On 11th Feb, English Heritage reported on a new piece of art within their Tintagel site: a carving of the sleeping face of Merlin, cut into the living rock of the slate cliff above the beach and near the entrance to “Merlin’s Cave”. This is part of the ‘reimagining’ of Tintagel by English Heritage that we are promised will include other dimensions, including a new bridge linking the mainland and island.
You can see the story on EH’s own website here, and a longer video on YouTube here where the local sculptor (Peter Graham) and the property manager (Matt Ward) explain the rationale for, and enthuse about, the carving.
The English Heritage site of Tintagel occupies a beautiful natural coastal Cornish landscape. It is the focus of an important early medieval (sub-Roman/Dark Age) elite site on the island – perhaps a royal residence/assembly place of the kings of Dumnonia. It is one of only a few places in the British landscape where visitors can see the foundations of early medieval houses. There is also the fabulous Norman church of St Materiana’s on the coast looking out to the island which might mark the spot of an equally ancient early medieval religious focus.
These foci (particularly their Arthurian associations) may have inspired the decision by Richard Earl of Cornwall to place a castle spanning the island and mainland in the early 13th century. A medieval borough developed south of the castle. This landscape was a locus of 18th/19th-century coastal industrial activity. From the late Victorian era it had become a tourist hub focusing on Arthurian dimensions.
Tintagel’s Public Archaeology
Arthurian dimensions are fully integrated to the site’s archaeological history too. A series of excavation programmes from the 1930s through to the 1990s have shifted interpretations from early medieval monastery to early medieval elite residence. Likewise, the castle has been reinterpreted as both an ideological device as well as a fortified residence.
For me, the first piece of reading one should look at for the public archaeology of Tintagel is a co-authored article by Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette in the journal Public Archaeology. It can be downloaded here. Charles Thomas’s interesting but idiosyncratic 1993 book on Tintagel seems to be out of favour and EH have long refused to stock and sell it.
Around these multiple strands, various folkloric dimensions, legends and allusions – Cornish, Celtic, British, Arthurian, Tolkeinesque, pagan and Christian interleave and intertwine. Some are indeed ancient; most are very modern. In relation to these many varied expectations for visitors, there has long been an awareness that the heritage experience of Tintagel is long due for coherent reappraisal and reworking, including access, conservation and interpretation.
In short, Tintagel’s EH site has for a long time surfed on a wave of commercialised tourist effluent and fringe delusions. Also, as Orange and Laviolette identify, the EH heritage surfboard has long been unsatisfactory in riding this wave, lacking exciting and clear archaeological narratives for the site and its landscape – both its historical and legendary dimensions. Visitors enjoy the natural qualities of the visit, but often leave dissatisfied and confused, especially regarding the relationship between the proto-historical/historical sites’ different phases and the range of folkloric and legendary features within the heritage site.
For example, Orange and Laviolette identify the possible rock-cut footprint that might relate to early medieval royal inauguration (or might not) but note how its interpretation is avoided in the EH guide book available at that time. There has also been perceived a lack of local hinterland context explained to visitors – this is a common criticism of many EH and Cadw properties.
Art in Contemporary Heritage: Tintagel and Beyond
I’ve been aware that many heritage sites are receiving ‘reimaginings’ by populating them with modern art of various kinds, as I recently discussed in relation to Kidwelly Castle here. This applies to many other post-industrial landscapes, ancient monuments and heritage sites discussed on my blog, as for example, the sculpting in wood of Offa beside Offa’s Dyke near Nant Mill, Wrexham. I have previously commented on my own snobbery for not recognising the value of some of this art as here.
So this new Tintagel sculpture has a broad context of heritage professionals using ‘art’ to reconfigure both historical and legendary connections to place and given this background of writing about art, I should be welcoming it. Put it another way, in the current climate, it is not a surprise that sculpture was included in plans to redisplay the EH site of Tintagel to visitors. Art can be an important means of fostering and conveying social memories at heritage sites.
My Initial Reaction
Despite my enthusiasm for discussing art in heritage sites, my immediate reaction was of genuine shock when I saw that new art was being inscribed at Tintagel. This prompted me to post a negative tweet. This then got transferred to my Facebook page where many other reasonable-minded archaeologists presumed it was a parody and genuinely thought I was winding them up. After that came very critical comments by archaeologists, calling it ‘vandalism’. Others were more favourable, pointing out the long-term Arthurian imaginings go back to at least the 13th century, thus implying that this art was justified in this context. In other words, my FB archaeological pals had mixed views on the art.
I decided to delete this Facebook post. I didn’t want this discussion to appear as a personal attack against the sculptor, the site or the EH heritage professionals responsible for it. I’m not interested in doing that. Instead, I thought it better to write a blog entry instead that reflects on broader issues.
Putting the Tintagel Art in Perspective
On reflection, I realised that the Merlin head sculpture is not very big. I haven’t visited it, but the videos suggest it is actually quite discrete behind a large rock and doesn’t impose itself on the entrance to the cave. Indeed, the YouTube video shows someone entering the cave some distance from the sculptor at work to her left.
The cave itself is down by the beach and not on the main approach to the island and so somewhat out-of-the-way for most visitors. So perhaps it isn’t a big deal at all.
The landscape has many dimensions to it and many existing overtly Arthurian dimensions including hotels, tourist hotspots and even a stone circle. It seems ridiculous criticising a small life-sized sculpture when there are monumental hotels like the Camelot Castle Hotel to take a stab at!
Also, this small sculpture is nothing compared with the major reworking of the landscape through a new footbridge linking the mainland to the island. Again, this is small fry.
Set in this context, my initial reaction lacked perspective and I regret that. In particular, it is easy for this art to be used to make cheap shots at English Heritage from a Cornish nationalist viewpoint that sees all non-Cornish decisions or interventions as imperialist. Whatever EH do, they will be criticised from that perspective.
Critical Reflection on Merlin
Still, despite these qualifications, I still feel this art needs some critical reflection by EH and anyone who is interested and/or cares about the past, present and future of Tintagel. Here are some points:
- The least important point is that I personally don’t care for this art. I don’t doubt the skill of the artist required or the performance of its creation. Yet to me it is yet another beardy male identity imposed on British heritage. Whether historical personages or legendary ones, these are everywhere and they are ok if taken in isolation. However, put them all together and they start to get right up one’s nose. In particular this piece resembles some 1970s hippy art depictions of Merlin one might find at Glastonbury or Caerleon. In short, it ain’t my cup of tea;
As should be clear from what I’ve written above, I really do support art of all kinds being added to existing heritage sites – preferably on a temporary basis – to enliven and engage audiences in new and shifting ways. However, I can’t think of any parallel where carving permanently into living rock has received heritage professional approval! There is no going back with this art and even if they like them now, I think EH will live to regret such permanent additions;
- A discrete third point is the precedent it creates in heritage terms: EH threaten/promise this to be one of many additions in the new presentation of Tintagel. What will this do to other sites, as yet to be tattooed with beardy depictions? If there will be further permanent carvings at Tintagel or elsewhere, I think EH have created a monster they might not be able to contain. Should Stonehenge be carved with Merlin too? After all, he raised those stones didn’t he?
Then there is precedent in terms of visitor engagements with the site. Graffiti is one thing. Moreover, wind, rain, spray and waves pummel the Tintagel landscape. So do visitors’ feet! Still, I wonder whether this art might prompt/encourage visitors adding their own carvings in addition to those already present on the island itself? Has EH thought of this and is it prepared to allow this ‘official’ art to receive further additions? Are they prepared to accept other incisive interactions with the site by visitors, inspired by it?
- Whatever the merits of the work might be, a fifth point is that this art looks ‘desperate’ from a heritage perspective. It feels like an attempt by EH to cash in on the legends of the site many centuries after the entire landscape has already cottoned on.
- More than ‘desperate heritage’, it seems like an act of heritage appropriation, both of legend and of the natural landscape. Whatever its problems and limitations, previous generations of heritage professionals have tried hard to minimise the impact of signs and interpretations on the landscape of the island and mainland. The legends and the archaeology have been able to walk freely together as different visitors – including kids – can respond to the site with their own imaginations in relation the natural and human-made features of the island and mainland. Or they can enjoy the landscape as ‘unaltered’ landscape if they want to ignore the centuries of stone extraction and human modification of the environment. This sculpture is very small by comparison, but it marks a fundamental shift by which EH is attempting to claim the legends as heritage and put those legends into specific features of the landscape with permanent embellishments;
- But even this is fair enough since legends are heritage aren’t they? Well yes and I think they shouldn’t be ignored! However, beyond even a sense of desperation and appropriation, there is a presumption that the legends of the site need to be ‘brought to life’ more than they are, and that sculpture is a medium to do so. I would like to suggest an alternative possibility informed by a sense that the British and international visitors do have imaginations. By carving Merlin, it fixes his appearance and fixes him in place. Is this really ‘resurrection’? Instead, might it be an attempt to separate the legends from the ‘archaeology’ and ‘history’ by ghettoing it into specific points in the landscape? Might this serve to deny legends in the ruins of the castle, the footprints of the early medieval houses, and in the natural rock formations? What I’m suggesting is that carving an image of Merlin does the opposite of bringing him to life; it is an act of legendary slaughter for visitors’ imaginations. Merlin is not simply being ‘put to sleep’ into the rock, he is being put to death by making him heritage and making him tangible…
In conclusion, Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette really do need to go back and repeat their research, following Orange’s 2006 survey. They could call it ‘Tintagel Ten Years On’… I’d be interested to hear whether my curmudgeonly response is typical or atypical of visitors’ reactions to the art!
Also, perhaps I should go back myself before I spout off more! I certainly hope that the future involves a careful and detailed interpretation of the early medieval and high medieval Tintagel, not just a series of legend-inspired sculptures. I’m sure it will!
On a positive note, it is great that money is being invested by EH at Tintagel. Everyone should visit Tintagel on a regular basis and enjoy and critically engage with its many archaeological, historical, legendary and natural dimensions. Also, I’m sure the art works better ‘face-to-face’ rather than via video. I curse when I realise that, by wanting to visit again, I concede that the art has won!