What’s wrong with English Heritage using the ‘Dark Ages’ at the new displays at their popular Tintagel Castle site, on the north coast of Cornwall? Following the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Cornwall steadfastly voted to reject its hundreds of millions of EU funding. Without it, will Cornwall enter a new ‘Dark Age’? This terrifying prospect aside, perhaps someone out there is still interested in what we call the Early Middle Ages in western Britain…
In a previous post I outlined my response to the current ongoing debate regarding the use of the noun ‘the Dark Ages’ and adjective ‘Dark-Age’ by English Heritage at Tintagel and more broadly in their educational and popular literature. My conclusion was that the term is rarely used, problematic and misleading in academic and popular contexts, yet it retains a series of advantages and potentialities over other period labels for the 5th-7th centuries, certainly in western Britain. While I don’t think it is popularly understood any better than other period terms (and I have never used it in my academic writings), I suggested that the term perhaps doesn’t deserve the denigration it has recently received. I’m tempted to use it more, in contexts where I define its use, rather than ostracising it and criticising those using it as dismissive or negative of the period, or simply unenlightened and old-fashioned.
Regarding the use of ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ at Tintagel itself, I wanted to reserve judgement until I had gone back to this striking Cornish heritage location and seen the all-important context in which English Heritage has deployed the term. I have now been back to Tintagel and discussed in this blog all other dimensions about its new heritage displays except its use of the term ‘Dark Ages’. You can read my previous blogs here:
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 1 – about the controversial Merlin sculpture
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 2 – about the controversial ‘Arthur’ statue
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 3 – exploring the new heritage boards
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 4 – the new interpretation of the walled garden
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 5 – the exhibition
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 6 – St Materiana’s church and churchyard
- Prof. Howard’s Dark Place, Part 7 – the heritage jam perspective
The term ‘Dark Age’ appears all over the new Tintagel, on signposts, heritage boards, the exhibition and in the revised booklet authored by early medieval archaeologist Colleen E Batey. So now I face the thorny issue: how does ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ get used and is it justified at Tintagel?
Batey’s guide uses the term ‘Dark Ages’ as follows. I’d be interested in whether the 2010 original was quite so riddled with ‘Dark Age’ language: I am referring to the 2014 revised reprint in this blog entry.
Batey states’ clearly in the guidebook introduction:
During the so-called Dark Ages (roughly the fifth to the seventh centuries) Tintagel was an important stronghold. Large quantities of pottery fragments – remains of luxury goods imported from the Mediterranean – were left behind by those who lived here. In its highly defensible position it is likely to have been a residence of a Dark-Age ruler of Cornwall.
So we are clearly told that ‘Dark Ages’ refers to the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. ‘So-called’ reveals it is a popular term not understood by all, but its origins, use and significance is left obscure. Subsequently, it is used to refer to features from this period, and for activities linked to this period.
Tour of Tintagel
In the first half of the guidebook, we get a tour. In this context, the term ‘Dark Ages’ really helps, because it demonstrably differentiates it from the later medieval castle evidence. There are few other sites in EH’s protection where they face such a challenge, and here the term makes a stark definition that helps the reader as a chronological short-hand:
- Approach to the Castle: ‘Dark Age’ is used as a period term in discussing the ditch cutting across the peninsula (p. 5);
- Lower Mainland Courtyard: subsection ‘Dark-Age Remains’ discusses evidence of activity including metalworking (p. 6);
- Upper Mainland Courtyard: subsection ‘Dark-Age Remains’ discusses (p. 7)
- ‘imported pottery from the Dark Ages’;
- most remains dating ‘from the Dark Ages’ were reconstructed by Ralegh Radford’s team in the 1930s;
- lower layers of stone may have been part of the ‘Dark-Age defences of this crag’
- Island Courtyard: subsection ‘Dark-Age Remains’ suggests this was the residence of a ‘Dark-Age ruler’ (p. 12).
- Iron Age: subsection ‘Dark-Age remains’ discusses evidence that this may have been the site of a harbour.
- The Dark-Age Remains: this section discusses the excavations in the 1930s, 1980s and 1990s: four main groups of grass-covered foundations includes two mentions of ‘Dark Ages’ as a period term,one mention that the huts are ‘unlike any other Dark-Age ruins found in Cornwall’ (pp. 14-17), one mention of ‘Dark-Age rubbish dumps’ and ‘buildings… from the Dark Ages’. Other remains are ‘now thought to be Dark Age’, others ‘date from the Dark Ages’. Captions also mention ‘Dark-Age remains’ and a view of how Tintagel may have looked in ‘about 700’ (which is odd in itself, since nowhere previously is there mention of evidence for late 7th/early 8th-century activity.
- Discovery of the Artognou Slate text box: note there is no mention of ‘Dark Age’ in association with this find, instead it was ‘trimmed to fit over a fifth- to seventh century drain’, (p. 16).
- Northern Ruins: again, the term ‘Dark Age’ is omitted but a caption refers to ‘Dark-Age’ buildings (pp. 17-18);
- Ralegh Radford and Tintagel text box: again, ‘Dark Age’ is absent (p. 19).
- Southern Cliffs: the broad terrace ‘contains unexcavated buildings, probably Dark Age’. (p. 21).
- Chapel: discussion of a possible ‘Dark-Age’ chapel at the time of the ‘Dark-Age’ stronghold (p. 21).
If I count correctly, reading the tour section immerses you in ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ around 23 times, although it is notably absent in the more technical and detailed sections.
The second half of the guidebook gives you a period-by-period history of the site. In the post-Roman section, emphasising Tintagel’s links with the Mediterranean, there is a clear explanation of how ‘Dark Age’ is being used at Tintagel:
This period is often referred to as the Dark Ages, because so little is known about it, but archaeological investigations and discovery of imported pottery and extensive building remains show that between the fifth and seventh centuries Tintagel was the location of a substantial settlement that enjoyed commercial links with the Mediterranean (pp. 27-28).
This is more than a little bizarre. In other words, Dark Age is a term used by persons unknown, and it is inaccurate because we do know a lot about the period from archaeology, but we are using it anyway.
This section then goes on to briefly outline what little we know about the Dumnonian kings and calls the ‘sixth-century’ Gildas a ‘Dark-Age British writer’.
Pottery Finds at Tintagel
This text box gives more detail about the pottery and again uses ‘Dark Ages’ to describe post-Roman finds.
Significantly, the term ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ are omitted from all subsequent sections, apart from the subheading ‘King Mark of Cornwall’ where it is mentioned in passing that Castle Dore had ‘no significant Dark-Age occupation (p. 31).
Map: annotations point out ‘Dark-Age’ remains twice.
The power of the term ‘Dark-Age’ is key in the penultimate sentence of the entire guide:
Even if the connection was invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, the spectacular ruins are enough to conjure up images of ancient heroes, whether late medieval knights or the followers of a Dark-Age warlord.
Here and throughout, ‘Dark Age’ is clearly a shorthand chronological term for ‘5th-7th centuries in western Britain’, used in a neutral and descriptive fashion throughout the text. Moreover, it is a positive term insofar as to distinguish Tintagel’s hazy but important early medieval past from what came much later: not only the medieval castle, but also the ruins, the literature, the art and the tourism. It tries to create clear water between the 5th-7th centuries and the 13th century and after.
In a previous post, I explored the new exhibition. Here, we find the term used in many fashions:
- the second display is ‘Tintagel in the Dark Ages’,
- the aerial artist’s reconstruction’s caption says ‘there were over 100 buildings on the headland in the Dark Ages’.
- The display of the replica of the Artognou slate’s caption says it was found ‘next to one of the Dark Age buildings’.
- Around the central model of the island, the ‘Dark Age Settlement’ is defined chronologically as ‘c. AD 450-550′.
In another previous post, I explored the new heritage boards. Here, it is notable that Dark Age is less consistently and clearly deployed in comparison with the Exhibition and guidebook:
- The ‘Welcome to Tintagel Castle’ board talks about only the later medieval castle and later features. Only subsequently does one encounter that this is an early medieval site. It appears that one is visiting ‘Tintagel Castle’ first and foremost, with earlier and later stages in the site’s history not headlining;
- Where history meets legend: this sign board discusses the 5th and 6th-century settlement as a seasonal home of a regional king, but doesn’t use the term ‘Dark Age’. Interestingly, the ‘seasonal’ nature of the site isn’t returned to in the heritage boards or the exhibition, and
- In the upper courtyard, the heritage sign reports ‘remains of buildings dating to the 5th and 6th centuries AD, part of a Dark Age settlement’;
- The Iron Gate was ‘probably used in the Dark Ages to unload trading vessels laden with imported goods from the Mediterranean world’.
- Excavations and discoveries: the small hut for the site custodian built in the 1930s after excavations mentions Radford’s interpretations of the site as an ‘early Christian monastery’ but that the 1990s ‘confirmed that the buildings formed part of a large and secular high-status Dark Age settlement’.
- The sign ‘Dark Age Buildings’ actually doesn’t use ‘Dark Age’ in its text but instead mentions the ‘powerful south-west kingdom of Dumnonia’ almost absent from the guide book.
- The northern ruins: ‘probably formed part of a Dark Age settlement’. Here we gain an explanation that the ‘period is known as the ‘Dark Ages’ because few historical sources survive’, complemented by mention of the kingdom of Dumnonia and that a there is evidence of a ‘substantial settlement… in the Dark Ages’.
- Chapel: ‘earlier buildings … formed a part of the Dark Age settlement’.
There are also slate signposts directing you to ‘Dark Age Buildings’. The term ‘Dark Age’ helps one to navigate as one goes around, distinguishing features of early medieval date demonstrably from those of later date.
How do we conclude this? ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ are everywhere at Tintagel. Everywhere it is completely clear that it is:
- a chronological term for the 5th-7th centuries
- it is a popular term
- it refers to a significant high-status site with long-distant connections
- relates to the kingdom of Dumnonia
- creates ‘clear water’ between the 5th-7th centuries and the 13th-century castle, and thus avoids both being called ‘medieval’. This is particularly important for the on-site signage and the guidebook’s ‘tour’.
However, there are clear limitations to its use as follows:
- It is inconsistently applied, used to discuss the 5th/6th centuries, but occasionally also the 7th/early 8th centuries;
- I didn’t see anywhere a clear explanation who has used it before and how the term has long been problematic and rarely utilised. I’m not sure it is a ‘self-evident’ term for Tintagel, and it does indeed require further explanation;
- No alternative terms for this period are explained (‘post-Roman’, ‘Late Antique’, ‘early medieval’). Even visitors to other EH early medieval sites, such as Lindisfarne, won’t necessarily equate Tintagel as of similar date. ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ are emphatic, and no other point of reference is made for visitors;
- there is no literature or discussion of the wider geographical and cultural context of the early medieval peoples of the South West Peninsula, western Britain more broadly or Britain and NW Europe into which the site fits,
- For Tintagel, the real ‘Dark Ages’ (apart from the one Cornwall might be just about to enter) is surely the 8th-12th centuries: the time between its height as a royal residence with international connections, and its use an Earl’s castle.
- Why oh why won’t EH reprint and update Charles Thomas’ excellent Batsford book on the site, or indeed why don’t they sell any other serious archaeological book on early medieval Britain? Batey’s guide is very good, but limited in its scope and depth as are all the red guides.
In summary, I appreciate but still don’t fully agree with the use of ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Dark-Age’ at Tintagel. Revisions and clarifications are most certainly needed, without which visitors will remain in the dark. Still, to return to my opening salvo, I fear that Cornwall will soon have far greater Dark-Age worries than the precise terminology on its heritage sites…