Tintagel in Late Antiquity was a conference, held in Truro, Cornwall, April 21-23. Although I am pretty much an outsider, both to archeology and to Cornwall (a transplanted American!) I’m really glad I went to the conference. I’ve gained a new respect for and maybe even a bit of envy of archeology as a field (I was trained in art history, spent some time in photography, but also wandered off into philosophy, medieval history, bits of this and that). The conference presentations and discussion showed a shared enthusiasm and sense of purpose that cut across specialisations, always supportive and positive, even when critical.
For quite a few years I’ve been interested in the arrival and spread of literacy among the Celtish residents of Cornwall. It is widely assumed that this would have happened after the Roman Occupation (A.D. 43- 410, give or take a few decades). That takes us to a time many still call the Dark Ages, that is, the 5th century. The epithet “dark” designated a time of presumed poverty, profound ignorance, isolation and the threat of war. Only there’s just no evidence for it. In fact the new findings at Tintagel suggest something more like fine dining, with fashionable vintage wines from France and Spain, along with pottery and glassware from Turkey, Greece or Rome: Tintagel seems, for a time — and now we switch from “Dark Ages” to “Late Antiquity” — to have been trading regularly with cities in the Mediterranean.
In Cornwall, the idea of the Dark Ages is characterised by a persistent threat of war with the Anglo-Saxons, people established in the eastern and northern areas of the island. But no one can find evidence of huge battles. There IS evidence of blended DNA from both populations in people living in the eastern areas of England now. It was in the face of mysterious threat, in any case, that the figure of King Arthur appeared, legendary defender of the Celtic Britons. Splendid stories notwithstanding, at this point there is considerable doubt that Arthur ever existed at all, to say nothing of considerable confusion about what needed defending against whom.
At the same time, archaeologists have been comparing and collating statistical data from sites along the so-called Western Sea Routes — sites in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall France and Spain. Material evidence, along with the close relationships among the languages spoken in these places suggest trade and migration well before anyone thought about Anglo-Saxons in England. To oversimplify. it begins to look as though people in the far west of England — at, say Tintagel — were part of a larger network that stretched north and south along sea routes; Anglo-Saxons, by contrast, tended to look east, to the continent.
I live near one of two routes that run north-south across Cornwall. These are usually assumed to have been established in the “Age of Saints” — yet another name for the 5th and 6th centuries, the one that specifically designates it as the time Christianity began to spread, north to south, and with it, skills in reading and writing. I have walked that pilgrimage route, St. Michael’s Way, a couple of times. I thought that the travellers must have included migrants and traders as well as priests or evangelists, that the actual route changed often and dramatically, that among the travellers must have included a fairly high proportion of readers and writers and quite possibly teachers of those very skills. But although the conference confirmed and expanded quite a few things I’d thought about the route, the fragments of text, inscribed in stone, found at Tintagel in 2017, didn’t resolve anything. The stone had Latin and Greek letters, Roman as well as local names. It is perfectly, even fashionably literate, but doesn’t seem Christian at all. I still wonder whether Christianity can spread without access to a Bible, or, on the other hand, whether something as large, heavy and fragile as a manuscript Bible could somehow find its way across a rocky, muddy peninsula.
So. Mysteries persist. I’m really pleased, in any case, that Cornwall — a land contemporary British media holds to be intractably provincial — once enjoyed quite exclusive access to the wealth and wisdom of Byzantium!