This week saw the completion of a three week excavation at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, with the trenches back-filled and the turf replaced on Wednesday. The staff and volunteers from Cornwall Archaeological Unit have worked incredibly hard through all weathers – extreme heat, lots of wind and quite a bit of rain, not to mention climbing hundreds of steps every day to reach the site! But the discoveries have been well worth the effort with some fascinating evidence of the early medieval settlement beginning to come to light.
These excavations were the first part of a five year English Heritage research project with a team from Cornwall Archaeological Unit commissioned to work alongside a range of specialists to investigate some of the buildings of this extraordinary settlement. Occupied between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, the defended headland had somewhere in the region of 100 buildings, known from earthwork surveys.
Previous excavations at Tintagel have revealed the outlines of some of these buildings, and provided evidence of far-flung connections. Sherds of amphorae (storage jars), pieces of fine plates and bowls and fragments of decorated glass vessels show that the people living here were trading with the Mediterranean world.
More of this sort of material has been found at Tintagel than any other site in Britain. We therefore assume that this was a high-status settlement, possibly seasonally occupied by regional leaders or kings of Dumnonia (the regional kingdom in this area). But there is still much that we don’t understand. When exactly was the site occupied? Why was it abandoned? What activities were being carried out there? What did the buildings look like? Were they stores, workshops or houses?
Although extensive excavations took place at Tintagel in the 1930s by C. A. Ralegh Radford, this was largely clearance work to display the building remains to the public and many of the records were lost when Radford’s house in Exeter 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 excavated by Radford. The 2016 excavations are the first time that completely undisturbed buildings from the early medieval period have been explored.
Excavating the headland
We selected two areas where we thought the buildings would be well preserved – one area on the southern terraces, and one on the eastern side of the headland. The aim for this year was to evaluate what survived in these two locations, and so two small trenches were opened up in each area. We wanted to secure accurate dates for the buildings and to establish what they looked like, the depth of the archaeological deposits and the potential for the areas to yield good information about the form and function of the buildings.
The first trench on the eastern side revealed a confusing jumble of stone rubble and natural outcrops, but the second trench had some more exciting results, including a large wall about 1 metre thick. It might be part of a building, or it might be a retaining wall for the construction of a flat terrace in this area. On the southern side of the headland, the two trenches revealed a series of stone walls, some areas of paving and also a series of steps.
Crucial to evaluating the area was establishing the depth of archaeological deposits – were these structures built on top of earlier buildings? One of the walls appeared to have been built on top of soil that contained early medieval pottery, so this suggests that there is a long sequence of activity in this area.
Early medieval finds
Around 200 sherds of imported Mediterranean pottery were found, as well as several pieces of fine glass vessels (some decorated), which suggests that we are looking at early medieval buildings that formed part of the high-status settlement. Compared to other buildings of this date excavated elsewhere at Tintagel, the evidence does appear to suggest more permanent, substantial buildings, but it might be that they are just better preserved.
Now that the first excavation season has been completed, the team from Cornwall Archaeological Unit and various specialists will be hard at work over the next few months processing samples and analysing the finds. From this work, by spring 2017 we hope to have more information on the date of the buildings and the possible sequence of activity at these two locations, at which point we shall be making a decision on which of the two areas we will return to for further excavations in summer 2017.
Update: Explore Tintagel summer 2017
Tintagel Castle is open 10:00 – 18:00, 7 days a week until 30 September
- English Heritage Members are free to enter
- Ticket prices are: Adult: £8.40, Concessions: £7.60, Child: £5.00, Family: £21.80
You can also join us in July for our Archaeology Festival, and do your very own archaeological detective work.