In 2010 two heritage specialists wrote a scathing article about the disgruntled tourists in King Arthur’s Court at Tintagel. Since then curators at English heritage have worked hard to make the place both more informative and welcoming. The question is: have they succeeded?
For years it has been known that visitors arriving at Tintagel come full of enthusiasm. Finally they are at the site, where they have been told King Arthur was not only conceived but also born. Even if it is still a bit hazy, when they park the car – childhood can be a long way off – the myths will soon have been carefully nurtured by the “unofficial” experience centre in the nearby village. Also, the marketing enterprises will have pitched in with any number of offers from plastic Excaliburs to spiritually endowed pendants. Whether on a full-blown spiritual “Celtic” quest or just armed with a wish to experience the nearness of the heroic past, it is obvious that most visitors are filled with great expectations, when they embark on the walk down the path and across the footbridge.
However, In 2010 Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette did a very illuminating analysis of what visitors to Tintagel experienced when they finally arrived at the rocky promontory. To say the least, their study showed how Tintagel did its best to debunk the myths and reduce them to poetic creations. The reason was naturally that no respectable historian and archaeologist like to think their peers regard them as “believers”. Colporting the idea of Arthur was thus until now presented as a literary phenomenon, at best responsible for the romantic construction of the castle by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in the 13th century. At worst, just a fairy-tale…
Probably prompted by this and several other studies, curators at English Heritage have for some time worked to develop a brand new visitor interpretation at Tintagel Castle, which is arguably the fifth most visited national heritage site in England nearing 200.000 yearly guests.
On display since May, the new interpretation explores the history of the Cornish castle and the role legends have played in shaping the site, which visitors see today.
Jeremy Ashbee, English Heritage’s Head Curator, said: “With our exhibition and with this new interpretation, visitors to Tintagel can now get a complete overview of its history – from the artefacts discovered there to the legends associated with it.
A series of panels around the 18 acre site explore 1,500 years of Tintagel’s history – from royal stronghold, to thriving trading port, to a castle of romantic legend. The new outdoor interpretation is designed to complement the castle’s indoor exhibition, which opened last summer, to explore the rich history of Tintagel. It is obvious one of the aims have been to counter the profound irritation voiced by the informants, which Orange and Laviolette quoted: although they found the place “beautiful”, “stunning” or just “very nice”, they generally wanted to know more: those who bought the guidebook felt much more positive about the experience than the more disgruntled visitors who felt they had been cheated by a combination of high entrance fees and lack of on-site interpretation. “In particular, these visitors wanted more plans and drawings to help them visualize the buildings”, wrote the authors . Judging from the new information placards and the reconstructions created by Bob Marshall the curators have listened carefully to this complaint.
However, this time the legends have also been allowed to play a larger role in the heritage interpretation.
Believed to have been the seat of early Cornish kings, by the 5th century Tintagel was presumably an important royal stronghold of the kingdom of Dumnonia. It is this settlement, which may have inspired the early legends about the site. It became known as the location for the love story of Tristan and Iseult, and for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century description of the conception of King Arthur. These legends in turn led Richard, Earl of Cornwall to choose this location as the site of his medieval castle in the 1230s. Much later, after a revival of interest in Arthurian stories during the Victorian period, writers, artists and tourists were inspired to visit the dramatic ruins.
It is obvious Tintagel is both a place with a fascinating history and a site which has inspired stories and legends for centuries; and that the project has sought to represent this side of the castle’s history too. This time, though, it has been incorporated at the site through a distinct blurring between history and art.
A highlight of the new interpretation is Gallos (meaning ‘power’ in Cornish), an eight foot bronze sculpture inspired by the legend of King Arthur and Tintagel’s royal past, created by artist Rubin Eynon. According to the curators the statue is not exactly meant as a presentation of Arthur; rather, it is thought of as a mythical presentation of the ancient Cornish kingdom of Dumnonia.
Elsewhere, a stone compass points to events connected with the legend of King Arthur – the drawing of the sword from the stone and the round table; legends popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th-century and
Engraved stepping stones around the island garden tell the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult, a medieval tale set at Tintagel.
On the beach, close to Merlin’s Cave, a face has been carved to represent Merlin, who has been associated with the site since the 12th century and immortalised by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Part of this assemblage of modern art will also be a new daring footbridge spanning the gap between the mainland and the peninsula of Tintagel. More than a hundred architects from 27 countries competed to design and build the new Cornish icon. A daring construction featuring two cantilevers, which do not quite meet, won the day. The winning concept was designed by a Belgian engineering company, Ney & Partners, and the British architects, William Matthews Associates. The bridge is estimated to cost £4m and be ready for 2019. Whether or not, the bridge will be the only access to the site, remains to be seen; anyone with spiritual vertigo will obviously be hindered in accessing the site. At the same time it is also probable that the construction will soon invite suicides to jump into the cliff.
“You cannot understand Tintagel’s history without understanding how the legends shaped it. Our new interpretation explains this and places these legends within the context of Tintagel’s overall history and significance”, concludes Jeremy Ashbee, English Heritage’s Head Curator.
It is obvious, that the new interpretation has worked to overcome the discrepancy between the expectations of visitors and the actual experience, which is on offer. On one hand the site now offers a developed on-site presentation of the archaeological finds and the ruins; on the other hand, spiritual seekers are offered a “literary” and “artsy” tour through an open-air sculpture park located in one of the more enigmatic and spectacular settings in the world.
Mingling Art and History
Nevertheless, some historians and archaeologists have bitterly hailed the new installation as an exceptionally vile example of the “disneyfication”, which modern heritage specialists are accused of aiming for in order to please the event-seeking crowds angling more for mind-boggling than authentic experiences. Especially the carved face near the Grotto of Merlin has caused wrath.
“If we start carving comic book characters into the geology, where do we stop? This is not Disneyland, it’s Cornwall”, wrote one Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe to English Heritage. “Would you carve a random Druid’s face into Stonehenge? Or a dinosaur into Dorset’s Jurassic coast? “ mused Tehmina Goskar in a widely read blogpost on what has been called “the Tintagel Controversy”.
The Dark Ages
Another contention has been the reinvention of the concept “The Dark Ages” which is now used by English Heritage to characterise the period from AD 406 – 1066.
This has rallied medievalists and archaeologists from around the world, who has rightly pointed out that the concept was coined by the Italian humanists in the Renaissance, who claimed that the rebirth of the arts and letters in their age an day had been affected by Dante, Giotto, and Petrarch distancing themselves from the preceding period of “cultural darkness”, aka “the Middle Ages”. In his endeavour to resuscitate Ancient Rome, Petrarch was probably the main proponent. When Burckhardt and other cultural historians later reinvented the Renaissance, “the Dark Ages” became the principal term applied to the “period of intellectual depression in the history of Europe from the establishment of the barbarian supremacy of the fifth century to the revival of the learning about the beginning of the fifteenth century, thus nearly corresponding with the Middle Ages” . Later, the term “Dark Ages” became restricted to cover the period, which is generally termed the “Early Middle Ages”. This was the definition proffered by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1911. Although, in the fourteenth edition, the concept was abandoned, it was until May 2016 still possible to find it used as an alias in the definition of the “Migration Period” in the student version of the Encyclopaedia (apparently the editors got cold feet by their use of the concept, when the twitter-fight, #stopthedarkages, broke out!)
Apparently there is an on-going dialogue between English Heritage and the medievalists, who raised this matter in spring 2016. The medievalists have claimed that the concept is an “obsolete, value-laden term, not even used by school teachers anymore” . As an answer to that English Heritage has been quoted for leaving the door open for the use of another concept. Suggested alternatives should however be “short, generally valid for the period c.400 – 1066 and crucially, must be understandable to the wider public.” The concept, “Early Medieval”, is apparently not considered good enough because “we have found that these terms are popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans.” (As quoted by Tehmina Goskar)
In a sense, the medievalists are correct in protesting. Words are never innocent. By using the term “Dark Ages” for the whole period from AD 406 – 1066, the communicators have let the “Anglo-Saxon” (Whitehall) version of the Early Medieval history of the British Isles win the day; to the detriment of the spectacular history of life in the peripheries, such as in Cornwall.
The challenge, though, is that English Heritage is in fact correct when gauging the way to initially engage with the wider public. A short comparative survey of search topics at Google Trends will thus show that the concept “Early Medieval” is only searched for one out of the seven times somebody searches for the “Dark Ages” (Post Roman actually fares a tiny bit better). Further, this should be compared to searches for “King Arthur” and “Excalibur”. When 17 search for Exacalibur, 12 will search for King Arthur and 3 for the “Dark Ages”, while no searches can be registered for “Early Medieval” or “Late Antiquity”.
It might be initially misleading. However, to get the boys to visit the library, it has to offer video-games and comics. To get the wider public to Tintagel, it has to accept that the preliminary knowledge about the place has to do with King Arthur and “all that Jazz”. These are the preconditions which English Heritage seems to accept without question.
Recently, this controversy erupted once more, when English Heritage informed the media about the major results of excavations carried out at Tintagel this summer. According to the first reports, archaeologists have found significant remains of the walls, and ashlar floors of massive stone houses. In the press releases these remarkable finds have been marketed as the discovery of a “Royal Palace from the Dark Ages”. Probably the intention was to make newspapers take the leap from “Royal Palace” to “Camelot” resulting in the title of the Telegraph: “Royal palace discovered in area believed to be birthplace of King Arthur” with a slightly more tentative version in the Independent: Have archaeologists found the real palace of King Arthur? Even though there is absolutely no historically verifiable linkage between the legends of King Arthur and Tintagel, the media were obviously quick to catch the spinning ball.
Again, this has caused deep chagrin among medievalists and Cornish historians. On one hand, archaeologists have once more been able to document the unique character of the Early Medieval settlement at Tintagel from app. 400 – 650. On the other hand, these findings were soon appropriated by what in a Cornish context is considered “Londoners” and “London Media” bent on resurrecting the idea that “England” was indeed formed by the mythical heroes of the Arthurian Legends creating bonds across the Isles peopled by “Brits”.
 Orange et al (2010), p. 102
 from: The American Cyclopedia 1883; as quoted by Mommsen (1942), p. 226.
A disgruntled Tourist in King Arthur’s Court: Archaeology and identity at Tintagel, in Cornwall.
By Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette.
In: Public Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 2, May 2010, pp. 85 -107
Cornwall, Authenticity and the Dark Ages: Controversy at Tintagel Castle
By Tehmina Goskar
In: History & Policy 26. June 2016
Dark Ages at Tintagel
By Howard Williams
Blogpost at Archaeodeath
Stop the Dark Ages 1 & 2
By Leonie Hicks
Blogåpost at Landscapes of the Normans
Tourism and Legends. Archaeology of Heritage.
By John G. Robb
Bath Spa University College, UK
In: Annals of Tourism Research, 1998, vol 25, No. 3, pp. 579 -596
Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’
By Theodor E. Mommsen
In: Speculum (1942), Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 226 – 242
Sculpture at Tintagel © English Heritage/Emily Whitfield-Wicks