Arthur’s Stone is excavated for the first time

(CNN) — King Arthur, the mythical ruler of Camelot, may be best known for pulling the magical sword Excalibur out of a rock, but there’s another rock formation bearing his name, tucked away in the English countryside.

Archaeologists are unearthing for the first time a 5,000-year-old Neolithic chamber tomb, named in honor of the legendary medieval King Arthur’s Stone. The project is the result of a partnership between researchers from the University of Manchester in England and English Heritage, a charity that preserves hundreds of historic buildings in England.

Arthur's Stone Neolithic chamber tomb was built in what is now Herefordshire, England.

Arthur’s Stone Neolithic chamber tomb was built in what is now Herefordshire, England.

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The ruins are an important part of British history, but little is known about them. Excavation of the site will hopefully reveal more about the island’s ancient inhabitants, said Julian Thomas, a professor of archeology at the University of Manchester who is leading the project.

It’s likely the tomb served as a resting place for dead human bodies, which were left to decay in the chamber and later rearranged after the flesh rotted and only clean bones remained, he said.

Nothing has been found in the chamber itself, and it was likely disturbed in the early modern period, Thomas said.

During previous excavations in the area, the team uncovered a sprawling avenue of upright posts leading south from the memorial into the Golden Valley, a valley beneath the hills where the tomb sits, he said. The beginnings of the path were found last year.

Additionally, the memorial’s ancient cairn continues uninterrupted along the south side of the structure, Thomas said. A cairn — a man-made cairn — surrounds the chamber where the dead were decomposed, he explained.

The legend behind Arthur’s Stone

Several stories that have surfaced over the years link the legendary King of Britain to the tomb.

One of the more famous stories is that King Arthur fought and killed a giant who fell backwards onto the tomb’s keystone, breaking it in two, Thomas said.

Another legend has it that the indentations on the capstone are where Arthur knelt his knees in prayer, he said.

As entertaining as these myths are, there was no documented historical connection between King Arthur and the structure, Thomas said. Furthermore, historians have not been able to confirm that King Arthur was even a real person.

Greater historical importance

The tomb was built at a critical time in British history, when plants and animals were being domesticated and pottery and polished stone tools were being made, Thomas said. Large monuments also became much more common, he said, and other sites like Stonehenge were erected.

This is also the time when people from continental Europe traveled to Britain, so building monuments like Arthur’s Stone would have been part of the creation of new social groups and traditions, Thomas said.

“The construction of such a massive building would undoubtedly have been important as it would have drawn people together to work, strengthened social solidarity and perhaps created prestige for the person or persons leading the work,” he said in an email.

Though the tomb was likely only used for a few generations, it would have been an imposing site and a place of historical importance for generations to come, Thomas added.

Pictured above: Archaeologists began excavating the Arthurian Stone in England in hopes of learning more about the Neolithic structure. (Adam Stanford/Aerial Cam/University of Cambridge)