This summer archaeologists have been excavating in Cornwall at Tintagel, the famous site for Arthurian Legend. The results are exhilarating.
English Heritage, which runs Tintagel, recently commissioned Cornwall Archaeological Unit to carry out onsite excavations at Tintagel, the famous seat of the legendary King Arthur.
The first phase of excavations, which took place in July, included digging trenches in two previously unexcavated terrace areas of the island settlement. It was hoped research into these carefully chosen areas would reveal more about how the people of Tintagel lived in the Post-Roman period from 5th to 6th centuries AD.
The terraces include buildings believed to date from this time. Geophysical surveys of the terraces earlier in the year have detected the walls and layers of these buried buildings, and have suggested variation in their size. The team hoped the excavations would provide evidence for how and when the buildings were built, as well as what they may have been used for.
Last week, the archaeologists unveiled the first astounding results for the public claiming they had found the remains of a “royal” palace from the “Dark Ages”. Previous excavations had uncovered thousands of pieces of pottery at Tintagel – with the vast majority dating from the 5th to 7th centuries and many of which were imported from the Mediterranean. One such discovery was a glass flagon identical to those found at Malaga and Cadiz. Such finds have reinforced the conviction that there existed a trade route along the Atlantic coast of Iberia to Britain. Main British export articles were tin and lead, but apparently the traffic also resulted in imports as such delicacies as wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Greek Aegean and Northern Africa and Phocean and African red Slip Ware (Roman pottery). The wine was drunk from beautifully painted French-made glass cups! It has been estimated that the quantity of such shards of pottery and glass found at Tintagel excels in totality the combined finds from the same period made elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.
What the archaeologists have found this time, though, is even more spectacular. So-far the excavations have revealed massive metre-thick masonry walls, steps and flagstone floors. Two of the buildings were eleven metres long and four metres wide. The finds in these buildings indicate a significant culture of feasting in solid stone halls at a time when Anglo-Saxon colonists invaded Britain and began building their massive oaken halls.
The new excavations demonstrate (once more) that native British areas to the west continued to uphold trading and political links with people living in the former Roman Empire. When the Empire operating out of Constantinople initiated a re-conquest of the Western Mediterranean world – namely Italy, Sicily, North Africa and Southern Spain, it also revived contacts with Britain. Recently Maria Duggan has demonstrated that Cornwall at that point was part of a well-developed trading network reaching from the Mediterranean to the British Isles from AD 475 – 550 (and perhaps later).
“The discovery of high-status buildings – potentially a royal palace complex – at Tintagel is transforming our understanding of the site. It is helping to reveal an intriguing picture of what life was like in a place of such importance in the historically little-known centuries following the collapse of Roman administration in Britain,” says Win Scutt, English Heritage’s properties curator for the West of England to the Independent.
The project will use cutting edge scientific techniques to delve deeper into Tintagel’s past. Once the trenches are dug, samples of soil, ceramics, glass, iron, bone and molluscs will be collected and sent for analysis, and tiny samples of carbon will be used for accurate radiocarbon dating.
“This is the most significant archaeological project at Tintagel since the 1990s” explains Win Scutt. “The three week dig this summer is the first step in a five year research programme to answer some key questions about Tintagel and Cornwall’s past.
“We’ll be testing the dig sites to plan more advanced excavations next year, getting a much clearer picture of the footprint of early medieval buildings on the island, and gathering samples for analysis. It’s when these samples are studied in the laboratory that the fun really starts, and we’ll begin to unearth Tintagel’s secrets.”
A team of archaeological scientists from around the UK have been enlisted to work on the project. The excavation team, directed by Jacky Nowakowski, Principal Archaeologist at Cornwall Archaeology Unit, will be working with specialists from Historic England, geophysicists from TigerGeo Ltd., and a handful of experts on this period in Britain. A small group of experienced volunteers have also been selected to join the professional team.
The History of Tintagel
Tintagel is a peninsula on the Northern Coast of Cornwall. Around the third century AD the local Tin industry attracted attention. Around this time, the Romans built roads into Cornwall, two of which passed by Tintagel witnessing to the local importance of the site. After the collapse of the Roman administration In Britain in the early 5th century, Cornwall apparently became the kingdom of Dumnonia. Archaeological excavations have shown that Tintagel at this point was an important seat inhabited by either a local warlord or – indeed – Dumnonian Royalty. At this point in time the site was made more defensible by the creation of a large ditch at the entrance to the peninsula, leaving only a small track-way up to what is now believed was a royal palace.
Around 600 – 700 the site was probably abandoned. One reason might simply have been the devastating consequences of the deteriorating climate and the bubonic plague. Tintagel may have been the major export-import harbour for goods to and from the Mediterranean and as such been exceptionally open to the possibility of being hit by the Pan-European epidemic in the 640’s.
It was not until the beginning of the 13th century that a new castle was built on site by Richard , Earl of Cornwall and brother of Henry III. It is during the 12th century, Tintagel gained its literary reputation as the birth place of Arthur and Richard may have been inspired by these legends to build his castle on the cliff. Another inspiration may have been had form the romances about the Cornish hero Tristam and his lover, Yseult.
Ceramic Imports to Britain and the Atlantic Seaboard in the Fifth Century and Beyond
By Maria Duggan
In: Internet Archaeology Vol. 41 No. 3, 2016.
Tintagel excavations summer 2016. Source: English Heritage/Emily Whitfield-Wicks