I was critical but not dismissive of the choice of English Heritage to use ‘Dark Ages’ in the new heritage interpretation at Tintagel c. 5 years ago. I composed a series of blog-posts about the heritage site of Tintagel specifically in relation to early medieval Britain more widely: some were serious, some semi-serious, others deliberately silly. I identify the pernicious myths and negative connotations, but also the evocative power and relative religious/ethnic neutrality, of the term ‘Dark Ages’ when applied to Britain in the 5th-11th centuries AD.
More than an issue of nomenclature, how we narrate the story of the Early Middle Ages in what was to become England is a fraught subject linked to nationalist and racial discourses, and the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. The term ‘Dark Ages’ is only part of the challenge we face.
Subsequently, following on from my role on the Tintagel Castle Archaeological Research Project advisory committee from 2017, I invited Susan Greaney to contribute to the 2020 edited collection by Pauline Clarke and myself Digging into the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Public Archaeologies. In this first-ever book dedicated to critical evaluations of public archaeology for the Early Middle Ages, she reflected and evaluated the choice of the term and the broader heritage interpretation of this multi-phased site of Tintagel with both early medieval and later medieval distinctive stories to tell the visitor.
At Sue’s invitation, I now return to debate the ‘Dark Ages’! Together with Sue, I appear on the English Heritage podcast no. 122, in discussion together with host Charles Rowe: check it out HERE!
One thing I reflected upon is worth stating here separately: the simple lack of a single monumental ‘site-type’ for the early medieval period or way to readily guide oneself through the ‘early medieval landscape’. This is a challenge in itself across the island, I would contend. The early medieval period remains ‘dark’ in the popular imagination for this very reason, perpetuated in part by the way we categorise and market our heritage sites.
For English Heritage sites, by way of example, the early medieval phases lurk in the shadow of prehistoric and Roman sites and monuments, and/or they skulk in hidden intangible depths beneath later medieval sites (including castles, religious houses and medieval settlements). There are only a small fraction of the 383 places to visit on the English Heritage website where one can come face-to-face with the 5th-11th centuries in material terms. You can search for places to visit through the filters ‘most popular’ and ‘free to enter’, facilities and ‘types of place’, but you cannot search for ‘Dark Age’ or ‘early medieval’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites. Examples of sites with early medieval dimensions, but not much to see include:
- Bury St Edmunds Abbey;
- Dover Castle;
- North Elmham Chapel;
- Portchester Castle;
- Reculver Towers and Roman Fort;
- St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury;
- Tynemouth Priory and Castle;
- Waltham Abbey Gatehouse and Bridge
- Wenlock Priory;
- Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village;
- Whitby Abbey
- Wroxeter Roman City
There are only a few further English Heritage properties for which there are more prominent and tangible 5th-11th-century traces for visitors to experience:
- Birdoswald Roman Fort;
- Lindisfarne Priory;
- Lyford Castle and Saxon Town
- Old Oswestry Hillfort;
- St Paul’s Monastery, Jarrow;
- St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber;
- Tintagel Castle;
This leaves only a handful where the early medieval activity on the site is the primary or prominent dimension.
- 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield
- King Doniert’s Stone
- Odda’s Chapel, Deerhurst
- Offa’s Dyke
- Sandbach Crosses
Then, there are those sites associated early medieval myths and legends, e.g. (and while these sites should not be dismissed as ways for visitors to engage with these centuries, I’ve already highlighted the danger of appropriation of some of these sites prompted by their place-names here):
Put together, this is under 10% of English Heritage’s sites (although I’m fully aware there are examples of early medieval stone sculpture and other early medieval sites at or near some of the sites I haven’t listed here). This is why the heritage interpretation at Tintagel is so important and English Heritage’s endeavours to engage with both the archaeology and the legends associated with the early medieval centuries at this site deserve respect and reflection, not enraged denouncements!
Looking to Wales by way of comparison, there are 122 Cadw properties from prehistoric monuments to industrial landscapes. Yet again, very few relate specifically to the Early Middle Ages so it is perhaps unsurprising that many visitors and locals find it hard to shake off the presumption this was a ‘Dark Age’. Only 6 have prominent early medieval elements (although others, including St Winefride’s Chapel and Holy Well and St Dogmael’s Abbey have early medieval origins and/or early medieval monuments in close association, while Caergwrle Castle should have heritage interpretation for its early medieval hillfort ramparts but is ‘marketed’ as a 13th-century and later castle only!):
- the Carew Cross;
- Eliseg’s Pillar;
- Maen Achwyfan;
- Margam Stones Museum;
- Penmon Priory, Cross and St Seirol’s Well;
- St Non’s Chapel
So, again, the ‘Dark Ages’ are even more striking in their low representation in regards to tangible ruins and earthworks in Wales than in England today. Sure, specialists can point to hundreds upon hundreds of archaeological sites and thousands upon thousands of artefacts and contexts that reveal the stories of these centuries in both England and Wales. However, what I’m talking about here are the ‘headline’ showcase sites in the guardianship of our national heritage organisations, and here these centuries are starkly under-represented in general terms, and prominent in relation to only specific kinds of archaeological remains that are far from representative: incised and carved stone monuments in particular and Christian ecclesiastical centres.
My point is that we can scream about how the ‘Dark Ages’ were not dark until we are blue in the face, but there will remain an ongoing challenge for engaging visitors and local people alike with the 5th-11th centuries given the seemingly (relatively) imperceptible character of the archaeology of these centuries in regards to built heritage and monuments.
So, how do we shed light on the ‘Dark Ages’ better when it seems still to remain murky and shadowy in the popular imagination? How can we expect greater education and understanding of these crucial and fascinating centuries when heritage sites struggle to bring these centuries to life in tangible terms for local people and visitors?
Well, this is where archaeological illustrators and digital resources have a powerful role to play, as shown in my recent collaboration with John G. Swogger to create a comic heritage trail for Britain’s third-longest ancient monument, most likely dated between the late 7th and early 9th centuries AD (and the smaller sister monument to Offa’s Dyke): Wat’s Dyke.
For the future, we certainly need more digital information, and more inter-site and on-site heritage trails to visualise and engage visitors with the ‘Dark Ages’, or else ‘England’s story’ will persist as a random collection of prehistoric monuments, Roman towns, villas and military sites, and then a jump to the castles, abbeys and priories of the later Middle Ages.
At present, sadly and counterintuitively, the early medieval period falls between the cracks: it is just simply lacking in sufficient good ruins!