Tintagel II – a not as wet as I expected festival of archaeology

If you don’t know about our English Heritage research and excavation project at Tintagel, have a look at my Day of Archaeology post from last year, or catch up with the work so far during the 2017 season on Twitter or Facebook.

Checking the weather forecast the day before, it looked like it was going to be a very wet visit.

I even went out and bought a new large umbrella.

The purpose of heading to Tintagel was to see progress on the research excavations, where the fantastic team from Cornwall Archaeological Unit and their volunteers have been uncovering a series of inter-linked early medieval buildings, dating from the 5-7th centuries AD. The team has been commissioned by English Heritage to try and understand more about the site at this time. It seems there was an elite settlement, fortified town and trading post there but a full set of buildings from this period has never been excavated with modern archaeological techniques before. I was keen to see how they were getting on!

Secondly, I was also taking a new colleague, Dr Nick Holder, to the site for the first time. Nick has recently joined my properties research team at English Heritage and will be taking over from me on this particular project as it goes forward. So this was a good chance to show him the site, introduce him to people and discuss the various research and visitor projects currently taking place.

And finally, it is our Festival of Archaeology week at Tintagel, and various members of staff and people involved in the project have volunteered (or been volunteered) to lead tours for our visitors as part of the week of activites. I was due to be leading two tours, one at 12noon and one at 2pm. I’d chosen to focus my tour on the headland plateau, taking people around the various ruins and buildings that tell us about the early medieval settlement on the site.

The forecast had improved dramatically overnight and on arrival in Tintagel village it was spitting with rain but not too bad. We headed straight up to see the excavations, bumping into James (excavation site manager) and Doug (visitor site manager) on the steps on the way up.

The trenches are looking absolutely fantastic. James and Brett showed us the key discoveries – both interior and exterior surfaces, a possible hearth, really well preserved stone walling and all kinds of exciting finds. We had a discussion about possible changes to our backfilling and preservation strategy, about radiocarbon dating and environmental sampling, potential floor surfaces etc. One new interesting discovery is that the walls are held together with a firm grey clay, so these weren’t just drystone wall buildings.

Photograph of the Tintagel excavations 2017

The well-preserved wall and doorway at the upper level of the excavations.

Photograph of the Tintagel excavations 2017

Here you can see that some of the walls partly slipped down into the building as it decayed. And you can see the grey clay matrix which holds the wall together.

Photograph of Tintagel excavations 2017

Overview of the excavations, with volunteers hard at work! A possible hearth lies under the black plastic in the left-hand corner and a nice paved floor is in the central trench.

Photograph of Tintagel excavations 2017

The view from the excavations takes some beating. Even on a wet and windy day like today! That’s Tintagel parish church on the mainland, where certain elite people from the settlement were buried in the 6th century AD.

My tours of the early medieval settlement went really well – about 15 people for the first one and 6 for the second (it was pouring with rain by then!) but all interested people with good questions. Managed to make the kids make faces and say ‘eurgh’ at the mention of fish custard in the amphorae! Luckily I had a radio mic so not all my words were blown away in the wind.

The weather worsened in the afternoon so it was a bit of a battle against the wind and rain as I showed my new colleague around Tintagel properly, discussing various future projects, publishing my research on the site and decision-making behind the interpretation project we delivered last year. Then we returned to the excavations to see some of the key finds. Some of the volunteers were asking why I wasn’t in the trench with them – I wish!

On the way back up to the village we bumped into Neil Burridge, master metalworker, who had been doing silver smithing up in the mainland courtyard all week for our visitors as part of the Festival of Archaeology. He’d had a fantastic week so I was really pleased to have asked him along to help out. Giving us a lift back up in his van, we talked about the lead and silver (galena) mine under the island and the fact that the excavations have turned up some crucible fragments this week – so metalworking was certainly happening at Tintagel in the early medieval period, as well as in 2017!

After a long drive home with no voice left and tired legs after all those steps, I’ll be glad to have a hot bath! Although I’ll be handing over responsibility for the Tintagel research project to Nick, I’ll certainly be keeping up with the key discoveries and analysis over the next few years – there will be lots more to say about this magical site.


As this is the last ever Day of Archaeology (sob!) I just wanted to say a huge THANK YOU to the volunteer team who dreamt up this wonderful idea and give up their own days of archaeology to edit, monitor and publish posts. May we all have many more days of archaeology in the future.