Earlier this week I went to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall and I took my son Toby with me. We were privileged to visit the TCARP (Tintagel Castle Archaeology Research Project) excavations, now in their second season. We also got to explore the castle and environs and experience the true horror of navigating the paths onto the island in the height of the tourist season. It was truly an ‘historic’ visit for me: to get to witness a large-scale archaeological excavation at one of Britain’s foremost early medieval sites.
On a personal level, it was also amazing but also traumatic, since my 6-year-old unprompted stated clearly: ‘Daddy, when I grow up I want to be an ARCHAEOLOGIST’. I was so shocked I bought him an extortionately priced EH wooden crossbow from the gift shop. Here are some pics of our exploration of the dig and site.
As Archaeodeath readers will know, I explored the various debates about the archaeology and heritage of Tintagel last year with posts about the Merlin sculpture, the use of the term ‘Dark Ages’ to describe the early medieval phases of the site, and discussions of the new heritage interpretation at the site. I won’t go over those issues again, but what readers might not know is that I’m now serving on English Heritage’s advisory panel for TCARP. Therefore, my visit wasn’t a ‘jolly’, it was to inspect and to offer TCARP perspectives on the discoveries and project’s focus and progress.
Visiting digs is an odd experience for all involved and there are loads of bizarre etiquettes I usually fail to notice or respect. I think there needs to be an ethnographic study done from both perspectives of fieldworkers and visitors. Such a popular excavation has attracted a lot of professional visitors, and it was clear that the staff were working extremely hard to tackle both the archaeology and a stream of guests. The price of success!
From a fieldworkers’ perspective, you get to see random people wandering around the edges of the trenches and getting in the way of barrow and bucket runs. These people also take up their director’s and site supervisors’ time. The fieldworkers sometimes find themselves the focus of attention and asked questions, often unclear to whom they are speaking with.
The TCARP team not only had to contend with that, but being the focus of scrutiny from thousands of tourists. In particular, the wet-sieving and the finds-washing were being done on public view, and so their entire activities were part of a public performance. TCARP volunteers were also talking to visitors and explaining the work and finds. Well done them for coping/enduring with this scrutiny!
Visitors have their own challenges. In particular, this relates to stance and dress. It is important to appear to know everything and not to look confused or ask too many dumb questions. It is also important to perfect the ‘I’m really not a tourist honest, I’m an archaeologist between digs’ attire. That is, unless you are from certain archaeological sectors where looking as far from a digger as possible is a badge of pride. You are also expected to bring gifts, usually in edible form.
For TCARP, the team were awesome in their interaction towards me (something not universal in my experience elsewhere) and, in particular, towards my son. I’ve rarely been on such an ‘honour guest’ and it was flattering to get a guided tour and to meet Carl, James and Jacky, as well as many of the other friendly Cornwall Archaeological Unit staff and volunteers. However, I fear I was a bit of a let-down. I turned up without nosh to offer and looking far from ‘serious’ in my ‘The Walking Dad’ t-shirt and with a very inquisitive 6-year-old in tow. I probably didn’t quite fit the bill, but I assure you no disrespect intended TCARP! Still, I hope the exhausting 12-hour round-trip for North Wales was evidence enough of my enthusiasm and appreciate of the project.
What TCARP are finding
I won’t attempt an in-depth summary, but following on from a first season in which exploratory trenches were dug into the upper-eastern and southern terraces, this longer second season involves a larger open-area excavation of a complex of buildings, seemingly of multiple phases, on the southern terraces. The original idea was to investigate ‘one house’, but I’m glad they are exploring a being far more aspirational and allowing the investigation of complex relationships between buildings.
As well as revealing a variety of building construction techniques, floor surfaces, entrances and passage ways and steps, the finds are astonishing. TCARP are finding evidence of possible industrial activity, and getting the opportunity to investigate midden material rich in animal bone and artefacts.
New categories of find hitherto unknown from Tintagel are being found, including Cornish bar lug pottery and Anglo-Saxon and Frankish vessel glass. TCARP are also pulling out loads of material already known from Tintagel: including sherds of B ware amphorae. Put all this together, and TCARP are doing a phenomenonal job on a fabulous site.
What is particularly interesting is the volume of public engagement and interest possible and facilitated by digging at one of English Heritage’s most-visited archaeological sites in the height of the tourist season. Visitors are literally queuing to get on and off the island. Many are getting to look down upon the dig in progress and talk to volunteers about progress. Replica artefacts are on hand to show visitors what is being found. Social media, the press and television are also being deployed to spread the word about this amazing excavation.
Yet it is important to say that it is in this capacity that the recently updated heritage boards with their replica artefacts come into their own, allowing the dig and the surviving traces of buildings elsewhere to speak to each other.
A final point is about perspective: how many archaeological digs take place in such a public place that can be viewed from so many angles? Even if you can go up to the edge of the trench, rarely can you view down on it as one can the excavations at TCARP.
Well done TCARP and good luck for the final days of the 2017 fieldwork.