Archaeology and Tintagel.

16 Apr

Most people know of Tintagel in Cornwall and the Legend of King Arthur. The Medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed Arthur was conceived at Tintagel, a myth that has helped make it one of the most visited archaeological sites in Britain. A major excavation project begun in the 1990’s has since published its conclusions.


Tintagel is a craggy mound of splintered grey rock and rough grasses constantly pounded by Atlantic waves. Only a narrow neck of land connects it to the North Cornish mainland. The site is dominated by the remains of a castle built in the 13th century by, Richard, Duke of Cornwall.

TintagelCastle ruins

Tintagel Castle Ruins Photo Courtesy of English Heritage.

The outer defences lie on the landward side of the neck, the main bastion immediately opposite on the southern edge of the ” island”. These ruins draw the attention visitors who believe that it must be Arthur’s castle.

The true greatness of Tintagel is represented not by its medieval castle, but by the reconstructed slate dwarf walls that mark the site of modest rectangular buildings excavated on the eastern terraces of the island. It was here that Raleigh Radford uncovered the building foundations and scatters of imported pottery that identified Tintagel as a major site of the 5th-7th centuries AD.

Radford had worked on Tintagel in the 1930’s and again in the 1950’s. He was amazed by the pattern of small scale structures, built on terraces distributed across the mound . Who would choose to live in such a place, perched on crags lashed by such strong winds and rain.

Rough Seas of Cornwall

The Rough Seas of Cornwall.

In 1990 a new phase of work began at  Tintagel commissioned by English Heritage to carry out fresh investigations on the island and attempt to resolve a debate of the nature of early Dark Age Tintagel, the Glasgow Research Team  conducted a series of short survey and excavation seasons between 1990 and 1999.

Radford’s work was re evaluated both on site and in the archives and the project finally concluded with the publication of a grand monograph that summarises the results. The overall picture of Tintagel now looks very different. It has come closer to imagining a place where a King might have been sired. Instead of a little community of Celtic monks.

Radford had discovered a number of small scattered structures which he had taken to be individual ” cells ” characteristic of an early Dark Age monastic community but the impression was deceptive. The island is subject to erosion and slippage, many of the slopes are covered by scree. In some cases evidence had been lost entirely, and in others, lay too deeply buried to be discovered.

The site had been intensively worked on and where buildings were found some were rectangular some square ones others with stone footings only, perhaps for turf walls or timber-framed superstructures, others were curvilenear  or irregular shaped. When the Glasgow team re excavated they found evidence of various other structures which Radford had missed and the impression was  that many stone- built and less substancial stone and turf constructions had once rested on the terraces.

The Glasgow Team Tintagel Excavation

The Glasgow Team Excavation at Tintagel. Photo courtesy of English Heritage.

Excavating on the lower terrace of site C, the Glasgow team discovered several phases of stone and turf structures  associated with, floor deposits, and stoke holes, The phases were separated by layers of tiny flakes of slate in sandy clay soil. Rich assemblages of domestic debris in the form of pottery and samples of charcoal for radio carbon determination were found. This revealed three distinct periods of building work: cal AD395-460 for an early phase of hearths ,floors, and stoke- holes pre-dating the first appearance of imported pottery; cal AD 415-535 for a later phase in which Romano-British and imported pottery were both present in significant quantity and cal AD 560-670 for the latest and best- preserved  structure and the  largest assemblage of imported pottery.

A small group of 21 Romano-British pot shards Gabbroic(5), Granite (l Shard) and local (  l5 shards)- was swamped by a huge assemblage of imported ( 5th – 7th century ) pottery. In total there were 1,821 shards in this category. The assemblage included four types of amphorae from Greece (bi)  Turkey ( b ii and  probably B iv), and possibly North Africa BV.

There were also course wares from the eastern Mediterranean ( Red ware and sandy cream ware, and fine wares for the table, mainly Phocaean  Red slipped ware (PRSW) and African Red slipped ware (ARSW) also a single shard of Bordeaux- region D. ware.

The African and possibly the course wares record the import of luxury communities such as wine. The fine wares may indicate Mediterranean- style eating and drinking as a mark of Elite status. At least nineteen separate vessels are represented in all, of which sixteen are 5th to 7th century imports.

Pot Shards found at Tintagel

Pottery Shards Tintagel Castle

Some of the Pottery Shards found at Tintagel  Photo Courtesy of English Heritage

A thin slate plaque was found which apparently had had two inscriptions incised upon it and had been trimmed and re-used as a drain cover. The earlier inscription- on the evidence of the forms of letters- dates from AD 400. It seems to be inscribed HAVG- Honorius Augustus- The Emperor Honorius. If the reading is correct, this is a very important discovery. Honorius was the Western Roman Emperor from AD 395 to 423. The second inscription appears to compromise a series of names from the 6th century AD but we have no way of knowing who these men were. There names are Roman (Paternus / Paterninus) or British (Late British, or Neo-Brittonic, a kind of proto-Cornish It seems interesting that these men chose to inscribe their names on a slab which appears to have worn the imprint of a Roman Emperor. This may have been a lineage of ruling men, maybe lords of Tintagel.

Tintagel like the Cadbury sites are of extreme ” high status” in Western Britain in the post Roman period .archaeologically the site is at the top of the social hierarchy in this period, so it is difficult to envisage Tintagel as anything other than a site of the  Dummonian  rulers. It was an enclosed settlement on a hilltop promontory, from which control could be maintained of passing shipping and of maritime-based trading activities, whether local, regional or long distance. However this is not to imply year-round residency of the Dummonian ruler. It is likely to have been one of a  few such centers, comparable with the village regales mentioned by Bede in relation to early Northumbria.

At times when the ruler was not present a  ‘caretaking’  group must still have been in residence. Susan Pearce elaborates on the seasonal aspect: , this suggests that Tintagel was visited occasionally and that it functioned as the summer meeting place of which the local ruler met lesser men, transacted business, and fostered the important personal relationships upon which, in part, his power depended.

Perhaps we as Arthur enthusiasts have captured a little truth about Tintagel; It seems likely that it was a seat of power of the very type of Dark Age war lord from which the whole Arthur legend derives.

Archaeology Magazine


Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Archaeology and Tintagel.

  1. Kelly M

    April 16, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    A very interesting blog post, Rita. I’d love to visit Tintagel someday, even though I suspect it may be a bit too touristy.

    Your post is featured in my daily links for today –


  2. ritaroberts

    April 17, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Thank you for the feature Kelly. Tintagel is a magical place and well worth a visit.


  3. Mark Hubbs

    April 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Very nice post, Rita. My wife and I had the privilege of spending a nice afternoon at Tintagel last May. Despite the mis-identification with the Authorian legends, it is as you say, a magical place.


  4. History of the Ancient World

    April 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    Thank you for your kind comment Rita. It’s a pleasure to meet people with common interests. Thank you for sharing this interesting post. Would love to visit Tintagel someday. I’m sure it is magical place. Have a beautiful weekend.



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