The drink problem in sixth century Tintagel

Cameron Moffett, ‘Slate discs at Tintagel Castle: Evidence for post-Roman mead production?’, The Antiquaries Journal 97 (2017), 119-143.

Cameron Moffett makes an ingenious argument in this article for the presence of a flourishing mead production facility at early medieval Tintagel. It rounds out the growing picture we have of an intensively occupied royal centre at this place, with local rulers regularly resorting there from the late 400s to the later 500s.

The article begins by providing a useful summary of what we know about Tintagel in this period. It reiterates what has now become the consensus. This was a high-status site, as shown by the evidence of a large quantity of imported post-Roman ceramics from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The ceramic detritus left on site is from amphorae, containers used to carry mainly wine and olive oil, as well as fineware bowls for serving food. (For the wider context of Tintagel at this period see chapter 2 of my Cornwall’s First Golden Age.)

Moffett then notes the large number of slate discs found at Tintagel. The smaller examples of these have been suggested to have been gaming counters but most are too large for this. The larger crude circular discs with one or two holes drilled through them are believed to be amphora stoppers, the holes being for string to hook them out. They were made of the local slate to replace the ceramic originals, which were broken when the amphorae were emptied of their contents or otherwise opened.

Some of the slate discs found at Tintagel, supposedly amphora stoppers

The article then moves on to a building on the middle east-facing terrace of the island known as Site C. On the basis of the large number of slate discs found there, it is proposed that this building was primarily used for the storage of re-used amphorae. But what was in them? By analogy with the Roman world, and there is a considerable amount of analogy in the article as is usual in archaeology, Cameron Moffet argues that the amphorae brought to Tintagel were later re-used to store foodstuffs. However, there is ‘no tangible evidence’ of amphorae at Tintagel being used for storing grain, while the presence of springs and a water supply made storage of water a less pressing concern than in the Mediterranean.

He then turns to the domestic economy of Tintagel in the fifth to seventh centuries, noting that the presence of a royal household would have demanded tributes in the form of food renders from the surrounding countryside. These would most likely have been given in the form of animals (cows and pigs) grazed nearby until slaughtered, and grain. But evidence from elsewhere suggests the grain was on occasion given in the fermented form of beer. In addition, honey, a luxury good probably exchanged from further afield, was also sometimes part of food renders. Moreover, tenth century Welsh food renders include mead, produced from honeycombs.

Moffett then points out that mead was a relatively high-status drink, especially in the context of the reduced import of wine following the departure of the Romans. It would also have been used as the alcoholic component of regular feasts. In Wales and Ireland there was a clear connection between the right to rule and ability to host a feast. At this event the consumption of alcoholic drinks supplied by the host would have symbolically sealed the consumers’ obligations to that host and consolidated the latter’s power.

We are then invited to imagine such gatherings at Tintagel. The rulers, their immediate family and closest associates would have been quaffing wine in the classic Roman style, from imported and rare glassware. But for the many less important guests, mead would have been on offer, drunk from wooden cups, horns or other communal vessels.

Finally, this is linked to the archaeology of the site by the proposition that the mead drunk at these bacchanalian festivities was also produced on site, in fact, in that very same modest stone building at Site C on the eastern terraces of the island. This is reinforced by some (admittedly sparse) evidence of wax-like residues and long-chain hydrocarbons and alcohols found on amphora body sherds from the vicinity of that site, although this all sounds quite plausible.

Written by an English Heritage curator, this is an intriguing and convincing addition to the literature on early Tintagel. All the more pity then that this iconic Cornish heritage site is managed by an unimaginative agency of the colonising state over-concerned with the trafficking of tourists. Just imagine what a Cornish-orientated and run management body could do with the site.

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