Archaeologists have revealed that while Arthur may be little more than romantic fiction, a near namesake did live at Tintagel in the 6th century - the very period usually associated with Arthurian legend.
Excavation work at the Cornish castle has unearthed an extraordinary inscription apparently made by a man called Arthnou. Research at the site, directed by archaeologist Christopher Morris, of the University of Glasgow, bolsters the idea that Tintagel was the site of an important royal palace in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and may have been the main seat of the rulers of the British Kingdom of Dumnonia, covering modern Cornwall, Devon and possibly Somerset.
In reality, King Arthur was probably a British war leader who resisted Anglo-Saxon expansion in the early 6th century, but there is absolutely no evidence that he ever visited Tintagel - one of the key sites so often associated with him. The only genuinely Medieval Arthurian link with the site is a historically dubious passage in a 12th century book claiming that he was conceived there. Most references are, in fact, 19th century in origin (including a story that, as a baby, Arthur had been washed up on Tintagel beach and discovered there by Merlin).
But the inscription is the first 6th century British archaeological evidence testifying to the popularity of "Arthur-type" names in Dark Age Britain. "Arth" simply means bear - and later genealogical tables and charters suggest that back in the Dark Ages (including the 6th century), bear names were all the rage.
Proud parents named their offspring Arthmail (Bear Prince), Arthan (little bear), Arthen (bear-begotten), Arthbiu (bear life), and even Arth-uolou (bear-light).
The newly discovered Tintagel inscription refers to a man called Artognou - a name which was almost certainly pronounced `Arthnou'. Artognou (literally, "known as a Bear') was simply a rather pretentious, archaic way of spelling it. The English translation of the "Latinised" inscription reads: "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, built this". "This" was probably a three- metre by ten-metre stone building on an artificially terraced platform overlooking the sea, as yet, it seems, largely un-excavated.
The words were inscribed on a slate plaque, probably placed on the outside of a building on the sheltered eastern edge of the rocky Tintagel peninsula. Detailed work on the inscription is currently underway. The handwriting style may well originate from what is now France, while thousands of pottery fragments found at Tintagel came from wine and olive oil amphorae and dinner services imported in the 5th and 6th centuries from Greece, North Africa and Turkey. As a royal palace, Tintagel clearly had contact with the Continent and the Mediterranean.
Although Britain by then was not part of the Roman imperial system, it may have been viewed by the Empire, re-expanding in the 6th century, as an associated territory.
The new discovery is likely to provoke controversy in the archaeological world, where any link between Tintagel and Arthur is viewed with great scepticism. However, English Heritage, which administers the Tintagel site and finances the excavations, seems determined to "Arthurise" the discovery and play the Tintagel Arthur card for all it is worth.
Yesterday, English Heritage announced the inscription discovery as the "find of a lifetime", and said the discoveries being made at Tintagel added "a new dimension to the debate about the possibility of there having been a real Arthur, upon whom the mythical figure was based."