[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 second trench on the southern terrace – what a view!