Archaeology at Tintagel… on the edge of a cliff!

[I begin with two things – a confession and an apology. Firstly, the day I’ve chosen to describe in my Day of Archaeology isn’t actually the 29 July – as that day I was happily walking the south-west coast path and sitting on a beach in Cornwall. So I’ll be describing my day on Tuesday 26 July instead. Secondly, apologies as it’s being posted so late – the holiday is the reason for that too!]

Tuesday wasn’t a typical day in my role as Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, but as I struggle to describe a typical day that’s nothing unusual. The day was spent at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, where there are currently excavations being carried out by Cornwall Archaeology Unit, on our behalf. I drove down in the morning to meet a couple of TV crews – one from BBC Spotlight and another from the ITV local news, who had both been invited to cover the story of the excavations. After re-reading our press release and having a quick chat with our PR manager, I gave a couple of interviews about why we were carrying out the project, and took the crews up to the excavations to meet the archaeologists and show them the site.

Looking across to Tintagel Castle headland from the mainland.

Looking across to Tintagel Castle headland from the mainland.

I’ve been involved with Tintagel Castle for a couple of years, working on a complete overhaul of the interpretation and visitor information on site, alongisde various improvements to the cafe, shop and ticket points. We installed a new permanent exhibition in the visitor centre in 2015, and added a range of interpretation panels and artistic installations to the site at Easter 2016. My role was to carry out the historical and archaeological research, write the text, commission the reconstructions and models, and also to work alongside artists and interpretation colleagues to deliver the rest of the project.

The new exhibition at Tintagel installed in 2015.

The new exhibition at Tintagel installed in 2015.

So, what are we doing now at Tintagel? This is the first year of a five year research project which aims to find out more about the early medieval (post-Roman) settlement on the site. Occupied between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, this extraordinary defended site had somewhere in the region of 100 buildings scattered across the headland. It was linked to a trading network connecting it to the Mediterranean world – more imported amphora and fine tablewares, as well as fine glasswares, have been found at Tintagel than anywhere else in western Europe. We assume that this was an elite, possibly royal settlement, occupied perhaps by the rulers of the kingdom of Dumnonia. But there is much that we don’t understand – when exactly was the site occupied? What sort of activities were being carried out on site? Was it a seasonal settlement? What did the buildings look like? Were they stores, workshops or houses? Although excavations took place at Tintagel in the 1930s by C. A. Raleigh Radford, this was largely clearance work to display the building remains to the public and many of the records were lost when Radford’s Exeter house was bombed in the Second World War. A small amount of work was carried out in the 1990s by Glasgow University but it was restricted to the area already disturbed by Radford.

Site C, a range of buildings excavated by Radford in the 1930s and again by Glasgow University in the 1990s.

Site C, a range of buildings excavated by Radford in the 1930s and again by Glasgow University in the 1990s.

Cornwall Archaeology Unit (CAU) have been commissioned to carry out this research work which involves two seasons of excavations, plus post-ex analysis and publication following. This year’s archaeological work is an evaluation of two key areas of the site to establish the nature of the post-Roman remains and to identify one of the two areas for more in-depth archaeological work next year. The two areas were chosen as they were likely to preserve good archaeological stratigraphy and were undisturbed by medieval activity or later archaeological work. The first area is on the southern terrace where a small trench was opened as part of the Extreme Archaeology series in about 2003 – remember that? It had some dramatic footage of Alice Roberts dangling off a rope but actually the terrace is very accessible and not that scary to work on! The second area is on the eastern terraces, not far from the visitor steps up to the chapel area of the headland.

Whilst the TV crews were filming the archaeology and interviewing colleagues, I had a chance to look at the trenches for the first time. As I write the excavations are still ongoing, but early results look very interesting, with walls and areas of paving, and lots of finds including amphora fragments and pieces of glass.

Staff and volunteers from CAU hard at work in one of the southern terrace trenches.

Staff and volunteers from CAU hard at work in one of the southern terrace trenches.

Once the media interviews were over, I went up to the mainland courtyard to check on the set up for my talk to visitors. We have been hosting events for our visitors all week to tie into the excavations – regular talks from the site team in the morning and then a programme of talks from different specialists in the afternoon, as well as hands-on activities for children. Various staff and volunteers from CAU have also been on hand to talk to visitors about the archaeology at the trench edge. Of course, this is one of the busiest times of year being the summer holidays, so it takes quite a bit of time to get up and down the steps to the headland due to the sheer numbers of people – this narrow and steep route is the only way on and off the castle, at least for the time being!

My talk is entitled ‘Tintagel: where history meets legend’ which is also the title of the exhibition. I’m trying to explain to visitors how history and legend at Tintagel are completely intertwined – you can’t understand one without the other. My audience is typical for Tintagel visitors at this time of year – lots of families, children and a few attentive dogs. I try to explain how the site has became attached to the tradition of King Arthur and also introduce them to the other key legend at the site – the love story of Tristan and Iseult, and weave in the history of the site too. They all listen wonderfully and then I get lots of questions about the castle, the archaeology project and King Arthur. Various people come up afterwards to ask more questions about the site, including one teenager who wanted advice on becoming an archaeologist.

After a late lunch, I head back up to the castle to see how the panels and installations were being received by visitors – it is lovely to stand near a panel that you have written and hear people read it out to their children and see them engage with the sculptures and reconstructions.

An interpretation panel at Tintagel Castle

Visitors reading one of our new interpretation panels near the Great Hall. This one has the remains of a medieval feast in bronze on the top.

I also wanted to take some more photographs of the archaeology in action and speak to the volunteers. We had been planning to have lots of social media coverage but unfortunately broadband has been down at Tintagel for several days and there is no mobile signal, making it difficult to upload posts! Luckily one of the volunteers is a dab hand with photogrammetry and has made some brilliant 3D models of the trenches. He is also happily filming everyone with a handheld camcorder for the BBC’s Digging for Britain.

Unexpectedly I have a spare morning before my second talk to visitors tomorrow afternoon, and my offer to help in the trenches is seized upon by the team – luckily I have packed my trowel. It’s not often I get to actually do real archaeology – this will be a first in 11 years in the job!

Planning the trench - what a view!

Planning the second trench on the southern terrace – what a view!


Castles, community, and John Clare


Today has been divided between multiple tasks on two different projects. I’ve already talked about my viking food culture project here, but my other job relates to a community archaeology project I’ve been involved in with my colleague (and wife) Aleks McClain.

For the last few years, we have been assisting the local community of the village of Helpston in west Cambridgeshire as they investigate the history and archaeology of their area. Helpston is most famous as the birthplace of John Clare, a 19th-century agricultural labourer, who went in to become arguably England’s greatest rural poet. However, on the edge of Helpston village lies Torpel Manor Field: an enigmatic series of earthworks that has been little explored. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as the remains of an Anglo-Norman ringwork, represents one of the first fortifications constructed in the area following the Norman Conquest. However, it is clear that the site is a more complicated, multi-phase phenomenon than this.

The site is stewarded by the Langdyke Countryside Trust, who have successfully won Heritage Lottery Funding to care for the site as both a heritage monument and  a wildlife preserve. We have been working the the Trust, leading to the foundation of the Helpston History and Archaeological Group, assisting them in topographic and geophysical survey across the site, and in providing information for display in their newly constructed on-site Interpretation Centre. The group have also undertaken fieldwalking and testpitting at a number of sites across the village, as well as engaging in extensive documentary and archive research.

13 torpel bw small Torpel survey

Earthwork and magnetometry survey at Torpel Manor Field.  Note the mound in the south of the earthwork survey, the complex of perimeter ditches and banks, and a number of outlying structures and building platforms to the north. Geophysics has demonstrated that many of these earthworks conceal the remains of walls and robbing trenches, as well as identifying a number of previously unsuspected features. 

As a result of all this work, a number of gaps in the village’s history are starting to be filled in, so that Helpston is no longer thought of solely as the home of John Clare, and a narrative can now be written that extends from later prehistory, via the Norman Conquest, through to the present day.  There will be numerous academic outputs from this work, but right now we are working on the production of a popular-interest book that explores the biography of Torpel’s landscape.  We hope to self-publish this within the year, and this afternoon was a busy and productive editorial meeting involving myself and Aleks.

IMG_0695Hard at work on the Torpel Story….

I’m not going to give away our findings here, but keep your eye out for further updates later in the year.

Check out our project here (we have a new website in development, to be linked from the same site).


Day of Archaeology – What have Archaeovision been doing? A Computational perspective

From James Miles:

As a relatively new commercial company we have had a lot of success within a number of research projects utilising computational methods in archaeology. We began the year by recoding the Insula Dell’ara Coeli in Rome, a second century building that can be found at the foot of the Capitoline hill. This was followed by a number of imaging related projects such as our Rode Imaging project, our photogrammetry work for the National museum of Estonia, Deerhurst Church and Salisbury Cathedral, included a 3D print of part of the medieval frieze found in the chapter house. Combined with other laser scanning projects such as the work completed at the Lady of Kazan church in Tallinn and the Ice House at Beaulieu, it has been a very busy year for us.


3D print of the Medieval Frieze

As those who specialise in computational methods, the majority of our time is spent in front of a computer, staring blankly at a screen waiting for our software to work and to stop crashing. Today has been no different! Archaeovision is split into three organisations, we have a company in England, a company in Estonia and a non-profit organisation that allows us to apply for research grants. We have therefore been working on a number of different projects within one day. James who is based in the UK has spent the majority of the day working on his PhD trying to process laser scan models for use within structural analysis tests and finalise a few of his thesis chapters. At the same time he been working on the admin side of the business, dealing with emails, invoices and trying to arrange our storage system. He has recently returned from California where he was part of a research led project looking at Chumash archaeology run by the University of Central Lancashire. His involvement was based on the recording of a number of different cave systems and he will spend this evening going through the scan data, tidying the data and creating virtual replicas of the areas required.



Californian landscape

Attached to our UK company are Tom Goskar and Paul Cripps. Both act as consultants for us and both have already posted about their ongoing work. Tom’s focused on his medieval and web based work whilst Paul’s mentioned his work on his automation project and LiDAR project. Tom and Paul are both experts in their field and it’s a privilege to be able to work with them. Part of the emails that James has been dealing with today is through a future calibration project that follows Paul’s LiDAR work. We are in the final stages of negotiating terms and hopefully this will be underway shortly. At the same time James and Hembo, who is a partner of the business, have been dealing with a request for a website design, again today was spent trying to finalise the details of the work and understand fully what our client wants. Hembo has an extensive background in web based technology and has spent most of the day working on the website for the 2016’s CAA conference that is taking place in Oslo, Norway. Hembo manages this website, along with many others, throughout the year. Today Hembo has been focussing on the Open Conference System for the CAA conference, trying to streamline the submission process for next year’s papers. Hembo has also recently returned from Italy through his involvement in the Portus Project and has been working on the archive system used on site.


Connected to out Estonian team, Kaarel has managed to find time away from the computer and has spent the day completing a survey in south west Estonia. Andres has spent the day working on his Haapsalu Episcopal Castle project which captured an incredible 404 scans over a two day period. He has been tidying up the model for use within a Building Information Model and has been establishing if any areas need further recording. His work made the national news this week which has been great for the company. Connected to this, James was also interviewed during the week in regard to the Ein Gedi scrolls because of his experience with Computed Tomography scanning. The article that the interview was used for was published today on the Smithsonian website. Although the majority of the interview was not used, it has been a good day for us in terms of publicity and for the University of Southampton which James is connected to.


Laser scan model of Haapsalu Castle

For most of us our day has been spent inside. On plus side for those of us in the UK, we have avoided the rain and have a fondness for coffee. A perfect combination for the long days’ worth of processing data and dealing with admin. Tomorrow involves more of the same but we will get to play about with some photogrammetric modelling that needs to be completed for one of our ongoing projects.

Looking at castles for a living

Name: William Wyeth

What do you do?
I’m a PhD student based jointly at RCAHMS and Stirling University, researching Scotland’s early stone castles.

Castle Tioram Highland

Castle Tioram Highland

Part of my work as a PhD student includes visits to sites like Castle Tioram, where I help with the surveying of sites and learn how to read the masonry of castles to interpret different phases of construct.

How did you get here?
I am from London and have always been interested in pre-modern warfare. At university I studied Roman history, after which I tried my hand in various jobs before deciding on heritage and archaeology. I took a fixed-term position as an Education & Outreach trainee at RCAHMS; during this time I developed an interest in Scottish history, especially the Wars of Independence period, which led to me applying for this PhD position.

What are you working on today?
I am working on developing the questions I want to answer by looking at the evidence available to me. All research requires a lot of reading and thinking, so quite a lot of time is spent reading something which will likely never appear in the final work, but which triggers ideas and theories which may play a role further down the line.

Here I am in my office at RCAHMS, where I spend the large majority of my time. I spend my time reading books, working through a large database of sites and writing. A PhD is a long and uncertain journey, so it’s nice to have two office mates, Iain and Miriam, to keep me company!

Here I am in my office at RCAHMS, where I spend the large majority of my time. I spend my time reading books, working through a large database of sites and writing. A PhD is a long and uncertain journey, so it's nice to have two office mates, Iain and Miriam, to keep me company!

My Desk

Favourite part of your job?
Site visits! It is quite difficult to grasp a site in its entirety without either having a solid plan and bank of photographs, or a comprehensive site visit. These also give you a much better grasp of the area in which the castle sits, an element as important as the castle itself.

Recently I went on a sightseeing tour of castle sites in the Highlands. Given that many castles are located in important communication routes or well-defended locations, it’s unsurprising that some castles have been replaced by later buildings, as at Ruthven.

Lag tower was a spontaneous discovery while on fieldwork. A delay one morning meant I was able to walk in the countryside nearby; I saw an abandoned farmstead, an iron age fort and Lag Tower (marked as Tower House on the Ordinance Survey map of the area). It’s a well-preserved 16th-c tower atop a small steep mound.

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?
I am not an archaeologist by training, but my experience of site visits with surveyors at RCAHMS has taught me two things; firstly, consider the setting of the site: where is it located in relation to everything around it? How might things have been different? The second tip is to be aware of the impact of earlier people in trying to restore or conserve structures or sites; sometimes their understanding of the site might not always be accurate.

Piers Dixon (RCAHMS) – South Lanarkshire

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Early Stone Castles of South Lanarkshire

I have been working as an Archaeological Investigator for RCAHMS since 1989 and currently as an Operations Manager in Survey and Recording. As a medievalist I have long been interested in castles in all their variety wherever they occur from Scotland to Greece, but opportunities for me to record and research them for RCAHMS only became available in 2000 with the Donside survey that led to the publication of In the Shadow of Bennachie (2007). This showed me that we have a lot to learn about the origin and development of castles, with a rash of motte-like structures, including the dramatic castle of Invernochty, Strathdon, with its ‘later’ stone curtain wall built by the ‘native’ earl of Mar, not all of which were medieval castles at all. Baileys, usually part and parcel of the castle earthwork, were absent, except at the Bass of Inverurie, but the mottes were often big enough to take a range of structures. More worrying was the absence of identifiable elite structures of the immediately preceding period.

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

The origins of castles in Scotland are generally assumed to derive from the influx of Anglo-French followers of King David and his successors bringing with them their notions of what was necessary for the centre of power of a lordship. Raising an earthwork or modifying a natural mound to make a place of strength was the quickest way of achieving this. South Lanarkshire provides a good test bed for this thesis since the documentation tells us that it was settled in the 12th century by Flemish knights, some of whom established themselves by building castles based on mottes or earthworks that defy easy definition. Some like Coulter motte in the care of Historic Scotland, or Crawford castle, a motte with a later stone tower, appear to have been typical conical mounded structures, but others like the earthwork at Castle Qua just outside Lanark, or that at Cadzow, not far from the later stone castle, take the form of promontories defended by earthworks with broad external ditches.  These were sites that were rejected as prehistoric settlement enclosures by the Royal Commission investigators in the 1970s, although a Roman coin found during excavations by Lanarkshire Archaeology Society of the Cadzow earthwork suggest a late Iron Age or Dark Age date.

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Further investigation of these sites is clearly needed. That at Castle Qua has been the focus of some interest locally and the Commission has reviewed the possibility of further survey work at the site with Addyman Archaeology for the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership.  The site itself is a dramatic one with a cliff on one side dropping down to the Mouse Water more than 100 feet below. A substantial earthwork that displays traces of stone facings lies within broad ditch enclosing an area some 30m across with traces of structures near the cliff edge. A second ditch suggests the possibility of a bailey.

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Archaeology has also thrown up spanners in the dating of mottes, for example, excavations by Chris Tabraham at Roberton motte in the 1970s produced a sherd of imported pottery from France dated to the 14th century from the base of the mound. This contradicts the established wisdom of dating the construction of mottes and other earthwork castles to the 12th and 13th centuries by incoming Flemish lords. Although there is a good correlation between the documented Flemish incomers and the eponymous villages of Roberton, Thankerton, Symington, Covington, Lamington and Wiston, for example, all settlements of potentially medieval origin,  earthwork castles have yet to be located at all of them.  There is clearly much work to be done here in understanding the development of castles and this area provides an excellent location for doing just that.

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon



This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.