Researchers Unearth 6th Century Palace from the Legendary Birthplace of King Arthur

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Researchers working in Cornwall have unearthed the remains of walls from a palace they believe dates to the 6th century. These walls may share a connection with the legendary King Arthur, as they are located on the site of Tintagel Castle, a dwelling that folklore associates with his birthplace.

The Telegraph reports that the uncovered structure was likely the home of powerful and wealthy rulers of the ancient British kingdom of Dumnonia. Evidence supporting this idea comes in the form of approximately 150 fragments of pottery and glassware that hail from various locations mostly from the Mediterranean region. Two artifacts the team has uncovered so far are pieces of an amphora and fragments of a Phoenician red-slip bowl or large dish which was thought to have passed around during ancient feasts.

Ryan Smith (trench supervisor) holding a Phoenician red slip water from Western Turkey. ( Emily Whitfield-Wicks )

The excavations are a part of an English Heritage five-year project that is delving into the mysterious story of the famous Cornwall archaeological site from the 5th-7th centuries. The location is best known for the 13th century Tintagel Castle.

The ruins of the upper mainland courtyards of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall.

The ruins of the upper mainland courtyards of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. ( Kerry Garratt/CC BY SA 2.0 )

Some historical texts state that King Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. This king is often remembered from tales involving his sword Excalibur, the knights of the round table , and his teacher/mentor (or possible enemy) Merlin the magician .  

Although many people are enthralled with Arthurian legends, researchers such as Ralph Ellis have argued that :

“The story of King Arthur and his gallant knights that this semi-mythical Walter Kayo eventually crafted is complex, frustrating and fraught with contradictions and impossibilities. In the hands of subsequent Arthurian authors it became a compilation of two histories blended together in such a clumsy manner that it betrays confusion in both its broad outline and finer detail. Very few of the names and events recorded in these chronicles exist in the historical record […]”

Illustration from page 16 of ‘The Boy's King Arthur.’

Illustration from page 16 of ‘The Boy’s King Arthur.’ ( Public Domain )

Thus, the legends behind King Arthur have yet to be fully understood as myth or fact (or a combination of the two).  Moreover, there have also been doubts raised recently about the general perception of his birthplace as well. For example, Graham Phillips seems to believe that the king existed, but that a lot of the legends surrounding his life are wrong, including his place of birth, which Phillips says was Shropshire – not South West England.

Regardless of if it was in fact the site of the legendary king’s birth, Tintagel is seen as one of Europe’s most important archaeological sites.

As the Telegraph says: “The remains of the castle, built in the 1230s and 1240s by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, stand on the site of an early Medieval settlement, where experts believe high-status leaders may have lived and traded with far-off shores, importing exotic goods and trading tin.”

Ruins of the Norman castle at Tintagel.

Ruins of the Norman castle at Tintagel. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Win Scutt, one of English Heritage’s properties curators, is hopeful that more finds are on the horizon for the well-known site. He told the Telegraph: 

“This is the most significant archaeological project at Tintagel since the 1990s. The three-week dig is the first step in a five year research programme to answer some key questions about Tintagel and Cornwall’s past. The discovery of high-status buildings – potentially a royal palace complex – at Tintagel is transforming our understanding of the site. We’re cutting a small window into the site’s history, to guide wider excavations next year. We’ll also be gathering samples for analysis. It’s when these samples are studied in the laboratory that the fun really starts, and we’ll begin to unearth Tintagel’s secrets.”

Jacky Nowakowski, archaeologist at the Cambridge Archaeology Unit and head of the current excavations, shares Scutt’s hope and excitement about recent and future findings at the site. She said :

“It is a great opportunity to shed new light on a familiar yet infinitely complex site where there is still much to learn and to contribute to active research of a major site of international significance in Cornwall. Our excavations are underway now, and will run both this summer and next, giving visitors the chance to see and hear at first hand new discoveries being made and share in the excitement of the excavations.”



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