Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999  

Early Medieval Tintagel:

An Interview with Archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady


The HA Staff

There are few places across the landscape of Britain that evoke Arthur more than Tintagel, where, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was born. Since Geoffrey's time, Tintagel has figured prominently in most Arthurian tales. In the past, historians and archaeologists have not only denied that there is proof of Arthur's historical association with Tintagel but have also asserted that there is no reason to associate the British nobility of Arthur's Age with Tintagel. During the last fifteen years, archaeologists have radically revised the role of early medieval Tintagel, recognizing the site's important role in the kingdom of Domnonia and as a link to the world far beyond the British Isles. Imported artifacts found at Tintagel alone proves that Britain and Ireland were not isolated from the remains of the Roman world in the fifth and sixth centuries. This fact alone radically revises the traditional historiography of fifth century British Isles. What follows is a discussion with two members of Glasgow University's Tintagel archaeology team, Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady, on their excavations at Tintagel in recent years.

HA: I understand there were two especially significant findings last year, an inscribed slate which generated a lot of excitement and an imported glass vessel, so let's begin there. Could you tell us what is inscribed on the slate and its probable date?

RH & KB: The stone, which was broken and re-used as part of a drain, has two inscriptions. The more obvious inscription along the top of the stone has at least four discernible letters, although it is impossible to say what they represent at the moment due to the way the stone has been broken in antiquity. The second more lightly incised inscription is smaller and etched across the surface below that described above. Preliminary analysis by Prof. Charles Thomas has indicated that this inscription is basically in Latin with some primitive Irish and British elements. It probably reads PATER/COLI AVI FICIT/ARTOGNOV. Prof. Thomas has suggested that a likely translation would be "Artognou, father of a descendent of Coll, has had (this) made/built/constructed". The dating of the stone is arrived at by two methods: firstly, the stone came from a securely stratified context in association with imported pottery of known types dating to the fifth/sixth centuries; secondly, forms of certain letters noted on the slate appear in British inscribed stones from Scotland to Cornwall post-500 and are certainly known elsewhere from 6th century north Cornwall (part of the kingdom on Dumnonia).

HA: Then the stone is securely dated to the sixth century?

RH & KB: As we have outlined, the inscription has been dated by two means, namely the linguistic analysis by Prof. Charles Thomas, and the associated ceramics. We would stress that these are preliminary conclusions, pending final post-excavation analysis and final publication this year. However, all the early indications are that the area from which the stone and ceramics originated is undisturbed and can be dated to the 5th/6th centuries.

HA: What is the significance of this artifact?

RH & KB: This is a remarkable find for several reasons. Obviously, it is the name on the stone which has caught the imagination of the press and the public at large. The British name represented by the Latin ARTOGNOU is Arthnou. The first element uses the Celtic element art-os, Irish - art, Welsh - arth (meaning the animal "bear"). This is similar to many other Celtic names such as Arthmail, Arthien, etc. It does not, however, read as "Arthur". The name on the stone is in no way directly associated with King Arthur, a legendary and literary figure. As two people who have been digging at the site for a considerable time we would prefer to look at what the artefact says about the significance of the site, and the people who inhabited it. Our work has clearly established that this is a secular, high status settlement during the post-Roman period. To date, all inscribed stones from this period have either been recovered from an ecclesiastical/monastic context or are personal memorials to the dead. The context and content of this inscription is therefore unique. These words were not inscribed to the greater glory of God, or to the memory of an individual, but for a more profane end. There are implications for the level of literacy amongst the entourage of the Dumnonian rulers at Tintagel. When viewed with the finds of imported pottery from north Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, and the examples of luxurious imported glassware, a picture begins to emerge of a settlement still trading with the wider Roman world.

HA: Can you describe the imported glass that was found during your excavations? What was its association with the inscription?

RH & KB: Several finds of fine glass ware have been recovered from our excavations at Tintagel. A small glass vessel sherd (probably fourth century) was found on the cliff terrace below that of Site C (the area partially excavated in 1998), whilst finds of small glass beads and occasional sherds from imported continental glass wares have also been recovered. However, by far the most exciting is the cache of glass recovered last year. There are twelve fragments, the largest being a neck sherd approximately 70mm x 50mm, and 2mm thick. The glass is a yellowish green colour and very finely made. It was found in a secure context stratified above the inscribed slate.

HA:  According to the University of Glasgow's online report on Tintagel, the glass vessel discovered last summer is of Spanish/Iberian origin. How did you identify its origin and what is the significance of this finding?

RH & KB: According to the University of Glasgow's on-line report on Tintagel, Dr. Ewan Campbell has suggested that the glass would have come from a vessel similar to types known from Malaga/Cadiz in Spain, dating 6th/7th centuries. Our post-excavation programme is only just beginning, and this is only a preliminary assessment. Dr. Campbell is to undertake research into both our finds of glass and those of Dr. Ralegh Radford (who excavated at the site in the 1930s) and the findings will be published in our final report in the Antiquaries Journal in the year 2000. Dr. Campbell has studied assemblages of post-Roman glass from other sites in western Britain and Ireland, and suggests this may be a unique find. Once again, the evidence for a trade in luxury items is suggested, perhaps as "cargo fillers" for vessels carrying larger loads of olive oil and wine (as evidenced by the finds of hundreds of amphora sherds).

HA: Tintagel appears to have been part of a large trading network. Based on your findings in recent years, what can you tell us about the extent of this network?

RH & KB: The finds from our excavations, and from Radford's excavations before us, demonstrate trading links as far east as Asia Minor, along the east Mediterranean coast, and as far south as North Africa. Links with Gaul and Spain may also now be evidenced by the finds of glass vessel sherds from the site. Sherds from these glass and ceramic wares are found on early Medieval sites situated in west Britain, Wales, western Scotland and Ireland, which may mark the northern extent of this trading network.

HA: Do you think Tintagel was a port through which all Irish Sea trade with the continent was funneled through or was it just one of many stops continental traders made in Britain and Ireland?

RH & KB: Charles Thomas has done a lot of work on this subject. He has suggested that Tintagel is a "stop off point" for traders, who would then travel on to further trading ports further up the west coast of Britain, and Ireland. It should be noted that more sherds of imported pottery have been found at Tintagel than all the other sites from this period in Britain and Ireland put together. We recovered over 800 sherds of imported pottery from our excavations on the Middle Terrace of Site C alone, and have published around 100 from our excavations on the Lower Terrace (The Antiquaries Journal, 77 1997). [Harry, R. and Morris, C. D. (1997) "Excavations on the Lower Terrace, Site C, Tintagel Island 1990-94" The Antiquaries Journal 77: 1-143.]

HA: How have discoveries at Tintagel in recent years altered our understanding of occupation at the site?

RH & KB: When the site was first excavated by Dr. Ralegh Radford in the 1930s early Medieval (or Dark Age, as it was called then) archaeology was still heavily influenced by Arthurian notions. Radford, influenced by the historian Jenner, led a considerable interpretative shift when he suggested that Tintagel was in fact a Celtic monastery and not an "Arthurian" site. Several works re-analysing Radford's findings (there are very little records surviving from his excavations), and the ceramic assemblage from his excavations, and analysis of the Medieval literature and historical documents, led to growing disquiet with his hypotheses. In the mid-1980s a fire on Tintagel Island led to considerable erosion of the topsoil, and over 100 more building foundations than were recorded by Radford could be seen. Our excavations have been the culmination of this change in interpretation at the site, and have produced evidence not for monastic settlement, but for a high status, secular settlement.

HA: A hundred new buildings? For those of us who have never been to Tintagel, how large is the headland? How many phases of construction can be documented?

RH & KB: Firstly, the plateau of the island is around 400m x 400m; however, there are terraces around the sides of the island, many of which have buildings constructed on them (such as Site C).

Secondly, the phases of construction cannot really be documented, other than those indicated by evidence elsewhere, such as the 13th century castle on the island and mainland sides, the Victorian, and later, rebuilds, and the excavated evidence of post-Roman occupation. Other than this, the only evidence we have for the dating sequence of the buildings on the plateau is that excavated by Radford in the 1930s, and as we have mentioned, most of his records were lost. This is one of the main reasons for our fieldwork at Tintagel, to try to validate and evaluate Radford's work, and to excavate an untouched building which is comparable to those he excavated all over the plateau.

HA: In what relation are the newest post-Roman buildings found by your team to the post-Roman buildings found by previous excavation teams?

RH & KB: The building on the Lower Terrace of Site C, which we have already excavated and published, was newly identified in the late 1980s. It is situated on a cliff terrace below that excavated by Radford (ie. the Middle Terrace, Site C), and there is therefore no stratigraphic relation between the two. Our work on the Middle Terrace has provided more of a link between Radford's work and our own, as we have re-excavated the building he excavated and interpreted as post-Roman. Adjacent to this we have now excavated undisturbed post-Roman deposits, and identified the putative remains of a further structure which we will be excavating this year (hopefully!).

HA:The following questions all pertain to the fifth to sixth century, the era in which King Arthur is set.

What was the function of the Tintagel at that time?  Do you subscribe to Charles Thomas's recent interpretation of Tintagel as a seasonally occupied trading center? Do the recent finds challenge such an interpretation or support it?

RH & KB: A citadel of the Dumnonian rulers perhaps, certainly a high status site with far reaching contacts.

We have referred to this in our previously published report in the antiqs journal, 1997. Our excavations on the Lower Terrace recovered evidence of several short-lived and insubstantial buildings, not strictly comparable to those seen reconstructed on the Island today. We have suggested that this may support Charles Thomas' theory of a seasonal occupation at the site, linked to trading activities. However, this is at present still a theory as we have only excavated one, small building!

Hopefully this year, once we have been able to excavate the putative "new" building on Site C we will have more evidence from our environmental programme to explore this. At present, the amount of data from the environmental programme on the Lower Terrace is too small to make far-reaching conclusions.

HA: Was it a site of family occupation or a business site?

RH & KB: From the amount of imported pottery (and to some extent glass) from the site it would certainly suggest that this is a "business" site as you term it. However, this does not preclude it from being also a family/families residence.

HA: How large was the population?

RH & KB: I'm afraid this is beyond the scope of our work. Even guestimates based on the number of visible buildings is impossible as we don't know the construction sequence of the buildings, which may span 800 years.

HA: Has your team been able to determine when the site was abandoned and why?

RH & KB: No, not the entire site. However, we have a clear radiocarbon dating sequence for the phases of building on the Lower Terrace which suggests that the final phase of occupation dates to 560 - 670 cal AD (95% confidence). This is only one small part of the site, and one which was also subject to erosion down the cliff face (this may have affected the duration of occupation on this terrace).

HA: So far we have concentrated on post-Roman occupation; what can you tell us about the site during the Roman period?

RH & KB: So far the evidence for Roman occupation at Tintagel is scant. It includes a couple of milestones in the vicinity, including one in Tintagel churchyard. This dates to the reign of Licinius AD 308-24. The earliest context that we were able to date from the Lower Terrace produced a date of 395-460 cal AD, and a terminus ante quem for an earlier structure. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this is late Roman in date. The absence of imported pottery, and the presence of apparently late Roman pottery in phases above, would appear to suggest a late Roman date for this structure (Harry and Morris, 1997: 121).

HA: To what extent, if any, has the geography at and around Tintagel changed since the Roman period?

RH & KB: By geography we presume you mean topography, and such a historical mapping exercise is well outwith the confines of this project. We can't imagine it's changed very much at all. One event recorded and very important in the context of the island, was the collapse of the land bridge in the 16th century. This event gave rise to the misnomer, "Island". Slate quarrying has also left its mark.

HA: How have last years findings altered your plans for this years excavations?

RH & KB: Not at all really!!

HA: Who is sponsoring the excavations at Tintagel and which groups are involved in the project?

RH & KB: English Heritage and Glasgow University sponsor the project (English Heritage manage the site on behalf of the owners, the Duchy of Cornwall). The Tintagel team is made up of people from several different groups, including as well as GU and EH, Bristol University, the Cornwall Archaeology Unit and specialists such as Charles Thomas.

From Dennis C. Clark, San Francisco, Ca. (Arthurnet): Can you explicate the published translation from the Latin? Especially avi as "descendant" when it normally means "grandfather" or "ancestor"?

RH & KB: There is currently an army of linguistic specialists arguing over this inscription!! The interim translation which we are working with is Charles Thomas's work, and is open to revision.

Nicole (Arthurnet) : I hope to be in Cornwall in June and would like to know whether it is possible to see the excavations and maybe even some of the findings (although I expect they will not be kept there!)?

RH & KB: We are hoping to excavate at the site in late June, although we are still awaiting a decision on funding. There will be guided tours every day of our excavations for all interested parties.

The editors of the Heroic Age would like to thank Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady for taking the time to converse with us and we wish them good luck on the 1999 Tintagel excavation.  

If you are interested in further readings on Tintagel the editors of The Heroic Age suggest the following:

Batey, C., Sharpe, S. and Thorpe, C. 1993. "Tintagel Castle: archaeological investigation of the Steps area 1989 and 1990" Cornish Archaeology 32: 47-66.

Brady, K., Harry, R., Johnson, P., and Morris, C. D. et al. (Forthcoming 2000). "Excavations by Dr C A R Radford on the Middle Terrace, Site C, and elsewhere, Tintagel Island 1934-9: Final report and retrospective view from excavations 1993-5" Antiquaries Journal volume 80

Dark, Kenneth Rainsbury. 1985. "The Plan and Interpretation of Tintagel." Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 9: 1-17.

Dark, Kenneth Rainsbury, ed. 1996. External Contacts and the Economy in Late Roman Britain and Post-Roman Britain  Boydell Press.

Harry, R. and Morris, C. D. 1997. "Excavations on the Lower Terrace, Site C, Tintagel Island 1990-94"The Antiquaries Journal, 77: 1-143.

Morris, C. D. 1991. "Tintagel Island 1990: An Interim Report", Cornish Archaeology 30: 260-262.

Morris, C. D. 1992. "Tintagel Island 1991: An Interim Report", Cornish Archaeology 31:  135-138.

Morris, C. D. 1995. "Tintagel Island 1993: An Interim Report", Cornish Archaeology 34: 191-195.

Morris, Christopher. 1995. "Not King Arthur, but King Someone" British Archaeology Issue 4

Padel, O.J. 1991. "Some Southwestern Sites with Arthurian Associations" in The Arthur of the Welsh: Arthurian Literature in Medieval Welsh Literature  R. Bromwich, A. Jarman, and R. Roberts, Eds. University of Wales Press.

Radford, C. A. Ralegh. (1939) Tintagel Castle. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission

Radford, C. A. Ralegh. 1987. "Romance and Reality in Cornwall", pp. 59-78 in The Quest for Arthur's Britain, edited by Geoffrey Ashe. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers

Thomas, Charles. 1990. "The Context of Tintagel. A New Model for the Diffusion of Post-Roman Mediterranean Imports." Cornish Archaeology 27: 7-25.

Thomas, Charles. 1993. Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology. London: Batsford/English Heritage

Thomas, Charles. 1994. And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press

"Tintagel 1998" University of Glasgow Departmental News Page.

(c) 1999, The Heroic Age, All Rights Reserved.

Next Return to Table of Contents Return to Homepage