Few backdrops in Great Britain are as dramatic as the rocky promontory in the southwest village of Tintagel where cobalt Atlantic waters crash against sheer Cornwall cliffs. The evocative landscape lends itself easily to romantic tales such as the centuries-old story that the legendary King Arthur was born in a castle that once topped the rugged peninsula.
According to the legend, King Arthur united the Britons in the 5th or 6th century to repel the invading Anglo-Saxons who had been gaining territory and sacking village after village after establishing a foothold in the far southeast of Great Britain. His successful rebuff of the Anglo-Saxon invasion ushered in the peaceful age of Camelot.
Likely building on earlier heroic tales that began to arise around the 9th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain,” written around 1138 A.D., firmly established the legend of King Arthur. His account was the first life story of Arthur and the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table, the wizard Merlin and Queen Guinevere. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text contains the earliest written mention of how Arthur was conceived at a castle in Tintagel as the result of a union between a British king and the wife of his arch-enemy after Merlin magically disguised the monarch as the woman’s husband. In 1478 William of Worcester furthered the story by writing that Tintagel was also Arthur’s birthplace.
Scholars have long debated whether King Arthur was a mere myth or an actual person. Although King Arthur supposedly won a series of 12 battles against the Anglo-Saxon warlords, his name is absent from the only surviving contemporary history of the invasion. Some believe he could even have been an amalgamation of both historical and fictitious figures from the Dark Ages. There is no contemporary evidence, though, that he ever existed.
The latest archaeological finds at Tintagel, however, may only fuel the debate over King Arthur. Building upon geophysical surveys conducted earlier this year at Tintagel in which upwards of a dozen buried buildings were detected atop the promontory, archaeologists spent two weeks building four trenches at a previously untouched terrace area. The recently completed excavation—carried out by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit with funding from the site’s owner, English Heritage—unearthed substantial masonry walls up to three feet thick, steps and slate flagstone floors dating between the 5th and 7th centuries, the supposed era of Camelot. According to English Heritage, the walls “may well have belonged to high-status buildings on the island.” The Independent newspaper reports they are likely the remains of a royal palace that belonged to the 6th century rulers of a southwest British kingdom called Dumnonia.
In addition to the large stone structures, the archaeologists unearthed more than 200 artifacts including shards of imported late-Roman amphorae that once held wines and olive oil, fragments of fine glass and a sizable piece of Phocaean tableware. Previous excavations at Tintagel have yielded thousands of glass fragments and pottery pieces, some from as far away as modern-day Turkey and north Africa. The presence of so many Mediterranean artifacts demonstrated that Tintagel prospered as a trading port between 450 and 650 A.D. as foreign merchants exchanged luxury goods for the tin of Cornwall. The settlement at Tintagel was already in decline by the time a deadly bubonic plague epidemic swept cross the promontory in the early 7th century and likely led to its abandonment. In the 13th century, Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, returned to the rocky outcrop to build a medieval castle, whose ruins still stand today.
While some Arthurian devotees can’t help but make a connection between the possible palace found atop Tintagel and the legendary castle in which the king was supposedly born, the archaeological team did not set out to either prove or disprove the existence of King Arthur but to learn more about the history of Great Britain in the centuries following the collapse of Roman rule in 410 A.D. “The discovery of high-status buildings—potentially a royal palace complex—at Tintagel is transforming our understanding of the site. It is helping to reveal an intriguing picture of what life was like in a place of such importance in the historically little-known centuries following the collapse of Roman administration in Britain,” Win Scutt, English Heritage’s properties curator for the west of the country, told the Independent.
This summer’s excavation was only the first phase of a five-year research project being undertaken at Tintagel. “We’re cutting a small window into the site’s history, to guide wider excavations next year,” says Scutt of what English Heritage calls “a scratch of the surface and a taster of what may lie in wait.”
Archaeologists will now focus their efforts on radiocarbon dating the samples of soil, ceramics, glass, iron, bone and mollusks harvested from the dig site so that they can determine the exact age of the artifacts. “It’s when these samples are studied in the laboratory that the fun really starts, and we’ll begin to unearth Tintagel’s secrets,” Scutt says.