Arthur’s O’on: A Lost ‘Wonder’ of Britain, Part 1

Darrell J. Rohl (
Department of Archaeology
Durham University

Near the end of the twelfth century Ralph de Diceto, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, transcribed a tract entitled De Mirabilibus Britanniae, ‘On the Wonders of Britain,’ describing in variable detail 35 extraordinary natural and man-made features across England, Scotland and Wales (British Library Cotton MS. Faustina A.viii, ff. 107–109; Stubbs 1876, I.11–15). Midway through the list that includes barnacles, Cheddar Gorge, Stonehenge, and the hot springs at Bath, a single-sentence entry proclaims:
furnus Arturi, qui factus ad modum thalami rotundi, sine tegmine, et tamen nunquam intus pluvial cadit, nec nix, nec grando, plusquam bene tectus esset. (Stubbs 1876, I.13)
Arthur’s Oven, having been built in the manner of a round chamber, without a covering, and still never falling by rain, nor snow, nor hail; how much better was it protected.

The monument described here is never geographically located by Diceto, nor does it feature in the alternative and better-known ‘Wonders of Britain’ sometimes appended to manuscript copies of the Historia Brittonum and traditionally attributed to Nennius (e.g. BL Cotton MS. Vespasian D.xxi, ff. 1–17; BL Harleian MS. 3859, f. 135). Other documents from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, suggest that the ‘Oven’ was an ancient corbel-domed structure that stood on the north bank of the River Carron in central Scotland until its tragic destruction in 1742/3. From the twelfth century onwards, this monument was a perennial favorite of chroniclers, historians and antiquarians, with a colorful and contentious discursive history. This paper, deriving from a recent M.A. dissertation (Rohl 2009) and related ongoing Ph.D. research, is presented in two parts. Part 1 provides a summarized introduction to the monument including a general description, presentation of its various names and interpretations over the centuries, and a discussion of contemporary and later reactions to its untimely demise. Part 2 (forthcoming) will consider possible avenues of inquiry that may help to answer lingering questions about the monument, as well as a series of reflections on some of the lessons and challenges the monument’s story provides for current archaeological research in general. For reasons that will become obvious, Part 1 relies on an unusually large number of pre-twentieth-century sources, including several medieval and early modern Latin manuscripts.

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Achaemenid Persian Griffin Capital at Persepolis

Fig. 1 Persepolis stone griffin double protome column capital
Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University
One of the most impressive yet enigmatic surviving capitals from Persepolis is an Achaemenid masterpiece: the double griffin protome capital. On the one hand, there ought to be more than one of these griffin capitals from before the 330 BCE destruction, although it seems that only this extant one is intact. On the other hand, it is possible that only one was sculpted, since no other griffin protome fragments exist from Persepolis. A few archaeological accounts suggest its emplaced context at Persepolis was from the Apadana, although this cannot be proven since only 13 of the 36 (arranged 6 x 6) columns have survived, given the “conflagration…and catastrophic end” recorded under Alexander. More than a few scholars, including Wiesehöfer, maintain that numerous structures at Persepolis were not destroyed in 330 but only parts thereof and that some use continued thereafter.
Persepolis was first begun by Darius around 518 BCE, the Apadana around 515 and structures like the Treasury may have been begun around 510; some structures like the Unfinished Gate and others may have been incomplete or possibly still underway in the fourth century. The original excavation reports have not connected this griffin protome capital with the Apadana of Darius and its correlation with any other structure is equally ambiguous because this capital seems to have been found only after the initial excavations between 1931-34 and up to 1939. (1) Furthermore, the majority of credible reconstructions suggest all the Apadana column capitals were double bull protomes. Contextualizing this griffin protome capital to other buildings is equally or even more difficult, although it is generally accepted that it must be from Persepolis.
The somewhat darkened visual appearance of this griffin protome might suggest its surface was burned like many of the other protomes – although limestone also often naturally weathers darker – and it was certainly chipped and broken in places, as can be easily seen from comparanda of nearly all photos. Furthermore, the edge of the saddle between the two griffin torsoes where it would have been expected to hold a massive cedar beam shows some expected wear, also easily seen from photos. Some credible accounts, including that of Porada, suggest this griffin capital was never actually used but merely experimental and abandoned before any emplacement. (2)

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