- Inscription

The stone, which was broken along the right-hand edge, shows the remainder of two inscriptions. The first (to which I will return below) showed what was left of four letters in a Late Roman script. The second, on which all attention focused, was more lightly, but very legibly [3] inscribed and showed a basically Latin [4] inscription,[5] the five lines of which were then read as: [6]

+ PATER | COLIAVIFICIT | ARTOGNOU | COL[.] | FICIT, later expanded to:


The translation by professor Charles Thomas of Truro was "Artognou (PN), father of a descendant of Coll (PN) has had this made". To me, this did not make much sense, especially the fact that no reason was stated (why did he have this made?), but also the obvious fact that a name was seemingly repressed (‘father of a descendant’). Luckily, a later examination by Gordon Machan [7] revealed a missing ‘N’ after ‘Pater’, so that the Inscription now reads:

+ PATERN[-] COLIAVI FICIT ARTOGNOU COL[I] FICIT, later expanded by Machan to:


This is translated as "Artognov erected this memorial of Colus, his grandfather". Everyone will agree with Mr Machan that this is by far to be preferred over the original, yet very vague reading, i.e. when his proposition for the missing letters would be correct. Machan further proposed that the lettering, being more of a graffito, may well have been a draft layout by a scholarly scribe to a mason for a more substantial monument. This graffito was inscribed on a much older Roman inscription, which may have dated back 250 years even then.[8] Perhaps future research will shed more light on this issue.


As an alternative to the reading of Mr Machan, I would like to suggest other interpretations. Instead of PATERN[OSTER], we could also quite easily read PATERN[US] or PATERN[IUS]. And given the supposed lenght of the slab (see below), why not add the very common FILIUS? That would give the following:


This translates roughly as "Paternus son of Colus erected this to the memory of Artognov". The repeating of the phrase COL[IAVI] FICIT could be pointing to a graffito, but also be interpreted as: "Colus had me made".

And this Arthognov? He might have been a local the Artognou-Inscriptionnon-entity, generously remembered by his descendants. Given the more than local importance of Tintagel, he may also have been a local ruler, a Dumnonian sub-king, or even more! So, what letters should we seek behind that enigmatic name of Artognov? The seems to be room for a word of at least five or even nine letters, In this case, I would postulate a title, or at least a 'son of' phrase. Therefore, with an audacity equal to that of Mr Machan, we could imagine something like ARTOGNOU [FILIUS], ARTOGNOU [MILES], ARTOGNOU [PROTECTOR], or even ARTOGNOU [TIGERNUS] ! Mind you, dear reader, this is purely speculative, but this simple slab of stone could have been inscribed to the memory of an Arthur, whose historical figure stood at the base for at least the Dumnonian parts of the Arthurian legend..

The 'MAXE'- Inscription

At this moment I would like to return to the letters at the top of the slab, which according to Mr Machan belonged to the original Roman inscription. This original writing has been rather neglected by those focusing rather on any Arthurian connections. Professor Chris Thomas saw at least four very clear, deeply incised letters as part of a classical inscription,[9] which he now interprets as a semi-official ‘notice’ [10]. However, local archaeologist Roger Irving Little of Boscastle has attempted to further analyse the few clues that we can obtain from the slab.

Mr Little interprets the two vertical strokes in front of the three letters spelling ‘AXE’ as either an ‘H’ or an ‘A’. He then goes forth to identify the inscription as belonging to a personal name, which subsequently could hardly be anything else then ‘MAXE’. As it is obvious that any broken-off part from the slab represents a second half, there would easily be place for four to five more letters. Little’s proposition is that the inscription deals with an emperor, which can only be the emperor Maxentius. Since he interprets the whole inscription as the left part of the original (Morris sees it as the tail end, see note [9]), he has chosen the only emperor with that prefix: Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (b AD 278, Imp 306-312). the MAXE-Inscription

Mr Little has connected this western Augustus with his eastern colleague, the emperor Licinius, whose name appears on the Roman milestone [11] now within the parish church of Tintagel,[12] only a few hundred meters away from the promontory!

However, can it be safe to conclude that this inscription indeed only misses the right side? Professor Morris did not think so [13] and it may be equally safe to conclude that, to give just one example of the possibilities, the second inscription was written on the right part of an originally much larger slab, so that the Roman inscription could just as well have extended to the left! I would therefore not jump to the conclusion that Mr Little’s conclusion is the only one possible. But if the inscription is indeed a personal name (which it very probably is), and one of an emperor at that (which is also very possible), this ‘E’ can point almost to no other.

Mr Little concludes that Tintagel was probably a not insignificate market town, once called DUROCORNOVIUM (‘the fortress of the Cornovii’), a town of some importance, hence to dual reference to a Roman emperor. This would confirm the sub-Roman importance of the site, as Professor Morris [14] interpreted it. Though both Morris and Little dismiss any link to what they call the legendary king Arthur, both agree upon the secular importance of Tintagel as a local centre of power, both during and after Roman times.


As an alternative to the theory of Mr Little, I would suggest another origin of the name on the slab. Since the letters are relatively large and only one of them is preserved in full, I would suggest that the origin may have been a lot later than suggested here. Of course there was no other emperor that bore the name 'Maxentius',[15] there were of course simple citizens that did. In fact, two of these were of some importance, and lived during the sixth century!

The first is St. Maxentius, priest and confessor, who was illustrious for his miracles. St. Maxentius, a native of Agde and founder of the Abbey of St-Maixent, lived in Poitou during the turn of the 6th century (447-515), which was around the time that we usually see as Arthurian. His day is June 26th.

The second is Joannes Maxentius, who was leader of the so-called Scythian monks. This John Maxentius appears in history at Constantinople in 519 and 520. These 'Scythian' monks meant to exclude Nestorianism and Monophysitism, and they sought to have the works of Faustus of Riez [16] condemned as being tainted with Pelagianism. Shortly after 13 August, 520, Pope Hormisdas addressed a letter, in which he severely condemned the conduct of the Scythian monks, also declaring that the writings of Faustus were not received among the authoritative works of the Fathers and that the sound doctrine on grace was contained in the works of St. Augustine. John Maxentius presented an appeal to the papal legates than at Constantinople, but it failed to bring forth a favourable decision. Early in August 520, Maxentius assailed this letter in the strongest language as a document written by heretics and circulated under the pope's name. This is the last trace of the Scythian monks and their leader in history.

Although the connection is very remote, the possiblity remains that Tintagel, with its proven strong economic links to the Mediterranean, contained a regilious community that may have had ties to either cleric. Maybe the 'Scythians' fled to Cornwall? Whatever the background of the inscription, I hope to have demonstrated that the possiblity remains for a contemporay Maxentius, and that the whole of the inscription could therefore belong to the 'Age of Arthur'.


It seems clear, from all described above, that Tintagel and the inscribed stone slab found there point to a more than regional importance. Tintagel was no doubt the capital of Dumnonia, at least of the western part. However, since the wealth of Mediterranean finds discovered at Tintagel is not found at other sites in the West Country, we may be forced to look upon Tintagel differently, not as the capital of a western province, but as the central capital of a larger, sea-oriented kingdom. Could an inscription from that capital comemmorate a leader, whose life later generated the legend of a king? I would not doubt to answer that question with a clear, affirmative answer.



[1] Morris 1998, 86, states that the stone was found used as a drain cover for a drain running around the south-western corner of a building on site C.
[2] Morris 1999, 7, states that the stone was found in ‘a securely stratified’ context by Kevin Brady.
[3] Morris 1999, 7: `the lettering is incised clearly and confidently'. Morris also states that microscopic examination of the stone has shown that the `ARTOGNOU' inscription post-dates the [possibly Late Roman] inscription also found on the stone.
[4] CISP: If the words we have form a continuous text, itself perhaps unlikely given the repetition of COLI and FICIT, then the presence of FICIT (a post-classical spelling of FECIT), indicates the language to be Latin.
[5] Morris 1999, 7: `The lettering is incised clearly and confidently, although the first and third lines are incised more lightly than the other three'.
[6] read by de Bruxelles 1998, Morris 1998 and 1999.
[7] According to Mr Little.
[8] Mr Little interprets the slab as dating from Roman times, see blow.
[9] Morris 1998, 86: `the tail end of an...inscription'.
[10] Morris 2000: ‘perhaps related to Roman taxation- or trading-activity at the end of a road.
[11] De la Bédoyère 1997: RIB 2231: IMP C G VAL LIC LICIN, which is expanded to 'Emperor Caesar Galerius Valerius Licinianus Licinius'. Licinius ruled the eastern empire (b. AD 260, Imp 308-325).
[12] Vermaat 1999a: the church is dedicated to St Materiana, who was Modrun, wife of King Ynyr of Gwent and daughter of Vortimer, the son of Vortigern).
[13] Morris 1998, 86: 'broken on all sides'.
[14] Morris 2000: 'there can be no doubt that there had been at that time (the late 5th century AD) a major economic and political centre here.'
[15] For those who think of 'Maxen Wledig', I would remind them that this name is a later Welsh guise for the emperor/usurper Magnus Flavius Clemens Maximus (b. c. AD 320, Imp 383-388).
[16] Vermaat 1999b: As we have seen earlier (note 12, above), there may be a link to the circle of legends around Vortigern; like Modrun, Faustus of Riez may have been a grandchild of Vortigern. See my article on Faustus.

Comments to: Robert Vermaat.


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