Ertach Kernow – Tintagel Castle & Cornish Archaeology

Tintagel Castle is one of Cornwall most important tourism destinations. About twenty percent of Cornwall’s economy is tourism with a very sizeable amount of that through the heritage and culture sector. This includes our museums, galleries, historic buildings, performance art venues, gardens, numerous sites within the designated Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Cornish Mining World Heritage Sites. When secondary businesses operating via retail and hospitality within the heritage sector are included overall reliance for tourism on Cornwall’s heritage and culture can be appreciated. Those  visiting Cornwall for historic, cultural and environmental reasons often spend more per capita than families making this sector highly profitable.

A primary tourist destination, Tintagel Castle is run by English Heritage. It’s not just English Heritage that benefits from visitors to the castle, where would the small town of Tintagel be without the castle. Would it still be called Trevena as it was in the 19th century before the name Tintagel started to be used by the post office around 1900? Tintagel could perhaps still be a small village dominated by holiday homes with few businesses similar to many small coastal villages around Cornwall. It was the castle that turned Trevena into Tintagel a major destination for tourists visiting the castle, and archaeology that helped turn the castle into the tourist honey pot that it is today, projecting its history and legends around the world.

Glass Magic Lantern Slide Tintagel Castle c1890
Glass Magic Lantern Slide View of Tintagel Castle C1890

Tintagel with its myths about King Arthur by medieval authors has also contributed to Cornwall’s wider heritage tourism sector. A Visit Cornwall survey in 2016 found that 38% of tourists visit historical attractions, with around 250,000 visiting Tintagel, which is in the top 10 visited places in Cornwall. The new bridge access has created even more opportunities for people to visit albeit some physical restrictions remain for many potential visitors who can just gaze over the site.

By the 15th century the castle built around 1233 by the rich and powerful Richard Earl of Cornwall was falling into ruin. The erosion and loss of the land bridge access by the 17th century made the island virtually inaccessible and the castle continued decaying. It wasn’t until the revival of interest in the medieval age during the 19th century by people such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott and in Cornwall the writings of the vicar of Morwenstow, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker of Trelawny fame, reignited fascination in Tintagel. Potential interest for tourism was seen, Tintagel saw some limited restoration, the name of the village changed linking it to Tintagel and the Arthurian tourist industry was off. Silvanus Trevail the renowned Cornish architect certainly thought so and was instrumental in construction of the  King Arthur’s Castle Hotel, now the Camelot Hotel, completed in 1899.

Cornwall postcard - Castle Keep, Tintagel
Early 20th century postcard Tintagel Castle
This copy of the History was produced in England in the late 12th-century

Past visitor numbers were more restricted, interest being based around the Arthurian legends and the medieval castle. Subsequent archaeological investigations have showed Tintagel to have been a far more important historic site than just the medieval fortress. It has been strongly suggested that Richard Earl of Cornwall basically built a folly rather than a defensive castle,  helping integrate himself with Cornwall through Arthur and creating personal prestige. The story of King Arthur was made famous during the 12th century through the fanciful writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ completed about 1138. The French writer Chrétien de Troyes jumped on the bandwagon, adding other characters and the Holy Grail and Sir Thomas Mallory in the 15th century expanded further what would become a huge money-making myth.

Henry Jenner who was a major personality in the Cornish revival movement had branded ‘King Arthur's castle’ at Tintagel a historical imposter. This had helped encourage a major archaeological excavation by Dr C A Ralegh Radford in 1933 with further work in 1936 and 1938. A further smaller post war dig by Dr Radford took place in 1955, but sadly much of Radford’s pre-war records were destroyed in a wartime air raid on Exeter. However, Radford had published some of his findings and these showed a move in thinking towards much earlier occupation dates in the 5th and 6th centuries. Later archaeological investigations, including those in the 1990’s, would re-examine Radford’s excavations. These saw a greater collection of artefacts and uncovering of much more past construction, leading to improved understanding of the site and its growing importance in far earlier times. The artifacts including huge amounts of pottery sherds from amphorae, tableware and suchlike demonstrating Tintagel being a major trading post, certainly during Roman times. Inscribed stones and monuments have been found with Roman inscriptions pointing to 2nd and 3rd century occupation.

Dr Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford
Neglected Tintagel c1900 - Royal Cornwall Museum

The five-week 2018 archaeological dig, highlighted on BBC television through ‘King Arthur’s Britain: The Truth Unearthed’, presented by Professor Alice Roberts helped promote Tintagel and Cornwall worldwide. Much new evidence about occupation and the timeline of activities at Tintagel was found during these excavations led by Jacky Nowakowski.

Improved interpretation boards and booklets now provide a wealth of information about the sites archaeology, including its occupation since Roman times, enhancing tourist visits to Tintagel Castle. This has provided better balance of Tintagel’s true history and its international status as a place to trade, part of Cornwall’s tin production heritage, alongside the mythical Arthurian myths for which there is no evidence.

I am indebted to Jacky Nowakowski who as the Principal Archaeologist with the Cornwall Archaeological Unit on this dig shared her thoughts on Tintagel and her teams work there. She also highlighted the importance of archaeological digs to local town and village communities throughout Cornwall and their residents enthusiastic involvement. Jacky, now a freelance archaeologist and researcher continues to work and live in Cornwall and we look forward to arranging events with her later this year.

The subject of Tintagel is vast and there is still much to discover. This article is just able to use it here as an  illustration of Cornwall’s rich historic past that has been exposed and promoted through the work of archaeologists. The creation of further employment through the heritage sector of people, due to the work and widespread skills learned by archaeologists at university, is an additional bonus to the economy. Archaeology degrees also provide a huge range of transferrable skills for other occupations within the wider heritage sector, science and many others. Unfortunately, the UK government announced earlier this year it was cutting funding to 43 universities who deliver degrees in archaeology.

James Gossip, Alice Roberts, Jacky Nowakowski & Win Scutt (Bude & Stratton Post)
Roman Milestone Tintagel

Cornwall is fortunate to have its own Archaeology Department alongside the History, Heritage & Culture courses at Truro College. This is a great opportunity to study archaeology and heritage for students who wish to remain here in Cornwall or come here to study. Graduates from Truro College have gone on to work with the Cornwall Archaeological Unit helping provide Cornish people with local opportunities and also throughout the world. We can only hope that the government re-evaluates its thoughts, realising that archaeology is a subject more than worthy of continued funding and support.

Ertach Kernow - Called to the court of the king
Ertach Kernow - Called to the court of the king