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1,300-year-old inscriptions found on medieval Cornish stone

A stone inscribed with Latin writing and Greek letters as well as Christian symbols – all dating from the 7th century – has been excavated at Tintagel Castle and will go on display at the Cornish stronghold from Saturday 16 June, English Heritage announced today.

1,300-year-old inscriptions found on medieval Cornish stone
The inscribed stone uncovered at Tintagel Castle [Credit: Christopher Ison/English Heritag]
Inscribed writing from the early Middle Ages rarely survives so this new discovery is particularly unusual. The 1300-year-old letters, words and symbols appear to be the work of someone practising writing. They indicate that this person was familiar with both the informal style of writing used for documents and the formal script used in the illuminated Gospel books of the period. This lends further weight to the theory that Tintagel was a royal site with a literate Christian culture, and a network of connections stretching from Atlantic Europe to the eastern Mediterranean.

The stone includes Roman and Celtic names – ‘Tito’ (Titus) and ‘Budic’ – hinting at a thriving multicultural community in this corner of Cornwall. The Latin words ‘fili’ (son) and ‘viri duo’ (two men) also appear. The stone itself – a two foot long piece of Cornish slate – served as a window ledge in a building which seemed to be part of a major early medieval settlement.

1,300-year-old inscriptions found on medieval Cornish stone
Specialist digital imaging was created by Dr Tom Goskar to show the detail of the inscription. English
Heritage has worked with a panel of experts to decipher the cryptic message from the past
 [Credit: English Heritage/Tom Goskar]
The stone was discovered last summer as part of an ambitious five-year project at Tintagel Castle, commissioned by English Heritage and undertaken by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU). Previous finds dating from the same period include fine tableware from as far away as Turkey, decorated Spanish glassware, and evidence that those at Tintagel Castle were feasting on pork, fish and oysters during “Cornwall’s First Golden Age”.

Speaking of the inscribed stone, English Heritage Curator Win Scutt said:  “It’s incredible to think that 1300 years ago, on this dramatic Cornish cliff-top, someone was practising their writing, using Latin phrases and Christian symbols.   We can’t know for sure who made these marks or why, but what we can say is that 7th century Tintagel had professional scribes who were familiar with the techniques of writing manuscripts –– and that in itself is very exciting.

1,300-year-old inscriptions found on medieval Cornish stone
Ancient writing inscribed in slate was discovered during an ambitious excavation at Tintagel Castle last summer.
English Heritage has revealed the find ahead of it going on display at the Cornish castle
[Credit: English Heritage/Emily Whitfield-Wicks]
“Our ongoing research has already revealed the extent of Tintagel’s buildings and the richness of the lifestyle enjoyed here. This latest find goes one step further to show that we have a literate, Christian community, with strong connections from Atlantic Europe to the Mediterranean. Writing was a privileged pursuit, undertaken by specialist scribes attached to the Church or wealthy households. The discovery of this stone supports the idea that Tintagel was an important, thriving trade port, and a high-status settlement which could have been the seat of Cornish kings.”

Expert on writing Michelle Brown from the University of London has been charged with deciphering the inscription, along with textual expert Oliver Padel, and she explains that the style of writing is as intriguing as the words themselves: "The survival of writing from this period is rare and this is a very important find, especially in terms of the continuity of a literate Christian tradition in post-Roman Cornwall. The lettering style and language used, as well as Christian symbols exhibiting Mediterranean influence and contacts, all reveal precious clues to the culture of those who lived at Tintagel in the 7th century."

1,300-year-old inscriptions found on medieval Cornish stone
Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is associated with the stories of King Arthur
[Credit: Nigel Wallace-Iles/English Herit]
The inscribed stone is the second example of early medieval writing to be found at Tintagel. The first, discovered in 1998, was a stone inscribed with several words including the Celtic name ‘Artognou’.

Like the Artognou stone before it, the newly discovered stone will be the subject of much analysis. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis has not revealed the survival of any colouring, but it is hoped that high resolution scanning will reveal how the marks were engraved.

Source: English Heritage [June 15, 2018]


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