On a windswept cliff top in the far west of England, a team of archaeologists are excavating an ancient settlement. Slowly, a series of massive walls emerge from beneath the ground. An important building clearly existed here at one time or another. But could the discovery add credit to one of history’s most enduring legends?
In July 2016, a team from England’s Cornwall Archaeological Unit arrived in Tintagel, a small village in the county of Cornwall. They were there to embark on a program of excavations due to last three weeks. And eventually, they hoped to demystify some of the legends and rumors surrounding this wild spot on the Atlantic coast.
The excavations were, in fact, part of a larger five-year research project funded by English Heritage, a charity that manages many of England’s historic landmarks. The goal of the project? To shed some light on the origins of the ancient ruins at Tintagel, which were first discovered in the 1930s.
Today, Tintagel is most famous as the alleged birthplace of King Arthur, a legendary king said to have lived in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. According to the stories, King Arthur defended Britain in the face of invading Saxons. And after uniting the country, he allegedly presided over a blissful decade of peace from his castle, Camelot.
According to the legend, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table defeated many foes and established a mighty empire that stretched as far as France. Moreover, some say the medieval king had magical powers. One famous story goes, for example, that he once pulled the enchanted sword Excalibur from solid rock.
The first mention of King Arthur comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric who put pen to paper in the 12th century. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey named Tintagel Castle as the conception place of the mysterious King Arthur. And although many scholars now believe the legendary king to be an amalgamation of historical leaders – rather than one singular real person – Tintagel is still famous the world over.
Understandably, the ruined castle that still stands on a peninsula at Tintagel has boosted this fame. However, the structure dates from the 13th century – far too late to have been a settlement in King Arthur’s time. So was Geoffrey’s Tintagel merely a figment of his imagination?
In the 1930s, the tale took another twist. Courtenay Ralegh Radford, an English historian and archaeologist specializing in the Dark Ages, began an excavation of the site of Tintagel Castle – and there he found evidence of what he believed was a Celtic monastery dating back to the 5th century.
Later archaeologists studying the area around Tintagel Castle have, however, disagreed with this theory. Instead, they believe that the site was a settlement for high-ranking citizens of Dumnonia, the ancient kingdom that covered swathes of South West England from the 4th to the 8th centuries.
In the 1990s, archaeologists from the Glasgow University in Scotland continued to excavate the site. Then in 1998 a shocking discovery was made: a slate engraved “Artognou,” or “Arthnou” in Latin. And although historians have been unable to link the find to King Arthur, its appearance has certainly helped to boost the village’s legendary connections.
For the 2016 excavations, archaeologists decided to focus on previously unexplored buildings thought to date back to medieval times. Accordingly, they chose two areas – one on the southern side of the castle and one to the east. They aimed to establish accurate dates for the ruins and determine what they might have been used for.
Initially, the trenches on the eastern side didn’t reveal much. However, archaeologists soon discovered the remains of a thick wall measuring more than three feet across. And then, on the southern side, they discovered more walls as well as a paved section and some steps.
Unlike with the buildings previously excavated at Tintagel, evidence suggests that more resources had been put into building these new structures and that they had been built to last. In fact, some have speculated that the walls might once have formed part of a vast palace complex. Could King Arthur’s birthplace have been real after all?
Lending support to this theory are the exciting discoveries that have been made within the mysterious walls. Among them are fragments of fine glass from France, pottery from Turkey and the Roman Empire and olive oil imported all the way from northern Africa.
At the time, these goods would have been considered the height of luxury, and therefore whoever lived within the walls would have been an individual of very high standing – perhaps even royalty. Yet although the elite may have inhabited the area, experts are quick to point out that there is still no strong evidence to suggest that King Arthur was among them.
Despite this, however, archaeologists have been able to build up a fascinating picture of what life in Tintagel was like during the Dark Ages. For example, according to earthworks surveys conducted in the region, the headland once boasted some 100 structures.
In addition, the high concentration of artifacts from around the globe indicate that the inhabitants of Tintagel often engaged in trade with the Mediterranean. The area in fact boasts more of these discoveries than any other location in Britain.
But could Tintagel have been merely a stopping point for traders on their way to the rest of the country? English Heritage properties curator Winn Scutt doesn’t think so. “It isn’t just a trading center to move olive oil around,” he said in a 2016 interview with BBC News. “They’re actually indulging in it, they’re feasting here.”
Indeed, some archaeologists believe that the site formed the very heart of an ancient kingdom. “Many people since the 1980s have argued that it’s a royal center,” continued Scutt, “and that it’s the royal centre of the kingdom of Dumnonia.”
As excavations drew to a close in August 2016, the archaeologists prepared to begin studying and analyzing their finds. But in the summer of 2017 they hope to return to the site and delve even deeper into its fascinating history. Whatever they find, though, it’s fairly certain that the legend of King Arthur will endure for many years to come.