Tintagel Castle, with Merlin’s Cave below
Merlin’s Cave from the path above: can you spot the sculpture?
Prof Williams: dreamweaver

I’m Professor Williams, archaeologist, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor. You are about to enter the world of my imagination. You are entering my Dark Place.

To be precise, my Dark Age Place.

Tintagel is a place so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so god-damned crazy, that the archaeological establishment refuse to write about it online.

Only now, in the worst drought in blogging history, have I been begged by everyone I know to let this blog loose on an unsuspecting public. So for the first time in the UK (it had a brief run in Peru) here is the first instalment of my Dark Place.

So sit back, dim the lights, or turn them off if you don’t have dimmers, put conventional logic to one side, and enjoy.

Well, I say enjoy…

Merlin at Tintagel

I’m Professor Howard Williams BSc MA PhD FSA. I’m one of the few archaeologists to have written more books than I’ve read. The Dark Ages are right up my alley. Hence, I know a thing or two about Tintagel’s Dark Age archaeology, and its Dark Age heritage. And remember, I always come up trumps (unless there is a joker in the pack and sometimes there is).

I heard Merlin screaming: “Just leave!”

Back in February, I wrote a blog about the brand-new Merlin sculpture carved into the living rock beside the beach at Tintagel. I was carved by Peter Graham and commissioned by English Heritage as one of its new heritage installations which relate to the complex and interweaving archaeological, historical and literary dimensions to Tintagel’s past as striking natural topography, early medieval elite settlement, later medieval castle and a place that has again and again become enshrouded in fantasy to the present day. Matt Ward, the Property Manager, explains it here. My criticism focused on its permanence and on its affect on the landscape, not for its merit as art or for other aesthetic reasons.

My point was that ‘locating’ and visualising Merlin is not a problem because it reflects on later mythical attributions to the location. Indeed, promoting an appreciation of both myths and materiality at the locale through the centuries is key to appreciating what Tintagel has meant and as been over time. Instead, I was querying whether this art might displace the story from the wider landscape. By giving it a striking focus, Merlin and the locale’s Arthurian allusions are perhaps extracted from the topography and the archaeology, I argued.

Merlin on his rock

I wrote just after the official press release regarding its carving by English Heritage. Subsequently, there has been a prolonged row about the Merlin sculpted face into the living rock outside the cave dubbed ‘Merlin’s Cave’ since the 19th century, immediately below the castle. Immediately it was regarded by some as ‘vandalism’. You can read later examples of the debate here and here and a video here. So is this carving vandalism, or brandalism, at Tintagel?

Merlin and his monkey?

C’est ce que la diff?! I’ve since come to realise these complaints are witchy woman wittering and they need snuffing out at the wick.

This is because I recently revisited Tintagel, in person, having attended a meeting in Exeter. I walked down to Merlin’s Cove in failing light, feeling compact like corned beef, to see the carving. Then, the next morning, before breakfast, I went on a second walk to see it in better light. Finally, with my former-archaeology student Dr Ruth Nugent (a star pupil you might say), I visited Merlin a third time. I then popped out to make a coke float and when I returned, it had all gone mad…


Apprehension: Scale and Visibility

I liked to think that Merlin and me were buddies. What I hadn’t realised was that it was really small and innocuous his carved beardy face would be. It blends with the rock and is easily missed if you aren’t looking for it.

Approaching Merlin from the cliff path, the sculpture is on the left
Brandalism! Concrete stairs and metal railings!

Naturellement,  it blends in infinitely better than the hazard sign warning of falling rocks stuck to the cliff face, or indeed the ugly concrete steps with metal railings that have long descended to the cove. I haven’t seen any complaints about those. Comme d’habitude, the sculpture creates a fascinating dynamic that you really have to look for it, to anticipate it, to see it. This is key, since it can readily be ignored if visitors’ wish, or it can readily be incorporated into people’s experience and enhance their attention to observing the natural rock surfaces and their environment when approaching the water’s edge and the cave, sparking their imaginations about mythical and actual pasts.

Passing Merlin, he looks to the sea
Merlin heading from the cave and sea to the cliffs
Castle and cliffs from in front of Merlin’s Cave
Inside Merlin’s Cave

A Watched Threshold

Situating a human face in the rock, makes you think about what that face sees. I watched for what it watched. I’ve never had a problem holding a man’s gaze, it’s natural. The position of Merlin is at head-height, creating a threshold visitors must pass from the steps to Merlin’s Cave. It looks out across the cove, with sea to his left, and the castle to his right. It looks out to sea, it looks inland. Merlin’s face connects the landscape and the seascape, rather than detracts from it. It’s a double-edged point.

Looking into Merlin’s ~Cave

A Temporary Installation

I have never carved a face of Merlin but I know what it would be like. Don’t ask me how, I just know. I’ve always just known.

In this regard, I now recognise that the sculpture is not really permanent, but more temporary than I considered at first. It will be chipped and worn relatively quickly, in a matter of years. The artist himself hopes it will last a decade.
The remains of the castle at Tintagel are perched on either side of a narrow neck between the mainland and headland that have subsequently collapsed under pressure of time and tide. The rock faces upon which Merlin has been carved are subject to rock-falls and high-tides. Watching how it is damaged by the elements is a key dimension to this art I hadn’t considered: it will slowly disappear over the years. You dig?

The damaged nose of Merlin

Vandalising Vandalism?

I didn’t see any crazed Cornish nationalists burning and pillaging the heritage at Tintagel, and I’m particularly observant. Indeed I was so engrossed photographing the carving and its context, I didn’t at first look at it in detail in itself. I relied on Dr Nugent, with qualifications from Harvard-Yale, to point out to me what was staring me in the face. Merlin was damaged!

Part of Merlin’s nose has gone. The news reported only last month that he might have been targeted by vandals.

Visitors stop to photograph Merlin

Has Merlin been vandalised on purpose or is it accidental damage or caused by flaws in the rock? It looks like some nutter has gone axe-happy on a trout farm! If so, that is not a valid response and I am ashamed to see it. It will go of its own accord, so let’s discuss it without physical intervention people, or you’ll get a knuckle supper!

Looking up Merlin’s nose
Merlin and bridge


It’s easy to spew out criticism for heritage organisations, but you really shouldn’t believe everything you read in the archaeology blogs! When I wrote my blog criticising the Merlin sculpture, I was trying to be a livewire maverick, who when I’m not bucking the system, I’m biting the hand that feeds. In this case, it is an English Heritage hand.

Still, bringing you the archaeodeath truth is my role in life, even though I’m not Jesus Christ. I know that now.

Reporting archaeodeath at the Dark Place is simply one of the many burdens I have to bear, as an archaeologist, in bringing you this gift. Now I’ve been there, I think my initial criticism remains valid. However, I didn’t see any ‘brandalism’ or ‘Disneyfication’ at Tintagel from the evidence of this sculpture.

Okay, I did some broader heritage window shopping, and there is certainly a half-price sale on weird around Tintagel, but that is hardly down to the activities of English Heritage. It is largely down to local businesses and crazy scientologists… but that’s another story.

Maybe we shouldn’t do anything?

In my previous blog, all I did was sit at a computer and started hitting the keys. Getting them in the right order is the challenge…

Incidentally, does anyone else spot the gorilla next to Merlin? Here… have a glass of water!