Archaeologists Excavating the Real-Life "Stone Table" from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Lori Lamothe

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Arthur's Stone is being excavated this month in Herefordshire, England.(Wikimedia)

This July, archaeologists began excavating the famous “Arthur's Stone” in Herefordshire, England. A thousand years older than Stonehenge, the Neolithic monument is said to be the place where King Arthur slew a giant. But there's another reason the 5,000-year-old site is legendary: it's the inspiration for the Stone Table in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The real-life structure consists of nine standing stones supporting a 25-ton hulking quartz capstone. It measures 13 feet long and 7 feet wide. Arthur's Stone and Lewis's Stone Table are both low to the ground and consist of two "table" pieces, with a gap running down the middle.

Since it was built in 3700 BCE, Arthur's Stone has never been "directly excavated," so scholars know almost nothing about it.

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Susan and Lucy at the Stone Table the morning after Aslan returns to life.(Walden Media via Narnia,wiki.com)

In Lewis's popular children's series, the table was created before the dawn of time and is inscribed with strange markings imbued with deep magic. The structure, which is located at the heart of Narnia, consists of a great slab of rock supported by four low rock pillars. The cryptic symbols lay out the laws of the kingdom and it is these ancient laws that allow the White Witch to sacrifice any traitor upon the slab.

After she gained power over Narnia, Jadis killed many victims there with a stone knife as part of dark ritualistic ceremonies. If anyone denied the White Witch her right, the kingdom would perish in fire and water.

King Arthur and Aslan

The novel – and the series itself – is an allegory of sorts with Aslan standing in for Christ. Likewise, there are a number of similarities between the Narnia saga and the Arthurian legend. Aslan leads the Narnians in battle against the White Witch and creates a vast peaceful kingdom. The mythical Arthur led his people to defeat the Saxons in the late 5th and 6th centuries. Like the lion, he is a courageous yet wise figure who battles real and supernatural creatures. The Knights of the Round Table are not unlike the four Pevensie children, who oversee a utopian society as equals after Jadis is defeated.

Some scholars believe Arthur may have been a Celtic warrior who fought the invading Saxons, or possibly a composite of several warriors. Others claim he never actually existed.

The Celts, an ancient group of tribes whose power once extended from the British Isles to Turkey, were known for their rich, poetic mythology as well as their bravery in battle. Many Arthurian legends trace back to those tales and a number of ancient Welsh poems refer to Arthur by name.

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The Celtic empire at its peak.(thecelticconnexion.com)

'Death itself would work start working backwards'

As the story in the series' first book unfolds, Aslan offers himself up as a sacrifice to save Edmund, one of the Pevensies who entered Narnia through a wardrobe. Jadis, who believes she has finally bested Aslan, holds a wicked celebration attended by all manner of strange beings.

At the height of the ceremony, she plunges the stone dagger into the lion and kills him. Edmund's sisters Lucy and Susan watch Aslan's humiliation—and murder—from afar. They mourn their friend and lament the fate of the kingdom they've so recently discovered. They believe Jadis's triumph means winter in Narnia will never end, nor will the White Witch ever lose power.

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The ritual ceremony that calls upon the deep magic.(concept art by Henrik Tamm)

Apparently Jadis never read the fine print on the stone. Because Aslan's death was not to be. There is deeper magic at work.

Since he was innocent and sacrificed himself for another, his death cannot endure. The morning after his sacrifice, Lucy and Susan weep over the great lion's lifeless body. Then the earth shakes and the immense slab splits in two. The sisters turn to see Aslan standing before them, his golden mane lit by the rising sun. He has been reborn.

Aslan explains that the deep magic, written long ago by his own father, does not permit injustice:

The witch would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” -Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Prince Caspian and King Arthur

Though the table is fundamentally important, it only appears in one other Narnia novel: Prince Caspian. Lewis's second novel is actually the fourth chronologically and it features the title character's struggle to rescue the kingdom from the evil usurper Miraz. With the help of Aslan and the Pevensies, he succeeds -- but it costs him his life.

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Prince Caspian, 2008 film version.(artwallpaperhi.com)

Like Arthur, Caspian has a magical advisor, Cornelius, who correlates is with the wizard Merlin. Lewis scholar Bruce McMenomy also points out the similarities between Arthur's legendary death and Caspian's:

According to early sources, Arthur, dying, was transported to Avalon. . .where he was healed and lives, immortal, to return one day in the hour of his country's greatest need. While the fact of Caspian's death is modified, intentionally, to carry out the Christian allegory of death and life after death, it is wrapped in the same semi-mystical quality, as is the rejuvenation of Caspian in Aslan's country.

In Prince Caspian, a thousand years have passed and the sacred site has transformed into a How, a hilly mound that covers the Stone Table. The underground chamber with its interconnected tunnels serves as a hiding place for Caspian, the Pevensies and Aslan, as well as their center of command.

Doctor Cornelius suggested the How as it was deep into the forests that the Telmarines were afraid to enter. He thought it could provide places for their supplies and house those who needed shelter or were just accustomed to living underground. It could also be a retreat of last resort to all but the giant and would protect them from everything but famine.
As for the nature of the how, the Doctor said it was "raised in very ancient times over a very magical place, where there stood--and perhaps still stands--a very magical Stone." --from Prince Caspian
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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017 film version(IMDb)

Hidden Chambers

Like Aslan's How, the Hereford site consists of an underground chamber that may connect with other underground chambers. The entire site runs approximately 100 feet long, according to archaeologist Julian Thomas, who is leading the excavation for the University of Manchester.

"That chamber is set within a very much larger mound," he said. "It is possible that there were other chambers in that mound. That's something we're looking at."

Thomas's current and previous work in the area reveal that the site is linked to other ceremonial sites in the region that date back even further. Arthur's Stone must now be connected to 6,000-year-old "halls of the dead," which were discovered in 2013.

According to Thomas, the timber halls were used to store bodies before they were relocated to separate chambered tombs. These halls were intentionally set on fire and later incorporated into nearby burial sites. As part of their excavations, archaeologist discovered a flint knife and a stone axe.

Thomas believes the entire area may have been part of an ancient network of ritual sites and called it "the discovery of a lifetime."

Because of the similarities between the previously hidden first phase of Arthur’s Stone and the recently identified “houses of the dead,” “the block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now becoming revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape.”

These sites were active for millennia. Archaeologists say evidence suggests "Arthur's Stone" remained an important venue for ceremonies 1,000 years after it was built.

Origin stories

Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, long before Thomas's latest discoveries about Arthur's Stone.

Though his fictional depiction of the stone table and its deep magic seems eerily accurate, remember that Lewis was a medieval scholar well versed in the era's mythology. The bulk of his professorial work at Oxford University focused on the late Middle Ages. He had begun reading Norse and Greek mythology as a boy but later immersed himself in Celtic and British myths as well.

Did Britain's Neolithic inhabitants sacrifice living creatures at Arthur's Stone, as the White Witch does on Narnia's Stone Table? Did unbreakable laws dictate the rules for such sacrifices? Was Arthur's Stone the center of some ancient, unknown religion? Was it a site where justice was meted out against traitors? Or both?

Perhaps Thomas will be able to answer those questions in the near future. His team will continue its work until the end of the month:

Being able to shine a light on this astonishing 5,700-year-old tomb is exciting, and helps to tell the story of our origins."
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Aerial view of Arthur's Stone(University of Manchester)

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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