Are Ancient Inscriptions Found at Tintagel Evidence of King Arthur’s Presence?
The Guardian Newspaper has reported a remarkable find in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. A slab of slate has been discovered during an extraction at the famous Tintagel historic site on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall, South-West England. What makes this slate so important was that there is writing on it from a period when examples of literacy are extremely rare. The writing is an exciting discovery and it is allowing experts to challenge assumptions about the Dark Ages while demonstrating the current importance of Tintagel as an historical source.
Detail of an inscription on a slate discovered at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. English Heritage. Image: © English Heritage/Christopher Ison
Tintagel Island Peninsula
The Tintagel Peninsula is an area of great historical significance and some 100 buildings have been discovered at this site, the most famous of which is Tintagel Castle. The castle is located on Tintagel Island, a headland on the North Cornwall coast. Its geography has made it an ideal location for fortresses and it was an important stronghold for many centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire. Tintagel Castle was one of the most important sites in England during the Dark Ages and is famous for its association with the Arthurian Legends. The Telegraph reports that, ‘for centuries, historians have searched for evidence that Tintagel Castle was the birthplace of King Arthur’.
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Excavation in August 2017. (Public Domain)
The stone was discovered last summer during a five-year investigation of the Tintagel area that was commissioned by English Heritage. The inscribed stone was found by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU). The Tintagel area has yielded many artifacts from the period from the 5 th to the 7 th century AD. Among the finds are elaborate Spanish glassware and tableware from Turkey.
7th-century Window Ledge
The stone, which is 60cm (23.6 inches) in length, has been tentatively dated to the 7 th century and is one of the few examples of writing that we have from this period. It is the second important find of writing from Tintagel, as another enigmatic inscription was discovered some years ago. The slate, which was probably used as a window ledge, was inscribed with a bewildering mix of Latin, Greek, and Celtic. Some of it has been deciphered and the writing includes a Roman and a Celtic name.
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Specialist digital imaging was created by Dr Tom Goskar to show the detail of the inscription. Image: © English Heritage /Tom Goskar
There is speculation that the writing is that of a scribe who was practicing his style rather than the finished copy. Win Scutt of English Heritage speculates it is the ‘work of someone practicing their handwriting, perhaps carving words into the stone while gazing out to sea’ reports the Telegraph. The writing is in a formal script used in religious manuscripts such as illuminated gospels and an informal script that was employed for official and legal documents. There are intriguing elements in the writing such as a triangle that may represent the Greek letter delta.
The experts who made the find are so excited by the evidence of writing from the 7 th century AD. It is impossible to determine who etched the writing onto the slate but according to Win Scutt, “[what] we can say is that seventh-century Tintagel had professional scribes who were familiar with the techniques of writing manuscripts” reports The Guardian. The scribes at Tintagel, who were all probably Christians, were aware of writing styles from other parts of the British Isles. Writing was restricted to a select few who were patronized by the church or wealth nobles at this time.
A calligrapher writing in Medieval style text. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The evidence for professional scribes working at Tintagel lends credence to the view that Tintagel was an important royal seat in the British Isles during the Dark Ages. The fact that scribes were present indicates that the castle was a wealthy cultural center and that education was valued. This is not something expected in the Dark Ages. The inscriptions, along with the previous finds of luxury ware, would indicate that the site was connected to international trade routes. It seems that Tintagel had a sophisticated lifestyle and that this period was ‘Cornwall’s First Golden Age’ according to the News network Archaeology blog. It is this evidence of Tintagel being a sophisticated and important seat of power very early adds to the so far fairly unsubstantiated speculation that the legendary (key word) Arthur could be associated with the area.
A Sign of King Arthur?
The discovery of the inscription is allowing researchers to understand more of Tintagel and the British Isles in the Dark Ages. It is showing us that it was not a period of decline and barbarism, but that Tintagel and most likely other locations had sophisticated cultures, with international connections. However, sadly the slab does not reveal anything that may hint specifically that King Arthur inhabited Tintagel.
Top image: Tintagel Castle. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan