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Members of the Meneage Archaeological Group are currently involved in a dig at Tintagel exposing walls, floor plans, steps and middens of post Roman buildings. The site is on the west side of the isthmus quite close to a steep incline, although there may be structures below it.

Tintagel 2We are not looking for Arthur and do not expect to find him, but he is ultimately responsible for the dig. English Heritage has funded the excavations at great expense, all for the purpose of putting meat on the bones of post Roman Cornwall. In turn the levy on visitors chasing a dream provides the cash, and the dream of Arthur provides the impetus.

Tintagel 3Tintagel Island is the nexus of mythic tentacles stretching across continents and deep into the minds of curious time travellers. Bolstering the visitor attracting power of English Heritage's Fortress of the West a recently added sculpture of Mythical Merlin and a diaphanous statue of an Arthurian Wraith on the headland magnetise the iron wills of the global pilgrims who tread 249 steps for the view from the top.

Currently promising to be C5 – C7 AD, the site of the excavation has experienced reoccupation and additions from other time periods. Merovingian glass fragments, amphorae shards, Phocaean ware and one pottery sherd with an ‘A’ inscribed (or possibly a Greek alpha) indicate Mediterranean trade and high status living.
On Sunday (6th August 2017) two sherds of D Ware imported from southern France, probably in the 7th century AD, came to light, apparently quite rare and, the week before, some splendid gabbroic bar lug¹ grass marked ware was found.

The latter was previously thought to be introduced from Ireland with settlers in the West Country (Hayle) but, recently this has been thrown into reverse and the origin of the gabbroic clay, certainly is St Keverne parish. This find of a substantial part of a bar lug cauldron also suggests that use of grass marked pottery might cover an even more extended period earlier than its currently accepted timescale. Residues adhering to the base have the potential to provide a precise date for its last use when cracking over the fire and ruining someone's day.

Tintagel 4I had looked on The Island sporadically from early childhood, a no-go area protected by entrance charges, basking in its legendary glow, but 2 years ago I gained access with the aid of a downloaded printout offered up by a bank working on the theory that no-one would navigate the tortuous procedure leading to its eventual use. Merlin's cave, an epithet to trap the myth-motivated unwary; a draughty inhospitable place even for a magician, but a seal ululated eerily against the splash of waves and intruding drone of a light aircraft.

Climbing the steps to the flat plateau above the cliffs revealed a deflated parachute draped over featureless shapes, one of which might have been the Once and Future King, his long prophesied second coming delayed while lying comatose after an unrehearsed heavy landing upon descent from the light aircraft I heard but didn't quite see. Having no idea whether normal resuscitation procedures might work on semi legendary figures or quasi-immortal mythical beings I chose to investigate no further, already feeling out of depth in this high place.

'Tis all a myth, perhaps. Tintagel castle is centuries too late for a Dark Age Lord, but it is not the castle that we are excavating: it is a collection of rectangular walls on the western edge of the Island, revealed by geophysical survey and exposed by archaeologists, mostly at their own expense; the rewards, an incremental exposure of the past and a fine sunset view.

Is it all a myth? Maybe. My mind is polluted with the sludge of undigested speculation, the bric-a-brac of half heard rumour and suggestion, but there are few, a very few, hard points on which to build a folly of the imagination to mimic what might have been.

Tintagel 5Concrete evidence in the form of a wandering granite standing stone with a later inscription near Castle Dore, between Tywardreath and Fowey, reading, DRVSTANVS HIC IACIT / CVNOMORI FILIVS, (suggested mid to late 6th century) with the 'M' inverted and the 'D' reversed by its semi literate inscriptor. Two characters, Tristan of He and Isolde, and Mark Cunomorus, a Dark Lord with maritime connections.

A waypoint in a Saxon Perambulation² here, on The Lizard - Hryt Eselt, the Ford of Isolde, unremembered now but vivid in AD967, less than half a millennium later than events it can be skewed to relate.

Tintagel was chosen as the location for Arthur's conception by a descendant of a Breton involved in the Reconquest³ (1066 and All That) and a Welsh mother (probability reigns here). Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is a difficult read relying on inputs from lost British documents, confusion and repetition of events from different standpoints. An interpretation⁴ suggests Arthur's personality dates well before the accepted period to a conflation of 1st century BC personalities. The idyll of the Sword in the Stone is a Bronze Age description of casting a weapon in a greisen mould from Cligga Head (pure speculation now) whose splitting reveals a weapon - visual imagery which might be thought legendary.

¹The lug protects the suspension cord from the fire
² Grant of land at Lesneague & Pennare in St Keverne by King Edgar to Wulfnoth Rumuncant, his faithful vassal AD 967
Aerest up of porth alaw andlang rithe agean stream to hryt eselt
(First up from Porthallow along the stream against the flow to Eselt's ford)
³Brittany had been populated by 3 emigrations from Britain, mainly from Cornwall. Monks, saints, residues of a disintegrating Roman army, Irish, Welsh & most of all Cornish established themselves, naming vast areas Cornouai & Domnonia. Grumpiness lingers long in the human psyche & is easily transmitted across generations. That an enthusiastic Breton army joined a Norman descendant of Vikings in the invasion of England suggests long memories. Quite a few Breton families resettled in Cornwall or Wales.
⁴ Miles Russell: Arthur and the Kings of Britain

Published: Aug 2017
Author: Chris Harris
Photos by Stephen Fletcher and other members of MAG/TCARP
Thanks to Historic England and Arthur for funding