Tintagel excavations reveal refined tastes of medieval settlers
English Heritage says people who lived on site of Cornish castle 1,000 years ago dined on oysters and imported fine tableware
Early Cornish kings feasted on a diet of oysters, roast pork and fine wine, eating and drinking from bowls imported from Turkey and glass goblets from Spain, a new dig at Tintagel Castle has suggested.
Discoveries made by the Cornwall archaeological unit (CAU) support the view that Tintagel was a royal site during the 5th and 6th centuries, with trading links reaching as far as the eastern Mediterranean.
Perched on Cornwall’s rugged north coast, Tintagel has for centuries been associated with the legend of King Arthur. Over the past 18 months, its custodian, English Heritage, has been accused of putting too much emphasis on the stories of Arthur and Merlin, rather than focusing on the site’s true, ancient Cornish heritage. The excavations, the first at Tintagel for decades, may help redress the balance.
The excavation also uncovered stone-walled structures on the southern terrace of Tintagel’s island area, with substantial stone walls and slate floors, accessed by a flight of slate steps.
Significant finds include a section of a fine Phocaean red slipware bowl from Turkey, imported amphorae thought to be from southern Turkey or Cyprus, and fine glassware from Spain. Cow, sheep and goat bones showing signs of butchering and cooking were unearthed, plus a cod bone – possible evidence of deep-sea fishing being carried out from Tintagel.
Win Scutt, properties curator for English Heritage, said: “These finds reveal a fascinating insight into the lives of those at Tintagel Castle more than 1,000 years ago. It is easy to assume that the fall of the Roman empire threw Britain into obscurity, but here on this dramatic Cornish clifftop they built substantial stone buildings, used fine tablewares from Turkey, drank from decorated Spanish glassware and feasted on pork, fish and oysters.
“They were clearly making use of products like wine and oil, contained in amphorae traded from the eastern Mediterranean. It’s a highly evocative picture and I am delighted that the time has come to return to site with the team to find out more.”
Jacky Nowakowski, project director at CAU, said: “Our excavations exceeded all expectations by partially revealing amazingly well-preserved stone walls, a slate floor and a flight of steps, which belong to a pair of well-built buildings.”
The finds were made last year, but the details have only been released as the team moves back in this summer for a second, broader dig.
Nowakowski said: “Our plan in 2017 is to open up a much larger area on the southern terrace, so that we get a good look at the scale and size of the buildings and find out exactly when they were built and how they were used.
“All indications to date could suggest that they are residential buildings perhaps lived in by important members of the community that lived and traded at Tintagel over 800 years ago.”
Tintagel Castle is one of the most spectacular historic sites in Britain and has been linked with the tales of King Arthur since the middle ages. The remains of the 13th-century castle, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, stand among those of a much earlier medieval settlement, where high-status leaders may have lived and traded with far-off lands, importing exotic goods and perhaps trading tin.
Some critics have accused English Heritage of the “Disneyfication” of Tintagel. There were howls of protest after an image of Merlin was carved into a rockface and when a statue believed by many to represent King Arthur was helicoptered on to one of the site’s most prominent spots.
There is also controversy over a plan to build a footbridge at the site, which critics worry will put additional pressure on the castle and erode its untamed feel.