Iron Age Hillforts

Britain’s Iron Age Hillforts are still barely understood. After a couple of day’s research, I visted the UK’s greatest hillfort with an Iron Age expert.

Hundreds of Iron Age hillforts loom over the UK, from Wales craggy wilds to Wimbledon Common. For 700 years, the colossal acropolises were sites of heroic battles, myriad love-affairs, human sacrifice, and the nexus of a nascent social structure that lasted until the 16th Century. Yet they remain a mystery to most. To redress this, I visited Dorchester’s Maiden Castle, arguably the UK’s greatest hillfort, with Peter Woodward, pre-historian and Curator of the Dorset County Museum.

Approaching, Maiden’s three mighty ditch and bank walls loom above us. The innermost and highest is 90ft (27m). In the hillfort’s heyday the chalk-carved cliffs were steeper, higher, glaring white, and topped with wood and stone ramparts from which patrolling sling-men could thwock a rock between the eyes of anyone within 110 yards. Just in range, Woodward and I kick over molehills, looking for pottery, iron shards and animal bones.

woodward and hangglider on maiden 2“We won’t find anything,” admits the Curator through his field academic’s beard, “You’re more likely to find artefacts upslope – here they would have settled below the mole structure. Badgers are better at churning stuff out. Ploughed fields are good too.”

Heading upwards, Woodward explains: “The Iron Age, generally, runs from 800 BC to the 43 AD Roman Invasion. At Maiden Castle, from 600 BC to 100 BC, a defended agricultural village was converted into a massively defended strongpoint with hundreds of inhabitants.”

After 800 BC, British society fractured into smaller groups and innumerable hillforts were built. Nobody knows why. We know it got colder, and that rainfall and population increased. These factors possibly stressed resources, leading to conflict and forts. Ancient Brits didn’t write, so Iron Age historians have four sources: archaeological evidence, writings on contemporary European Celts, study of today’s pre-industrial tribes, and very late Iron Age Roman documents. Iron Age history, therefore, is best guess, not fact. “We’re too hung up on military ideas.” Reckons Woodward, for example. “Hillforts may signify success, and agreement to manage society in a different way.”

At Maiden’s astoundingly well-defended western gate, multiple banks rear like ferocious waves. “The entrance is just through there, but you wouldn’t know,” says Woodward pointing over a nearby bluff, “The maze of overlapping banks would have been rebutted with timber, maybe topped with heads on spikes.”

Maiden is a classic ‘contour fort’, with defences built along contour lines, encircling the hilltop. The resultant enclosure had more than just a defensive role. “The biggest barrier to understanding hillforts is the very name,” Woodward argues. “I don’t think the attribute of ‘fort’ is the most important one – they are religious and political centres.”

Although only 2% of Maiden has been excavated, Woodward can extrapolate the Iron Age scene from other digs. The lower western section was ringed with huts, with livestock grazing the centre. It’s likely that the market and storage areas were here too. The higher eastern end of the fort contained a temple and the smarter addresses.

According to Caesar in 55BC, warriors and druids ruled Iron Age Britain. The remainder were serfs. Strabo lists one of Britain’s main pre-Roman exports as slaves. Tacitus describes Celtic shrines as “altars drenched with human blood”. Violent death and malnutrition are common features in excavated bodies. Druids read the eviscerated entrails of living people, and oversaw mass human immolations in burning wicker cages. Few lived past their 40s.

It seems hillforts were not happy places. But perhaps they were exciting ones? “Was it like Conan, with lone warriors raiding temples and rescuing virgins from murderous sects?” I ask.

“Yes,” nods Woodward sagely, as we ascend the eastern section. “Some of the visuals in films like Conan the Barbarian are as valuable as any others.”

Woodward on Maiden

Gesturing westwards, Woodward explains that in many forts you see terraces where huts stood, and hollows marking old storage pits. Not here though – they were all ploughed away in the Middle Ages.

On the Eastern plateau was a large temple, where druids would have gruesomely ministered. Woodward plays the horror down, then disputes the theories of Mortimer Wheeler, who excavated Maiden in the 1930s. Wheeler found caches of sling-stones at the eastern entrance, a burial ground, and a gate burnt in around 43AD. He claimed the Roman Vespasian attacked and took Maiden Castle. Maybe not, says Woodward. Evidence is circumstantial. Perhaps the gates were burned symbolically after a truce.

Breeched or not, Maiden Castle was already declining. Conveniently-located fortified towns replaced hillforts from around 100BC. Maiden remained a religious centre: a Roman Temple was built there. Now though, it’s a castle for rabbits, sheep, walkers, dogs and fantasists who can ponder what happened here. Battles, adventurous escapes and monstrous torture, or social harmony, love affairs and flower shows – who knows? That’s the great thing about the Iron Age. Within informed parameters, you can imagine whatever you like, and you might be right.

 

DETAILS

For Dorset County Museum, and further Maiden Castle Information, see www.dorsetcountymuseum.org or call 01305 262735.

Good Forts to visit

The Rumps, Cornwall

Classic Promontory Hillfort.

Tre’r Ceiri, Gwynedd

Brilliantly preserved outer and hut walls.

Danebury, Hampshire

Most studied hillfort in the UK.

Barbury Castle, Wiltshire

10 minutes off the M4, great views

Solsbury Hill, Bath

Featured in Peter Gabrielle’s song. Possible site of Badon Hill, King Arthur’s greatest victory.

Inglebrough, North Yorkshire

Very exposed, remaining hut circles and rubble walls.

Conderton Camp, Worcestershire

Small but well formed.

Caesar’s Camp, London

Now part of the Royal Wimbledon Golf Course, but you can see it form the public path.

Yeavering Bell, Northumberland

Well preserved walls and many hut platforms.

Article printed 20th May 2006 in the Telegraph, all copyright theirs. Photos copyright Angus Watson 2006