I’m Professor Howard Williams, archaeologist, although I prefer the term ‘dreamweaver’. I write a lot of research articles for which I often draw deep draughts of inspiration from the Offa’s and Wat’s dykes of my dreams. Other times I copy the ideas from dead archaeologists on whose work the copyright has lapsed. Bite me!
For the third time, you are about to enter the world of my imagination. You are entering my Dark Place, my Dark Age Place: Tintagel.
As I’ve often said, memories accretes to locales tenaciously, making places socialised for visitors and inhabitants. Nowhere can be a lonely place to be…. and memories fend off nowhere. Even long-abandoned places can be clothed, re-clothed and nourished by them.
When considering places like Tintagel, it is important to recognise that memories can endure for centuries after the events have taken place. They can be conveyed through stories but also through traces and topography. They can be repackaged, re-sequenced and re-contextualised for new audiences, but they may preserve dimensions of far earlier peoples and stories.
In short, memories have a habit of sticking to Tintagel like… a pube on a pipe.
As part of the new interpretation of Tintagel by English Heritage, an explicit attempt has been made to help visitors navigate the complex memories adhering to Tintagel. How many of these memories relate to real events? How many are inspired by the topography? How many are inventions, imposed on Tintagel as readily as any other elite fortress? I guess we’d never know. Just to restate that, that is something we’ll never know, you’re not going to find out later.
In previous posts I’ve discussed two of the new display elements: a carving into the living rock of the head of Merlin at the approach to Merlin’s Cave beneath the castle, and the bronze sculpture of a medieval king on the island. Let’s look at the other signs of memory at Tintagel.
The third element of re-display are a series of new heritage signs within the castle and across the island, exploring archaeological, historical and literary dimensions of the locale from the ‘Dark Age’ to recent times. In touring the castle, one can use the signs to flit forward and backwards in time, exploring different elements of the imagined and ‘real’ uses of Tintagel, as well as receive explanations regarding the date of features and the natural environment. First up, there are signposts that direct your way around the island, vertical stumps in contrived crude slate.
Then there is the sign ’19th Century gateway and wall’, usefully ensuring no-one thinks these were original medieval features. This is quite crucial, actually, since these are a key threshold that would not have been original in any regard.
Then there were signs explaining the nature of the coastline and uses through time.
Between the cove and the exhibition and cafe, there is an ‘Arthur’s Round Table’ linking the site to other nodes in the British landscape that have attracted Arthurian stories.
There are also bilingual slabs with allusions to the landscape. I’m not quite sure what this is about and whether these are literary quotes. I will look into this further….
Next we have a series of simple boards, but sharing the same design. The simpler versions of these adhere to walls and fences. In their backgrounds they use silhouettes of imaginary landscapes to provoke a sense of storytelling. They have text in English with titles in English and Kernowek. Some show new artist’s visualisations of the Dark Age settlement and medieval castle by Bob Marshall and Aaron Watson, or else historic maps and images.
The more elaborate signs sit on plinths and are backed by aged bronze sheets and headings that augment those of the panels themselves.
Moreover, some have metal artefacts, of early medieval (‘Dark Age’) and late medieval date, to invoke the people and practices relating to the location’s use. I found these very effective; allowing three-dimensional artefacts to be presenced on the island, including Late Antique amphorae imported to the site from the Eastern Mediterranean. These are incredibly effective, and remind me of certain uses of bronze daily items used in present-day memorials elsewhere, such as a Road Peace memorial in Liverpool I have seen. I was truly delighted to see this strategy at work.
Commemorating Florence and Radford
Of most interest to me, however, was how the commemoration of visitors was achieved through the hut that the early 20th-century ‘keeper of the keys’ – Florence – would sit in. Equally, the site hut used during Ralegh Radford’s excavations has been preserved with a heritage board honouring his work on the site. These displays ensure that even the most recent activities on the site are recognised within the new display: not only the medieval dimensions.
The most prominent discussions of English Heritage’s re-display in the media have focused on Merlin’s face and the ‘Arthurian’ statue. However, it is this new peppering of signs that are the more significant interventions by the new English Heritage re-display at Tintagel.
Would anyone in the past mind this display? They are at peace now, on account of being dead. So I don’t think they care either way, and at this stage in the narrative, it would be odd if they did.
The point is: I can’t understand what ‘tradition’ associated with Tintagel is being destroyed or damaged by these new displays; they are utterly conventional in terms of the existing narratives about the site. More importantly, they obscure nothing for you to see, but help to interpret the complex multi-phased activities on the site from the Dark Age buildings and medieval castle to the 19th-century walls and 20th-century archaeological interventions.
Likewise, I don’t think these signs give prominence to the ‘Arthurian’ legends over any other dimension, including the early medieval (‘Dark Age’) phases of the site. The signs do indeed give a new lease of life to the site, though a Dark Place it remains…