Research on Tintagel Castle

In the 1930s the archaeologist Ralegh Radford proved through his discovery of pottery fragments that Tintagel was once part of a trading network that reached throughout the Mediterranean world. He believed that the earlier building remains were those of a monastery, but it is now thought that they belong to a secular settlement, possibly a residence of local rulers.

Ralegh Radford at Tintagel

Ralegh Radford talking to visitors amid his excavations at Tintagel in the 1930s

Ralegh Radford’s excavations

Ralegh Radford’s excavations of 1933–9 produced the plan of the remains seen by visitors  today. His interpretation stood unquestioned for 40 years: that Tintagel was a Dark Age Celtic monastery; that the earliest parts of the castle were built in the 12th century by Reginald, illegitimate son of King Henry I and Earl of Cornwall 1140–75; and that his building work uncovered remains of the earlier monastery which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary use of the site for King Arthur’s conception.

Artognou slate

This piece of slate, found during excavations in 1998, is scratched with various words, including three names, probably in the 6th century; one of the two British names was ARTOGNOU; however, the similarity of the first part of this name to Arthur is not significant, since many British names began with Arto- (later Arth-)

Research 1970–2000

This interpretation began to be questioned in the 1970s.[1] The site’s size and the wealth of luxury goods found there speak against a monastery, and it does not resemble known monastic sites in western Britain and Ireland, of which many have been studied since the 1930s.

In 1981 Ralegh Radford’s dating of the medieval castle was also questioned, on two grounds.[2] First, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was completed in about 1138, before Reginald became Earl of Cornwall in 1140. There seems to be no archaeological indication that the castle is of the 12th rather than the 13th century, and no historical evidence for a castle there is known before the 1230s. Thus there must have been another reason for Geoffrey’s literary reference to the site rather than castle building there by Earl Reginald or anyone else.

Second, the name of Tintagel is Cornish, meaning ‘the fort of the constriction’. The use of this name by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s, before any medieval castle was built there, means that it was an older name, presumably referring to the Dark Age structure.[3] The simplest explanation for Geoffrey’s use of Tintagel was that the legends themselves were older than his History, arising out of local memories of the importance of the site in the 5th and 6th centuries, and that the medieval castle was in fact inspired by legend.

In 1983 a major fire on the island destroyed the turf over a considerable area. A detailed survey of the headland in 1985 produced a plan showing many more remains than had previously been recognised.[4] Tintagel parish church with its exceptionally large graveyard also became a focus of attention.[5]   

In the 1990s detailed excavations on the eastern side of the island confirmed that both the rectangular huts and the great ditch were contemporary with the imported pottery, and also produced much more in the way of pottery finds as well as fine glass fragments.[6]   

 

Recent Research

In summer 2016 English Heritage began a major five-year research project to find out more about how the people of Tintagel lived in the post-Roman period, between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. The initial phase of excavations, in collaboration with Cornwall Archaeological Unit, involved digging trenches in two previously unexcavated areas on Tintagel island where geophysical surveys have detected the walls of buried buildings.

One of the trenches on the eastern side of the headland revealed a large wall about 1 metre thick, while the trenches on the southern side yielded a series of stone walls, some areas of paving and a series of steps. Hundreds of sherds of Mediterranean pottery were found, as well as several pieces of fine glass. Analysis of these finds should provide more information on the date of the buildings and the likely sequence of activity in both areas, which will help to determine the location for further excavations in summer 2017.

Outstanding research questions

Much is still not understood about Tintagel, particularly the precise nature and extent of the Dark Age occupation, and the reason why that phase ended.

  • Although Tintagel was evidently of great economic significance between about AD 450 and AD 650, it is not clear whether it was a primary trading centre or whether the goods were traded elsewhere and brought here for use. At present the choice lies mainly between a trading centre and a site of high prestige, perhaps seasonally occupied by the local ruler.
  • Its defensive qualities, the possibility of ritual use, perhaps for royal inaugurations, and the contemporary Irish immigration in the same area of Cornwall are additional factors to be considered. Several roles could be compatible with one another. It is not clear whether further archaeological investigation could help to answer these questions.
  • Further work on other relevant sites of this period, such as Bantham in south Devon, may also clarify the special role of Tintagel in Mediterranean trade.
  • On the mainland the banks lying inland from the great ditch, towards the church, seem not to have received much attention; it would be interesting to know their date and nature. Their shape does not obviously suggest that they formed outer ramparts parallel to the great ditch.
  • The excavations in the churchyard were necessarily of limited extent. If it were possible to carry out further investigation there, both inside and outside the churchyard wall, it might enhance our understanding of the whole area.
  • Historically there may be scope for further documentary work on the use made of the castle and of its context within the manor of Bossiney (later called Tintagel) in the 13th to 15th centuries.

    

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Footnotes

1. Ian CG Burrow, ‘Tintagel – some problems’, Scottish Archaeological Forum, 5 (1974), 99–103.
2. OJ Padel, ‘Tintagel – an alternative view’, in A Provisional List of Imported Pottery in Post-Roman Western Britain and Ireland, ed C Thomas (Redruth, 1981), 28–9.
3Ibid.
4. Published most accessibly in C Thomas, Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology (London, 1985), plate 4 (and see pp 75–6).
5. JA Nowakowski and AC Thomas, Grave News from Tintagel: An Account of a Season of Archaeological Excavation at Tintagel Churchyard, Cornwall, 1991 (Truro, 1992).
6. RC Barrowman, CE Batey and CD Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990–1999, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 74 (London, 2007).

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