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Excalibur

 

 

In the popular romances, as King Arthur lies dying he orders one of his knights to cast his sword Excalibur into an enchanted lake. After twice disobeying the wishes of his king, the knight reluctantly consents. When the sword is thrown, the arm of a mysterious water nymph - the Lady of the Lake - rises from the surface, catches the weapon and takes it down into the watery depths.

Although this sounds like nothing more than myth, the story could have been inspired by an historical event.  As part of their funeral rites, the ancient Britons would throw a warriorís treasured possessions into a lake as an offering to the gods to grant them safe passage to the afterlife.

Archaeological excavations have unearthed many precious artifacts, including swords, that had long ago been thrown into sacred lakes and pools by the Celtic people of Britain as offerings to water deities. One such dig, at Anglesey in north Wales in 1942, recovered no less than 144 items that had been preserved for almost 2000 years in the mud of the dried up lake of Llyn Cerrig Bach. The theme of Excalibur being thrown to the Lady of the Lake could well have derived from the ancient Celtic practice of making a sacred offering to a water goddess.

 

 

The eerie and isolated Berth Pool.  Could this have been where the real Excalibur was thrown?

 

If Arthurís sword was thrown into a lake during his funeral, then the most likely location for Excalibur to have been cast was Berth Pool, which lies next to Travailís Acre, Arthurís possible burial site at Baschurch.  This pool was once a huge lake that completely surrounded Travailís Acre and the adjacent fortified hill that comprise the Berth.  It was certainly considered sacred as precious objects have been found buried in the dried up areas.  One such object was a ceremonial bronze cauldron dating from the late fifth century - precisely the historical Arthurian period. Perhaps the real Excalibur still lies buried in the mud at the bottom of Berth Pool.

 

 

Excalibur Recreated

 

What would the historical Arthurís sword really have looked like? In the Arthurian romances Excalibur is often depicted as a medieval broadsword. However, if Arthur lived around AD 500 then his sword would have been of a very different design. Military leaders of this era would have used the spatha, a cavalry sword originally designed by the Romans. It would have been around two feet long with a stunted cross guard. In 1993 Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman asked the Queenís sword makers, Wilkinson Sword, if they would create for them a replica of how the original Excalibur may have appeared. They agreed and based on this original Roman design they forged the sword pictured here.  When compared with the traditional Excalibur, it can be seen how strikingly different from the popular image the historical Arthurís sword may have been.

The Wilkinson Sword replica of Excalibur was designed by Dan Shadrake of the Dark Age military recreation society Britannia. The overall design is based on archaeological finds from the period and the scrolling along the blade was a common decoration for armor and weaponry of Celtic Britain. The twin serpent motif on the hilt and cross-guard was based on the oldest surviving description of Excalibur in a medieval Welsh war-poem called The Dream of Rhonabwy which describes Arthurís sword as having "two serpents upon its golden hilt". This particular double serpent motif was in fact an emblem of a Roman garrison which seems to have been adopted by a succession of important British chieftains. It is found in rare late-Roman military document called the Notitia Dignitatum dating from the fifth century AD.

 

Right: The hilt of the replica Excalibur with the intertwined golden serpents.

 

 

The Lady of the Lake with the legendary Excalibur, from The Taking of Excalibur by John Duncan (1897).

 

Graham Phillips with the historical recreation of Excalibur designed by Dan Shadrake and made by Wilkinson Sword.

 

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