Tintagel — Archaeology, Myth, and King Arthur

The excavation season at Tintagel Castle, an archaeological site, located in Cornwall, England coast ended August 3rd. After a month of excavations, they have reported some exciting finds. The site is owned by English Heritage and has a unique history.

The last week the internet has been abuzz with news of archaeologists discovering a castle at King Arthur’s purported birthplace. I am here once again to temper your expectations.

The History of Tintagel

Tintagel first settled in the late Roman period (3rd to 4th Centuries A.D.) This presence identified from bits of Roman pottery and a stone engraving. It was during the period commonly known as the Dark Ages the site rose to prominence. From about 450–650 it was an important site associated with the Kingdom of Dumnonia (modern day Devon and Cornwall). Ceramics from all over the Mediterranean world have been found indicating that it was a major trading center.

Arthur Comes to Town

In the 12th Century, the Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth in his pseudo-historical “Historia Regum Britanniae” was the first to tell the Arthur legend as we know it. In the book, he describes the circumstances of Arthur’s conception. Many stories circulating are stating that Tintagel was Arthur’s birthplace, but this was an addition of later writers.

The original story tells that Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon is so enamored with Arthur’s mother Igerna, that he goes to war with her current husband, Gorlois. While besieging a neighboring town, he learns that she is taking refuge in Tintagel. Using Merlin’s magic, he transforms himself to look like Gorlois and sneaks into the castle. While there he enjoys a night of passion with Igerna who thinks it is her husband. The unpleasant fact of this rape is often overlooked and described as a “trick.” That night Arthur is conceived.

The Tintagel site during Monmouth’s time would have been an overgrown ruin. The oral tradition that Tintagel was a place of importance was strong enough that he choose it as the location for Arthur’s conception. It was this connection that is more than likely the reason Richard, Earl of Cornwall built a castle on the location in 1230’s.

Science to the Rescue

According to the English Heritage Website earlier this year archaeologists using geophysics identified the remains of walls and layers of buildings. This summer excavation began to determine what the geophysics survey had discovered. Four trenches were opened up, and a 1-meter wall located. Other artifacts recovered include Late Roman pottery, glass, and ceramics from around the Mediterranean

The finds at Tintagel are exciting because it is the first structure dating to the 450–650 A.D. time-frame found at the site. Now that the field season has wrapped up the archaeologists hope to get radiocarbon dates from the finds to determine the chronology of the site.