Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tin and Tintagel

For a person interested in the interaction between Britain and the Ancient World (i.e. Greek and Roman civilizations) Cornwall is a very peculiar place.  For most of the Roman era it was a backwater.  Very few Roman remains are to be found there.  The Romans being practical folk took greater interest in the better farmlands of southeast and central Britannia.  They also had no choice but to pay attention to the areas now known as Wales and Scotland because conglomerations of unwashed and unpleasant barbarians were generally festering in such places.

But Cornwall?  Not much reason to go there.  It was regarded as being at the Ends of the Earth, a place beyond which was only hostile ocean.  The farthest extremity of Cornwall is still known as Land's End.

But most peculiarly, of all areas of the modern UK, Cornwall shows the most evidence of Mediterranean contact in those shadowy, poorly documented time periods just before and just after the Roman era.

It is a story of Tin and Tintagel.

In ancient times sea travel was not particularly safe; you needed a good reason to put your life in the hands of Poseidon/Neptune.  But Cornwall had tin, a necessary component of bronze.  So the Carthaginians and perhaps even their predecessors the Phoenicians knew of and visited Cornwall.

But our first solid bit of history actually comes from a Greek fellow named Pytheas of Massalia.  This resident of modern day Marseilles made one of history's great voyages of exploration circa 300 BC. He sailed from his home port in southern France and, not content to just drop in at Cornwall,  then went on to circumnavigate Britain, and perhaps take a peek at "Thule", a chilly place that could have been anywhere from Norway to Iceland.

Pytheas gets credit for some place names still in use.  He seems in fact to have been the first to use the word "Britain".  The northern point of Britain was "Orcus", the modern Orkney Islands.  The southeast point was "Kantion", still recalled as Kent.  Of the Cornwall peninsula his name - Belerion - did not stick.  But his favorable opinion of the place has been preserved by later writers even though his original work is sadly lost to history.

The inhabitants of Belerion were said to be friendly and relatively civilized from their frequent contact with foreign merchants.  Tin was collected from river beds and formed into ingots shaped like "knuckles".

Oddly during the Roman era there was no great surge in tin mining.  There were more productive mines in Spain, where the Romans literally moved mountains in pursuit of gold and other metals.

Roman Britain collapsed in the early 5th century.  A lot of factors came into play, but one of the biggest seems to have been the ill advised policy of hiring barbarian mercenaries to help defend the province. Of course they soon were running the show.  And badly at that, material culture quickly slipping into the Dark Ages.

This was the supposed time of King Arthur, "last of the Romans".  He is said to have fought a series of battles against the barbaric Saxons, keeping a tenuous peace for the dwindling civilized inhabitants of Britain.  And he was supposed to have come from Cornwall.

These are the ruins of Tintagel Castle, purported birth place of King Arthur.  In the cliff below is "Merlin's Cave".

A bunch of nonsense of course.  The tale of Arthur being born there was just another concoction of Geoffery of Monmouth who cobbled together most of what has become Arthurian Legend in the 12th century.  He used Gildas and Nennius and unspecified Welch traditions.  He likely tossed in a few tales he heard at closing time down at the pub.  As history it is all, ahem, rather dodgy.

But still, there was something going on at this site in the supposed time of Arthur.....

When the Roman era ended in Britain much was forgotten.  Even the basic know how involved in making pottery.  Post Roman sites have few pottery shards, and they are all worn down specimens, decades old when somebody finally dropped the sad family heirloom and folks had to make do with crude wooden bowls.

Actual pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries is rare in England, and would have to have come from more civilized places closer to the old core of the Empire.

Oddly, the isolated site of Tintagel has more pottery remnants of this era than the rest of England and Ireland combined.  Something was going on here, some reason that ships from the Mediterranean were still arriving to trade.  Amphorae from as far away as Byzantium were brought here to be traded for.....what?

The logical commodity of course would be tin.  But to date excavations at Tintagel have not unearthed ingots or other evidence of trade in this metal.

On a somewhat twisty side path into etymology and history, there seems to be no connection between the name Tintagel and the metal tin.  In ancient times the latter was called plumbum candidum which means white lead.  Somewhere in the late Roman era it began being called stanum from which we get its chemical symbol Sn.

Tintagel seems to be a variant of the Cornish Dintagel, meaning "fort of constriction".  This refers to it being on a very narrow peninsula.

So if not an emporium where amphorae of wine were swapped for knuckle bone shaped ingots, just what was going on at "Dintagel" in the supposed time of King Arthur.  Well, one popular theory is that a very late Roman site became a part time Official Residence for the King of Dumnonia, the successor Celtic/British entity that coalesced after the 410 AD Roman implosion.  Sure, it was not the most convenient place for traders to put in, but it was a safe harbor and far from those vile Saxons who were making a hash of the more appealing parts of the former province.

And if you can't face the harsh realities of life without a romantic belief in King Arthur....recent excavations at Tintagel will throw you a rather small bone.

This is a fascinating bit of stone, probably Roman but re-used in a 6th century stratum.  The A X E(?) are felt to be Roman, the scribbled looking stuff, post Roman.  It seems to read:


This does not tell us as much as you would like, only that names beginning with ART were known in early Medieval times.  For a much more detailed discussion with alternate readings I suggest Faces of Arthur

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