Tintagel newly Arthurable

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

I like to think I’m current on this blog, but sometimes I have these moments where I am left to go, how did that get past me at the time? There is but small comfort, in this case, in learning that UK archæological magazine Current Archaeology is also a bit behind the times. Anyway, it was news to me, and I promised a post to Michelle at Heavenfield after mistakenly correcting hers on the place, maybe it’s news to you: there was probably a royal residence at Tintagel somewhen in the fifth to seventh centuries that might make a plausible setting for some Arthurian Dark Age warlord’s court, and the archaeology justifying assertions like this was published in 2007. Now Current Archaeology are reporting on it in what appears to have been their last issue for 2008.1 The new issue is just catching up with that Orkney stack that yielded a King Edgar penny that I mentioned before, too. Anyway…

A while ago someone asked me about Arthur and Tintagel and the result was one of my pub history rants, because Arthur is a subject about which British early medievalists get asked only slightly less than the Vikings, in my experience at least. At that point I didn’t know much about Tintagel and was still working with what I’d been told about it as a major import centre, but not really a secular power centre.2 I should have wondered about that, because whereas Anglo-Saxon trading sites of that period tend to be associated with, but not at, secular power centres, British and sub-Roman ones are very often at castles, though there is an extent to which we know about them because we dig obvious, visible castles more than eroded beaches and riverside fields. Dinas Powys and its massive assemblage of Mediterranean pottery, to which the Leslie Alcock book I have written about here so much adds several northern parallels, should have warned me there was probably a power presence here too.3 Well, turns out that a team from Glasgow (Glasgow again! They do shedloads up there) has been working on expanding that since 1990, with help indeed from television, helicopters and submarines, and indeed cunning use of your FWSE of choice will find them explaining this to The Heroic Age, so I don’t really have an excuse for not knowing. It’s their work that Current Archaeology is expounding. The web version gives you only a preview, and the eight-page feature with a great many gorgeous photos is actually pretty in-depth cover for CA though the lack of detail about the dating evidence is still very frustrating.

So what do they say? In brief, they detected lots that the earlier excavations weren’t subtle enough to find, making the picture on the near-island a great deal busier, and divided it on the basis of radio-carbon dates (calibrated; I suppose if I want them uncalibrated I better read the report) into three phases, centering on 395X460 CE, 415X535 and 560X670. That is to say, after some probably late fifth-century disuse it was revived in the sixth century and at that stage it was pretty large, the fortress wall (previously thought to belong to the high medieval castle but now dated by `unequivocal’ evidence to the fifth-seventh centuries) being greater in length even than South Cadbury, which has been generally associated with Camelot in legend since the seventeenth century. Although he later regretted it, Leslie Alcock observed when reporting on Cadbury that so large a perimeter implied a warlord who could gather enough men to defend it all, as any part undefended would have made a defence of any kind pointless.4 Tintagel, in its extremely isolated position, would be a lot harder to assault, but for all that some similar argument can be made. So yes, it’s a power centre, presumably for the kingdom of Dumnonia. The excavators do stress that it may not have been fully occupied for most of the year, which is fine with me, but when it was, it apparently had to hold a lot of people and they bought and used Mediterranean pottery, implying Mediterranean food and drink imported, and generally acted like Romans more than a bit. Whether Arthur fits into that depends very much on when you consider him to have maybe existed: if I was going to I’d wonder about the second phase more, but really I don’t think this is a worthwhile exercise.

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

Now, speaking of things that aren’t worthwhile exercises, have a look at this. This is a further piece of the argument for a royal centre here. I don’t think they need it; Gildas would have called anyone able to fill this place a tyrannus which makes them what we can call a king without worrying too much. Saying which king might be a bit much, but this stone is supposed to tell us more along those lines. It came out of a drain where it had been recycled as a cover in some later phase of occupation. If you can see the inscriptions scratched into it, the smaller lower ones are supposed by epigraphers to be later, and list some Latinised Celtic-sounding names, Paternus, Coliauus, Artognou, Col… again. The upper part, the big wild letters over-running what is now the edge, have been read as H A V G, and that has been expanded by no less a figure than Charles Thomas as H[onorius] Aug[ustus], that is the name of the Emperor contemporary with the first phase of medieval occupation here, which also apparently fits the lettering style. From this we are asked to believe that some Roman authority was still operative here then, hanging on to the tin trade, and that the later names are kings associating themselves with that remnant of Imperial power and renown.5 Well, I’m not alone in being sceptical about this—heck, I’m famous for being sceptical, right? I don’t want to argue with Charles Thomas about the reading, even though that `V’ has tails that mean that I would, untrained, read it as an `X’, and others have suggested that it should really be read [M]AXE… and therefore refer to someone called Maxentius. That would not be an emperor unless the lettering is earlier than Thomas supposes, as Emperor Maxentius died in 312, but it might be someone wanting to sound like an emperor. I like that better, because this is clearly not official inscription, it’s all over the place; this is graffiti. If Thomas is right, which he probably is given who he is, I agree that it means that someone cared who was emperor and I also agree that the names on it were probably people who wanted to sign up with the Empire’s memory somehow, but I don’t think that the messy look of the stone means anything like as serious as CA seem to be suggesting.

Of course, for some people the real news was that `Artognou’ as a name is sort of like Arthur. I don’t buy it myself, and again as I say I am not alone. But since I first wrote anything about Tintagel in answer to the question of evidence associating him with the place, and this time the dating would fit better, I think I owe it to the person to whom I then tried to give chapter and verse to keep up to date here.


1. Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007), reported on in eidem, “What is Tintagel?” in Current Archaeology no. 227 (London 2008), pp. 22-29. I’m not quite sure about the excavators being the authors of the CA article, however; they’re named as “source” which suggests that the actual presentation is down to the editor, Andrew Selkirk, or one of his team, which might explain some of the stranger things it says (see n. 5 below).

2. Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993). The CA article actually gives quite a good run-down on the earlier interpretation as a monastic trading centre, based on digs by C. A. Ralegh Radford in the 1950s.

3 Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

4. Idem, “Excavations at Cadbury-Camelot” in Antiquity Vol. 46 (London 1972), pp. 29-38; see also idem, Arthur’s Britain (London 1971), pp. 219-224 & 347-349, disowned in idem, Kings & Warriors, p. 5. Cf. idem, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 58 (London 1982), pp. 355-388, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare.

5. Barrowman, Batey & Morris, “What is Tintagel?”, pp. 27-29. It’s not clear to me that this is genuinely Thomas’s reading: none of the other places I find discussing this stone have him as source for anything more than the later names and their dating, and I can’t find anyone else reading it as `H A V G’. The CA article says, “we can now offer a corrected and more comprehensive interpretation based on meticulous study by Charles Thomas”, but whether this is coming from the site report, Thomas’s actual reading or the various spinning processes that have apparently been interposed between Thomas and this article, I’m not sure.

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