In the wake of Hawkes’ renowned treatise ‘Hillforts’ (Hawkes 1931), scholars of archaeology undertook the arduous task of categorising hillforts, drawing upon the limited evidence at their disposal. Primarily, these divisions hinged on considerations of size, location, the construction of ramparts, and chronological context. In a relatively recent endeavour the author Cunliffe, put forth a scheme tailored to the Wessex region (Cunliffe 1984b), which delineated certain overarching classifications for these forts (The Great Iron Age Hill Fort Hoax):
Early hilltop enclosures, typically encompassing over 10 hectares of terrain.
Small, strategically fortified settlements, perched prominently, often occupying areas ranging from 1 to 3 hectares.
Early hillforts, characterised by univallate contour works, typically spanning 3 to 7 hectares.
Developed hillforts, generally falling within the 3 to the 7-hectare range but frequently boasting multivallate defences.
The quintessential definition for this prehistoric phenomenon reads as follows: A hillfort constitutes a form of earthwork employed as a fortified sanctuary or defended habitation, strategically positioned to exploit elevated terrain for defensive advantage.
This classification endured unchallenged for more than seven decades – they are now, according to the repository of knowledge that is Wikipedia, primarily of European origin, belonging to either the Bronze Age or Iron Age, with some even extending into the post-Roman era. The fortifications typically trace the natural contours of a hill, comprising one or more tiers of earthworks, fortified by stockades or defensive walls and flanked by external ditches.
Celtic hill forts came into their own during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, aligning roughly with the inception of the first millennium BC. They continued to proliferate across various Celtic regions of central and western Europe until the advent of the Roman conquest. Their prevalence was most pronounced during the later epochs, including the Urnfield culture and Atlantic Bronze Age (circa 1300 BC – 750 BC), the Hallstatt culture (circa 1200 BC – 500 BC), and the La Tène culture (circa 600 BC – 50 AD).
This transformation in our comprehension of hillforts owes a substantial debt to the extensive work undertaken by Barry Cunliffe at Danebury during the 1970s.
Prehistoric Europe witnessed a burgeoning population. Estimates suggest that around 5000 BC, during the Neolithic era, the population of Europe fluctuated between 2 million and 5 million. In the Late Iron Age, this number swelled to an estimated 15 to 30 million. With the exception of Greece and Italy, which were more densely populated, the overwhelming majority of settlements during the Iron Age were relatively diminutive, housing no more than 50 inhabitants. Hillforts, however, stood as an exception, accommodating as many as 1,000 individuals.
With the advent of oppida in the Late Iron Age, settlements expanded to house populations as substantial as 10,000. As the populace swelled, so too did the intricacy of prehistoric societies. Around 1100 BC, hillforts emerged and over the ensuing centuries proliferated throughout Europe. They served a diverse array of functions, functioning variously as tribal hubs, fortified bastions, focal points of ritualistic activities, and centres of production.
Sadly, this is complete garbage.
The British Isles are graced with an abundance of historical hillforts, more than 2,000 in total, with a substantial portion, nearly 600, adorning the landscape of Wales. Amongst these fortifications, one stands out as a paragon of scrutiny and exploration – Danebury in Hampshire, boasting the honour of being the most thoroughly examined Iron Age hillfort in all of Britain, as well as the most comprehensively documented.
However, as the custodian of this intriguing tale, it is my duty to present a startling revelation: a significant proportion of these hillforts, often exceeding a staggering 95%, have unveiled themselves to be significantly more ancient than the Iron Age.
So, what shall we make of this revelation?
Is it indeed, apt to continue branding them as exclusively Iron Age enclaves? Of course, there are vestiges from the Iron Age to be found within these enclosures, but they also harbour traces of the Middle Ages, Roman artefacts, and, most tellingly, flint relics dating back to the Neolithic/Mesolithic era.
To delve into the heart of this matter, let us focus our attention on the paramount example of an Iron Age fort in Britain – Danebury in Hampshire, and its peer, the grandiose Maiden Castle in Dorset. Together, we shall sift through their findings, unearthing the curious conundrum of archaeological classifications.
Danebury (according to Wikipedia)
Danebury is an Iron Age hillfort in Hampshire, England, about 19 kilometres (12 mi) north-west of Winchester (grid reference SU323376). The site, covering 5 hectares (12 acres), was excavated by Barry Cunliffe in the 1970s. Danebury is considered a type-site for hill forts, and was important in developing the understanding of hillforts, as very few others have been so intensively excavated.
Built in the 6th century BC, the fort was used for almost 500 years, during a period when the number of hill forts in Wessex greatly increased. Danebury was remodelled several times, making it more complex and resulting in it becoming a “developed” hill fort. It is a Scheduled Monument and a Local Nature Reserve called Danebury Hillfort. The Scheduled Monument is surrounded by a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated as Danebury Hill.
Looks pretty straightforward and comprehensive – so what is wrong?
In the annals of Iron Age Britain, a conspicuous absence of historical records compels us to rely solely on the tools of archaeology to reconstruct the rich tapestry of events at sites like Danebury and other ancient forts. Crafting a comprehensive and authoritative historical narrative from a single site becomes a feat of no small magnitude. Typically, in the realm of science, hypotheses are formulated and subjected to rigorous testing and fine-tuning by fellow scientists. But in this case, a unique anomaly emerges.
It is worth noting that the established dates pertain solely to the interior pits of the site. These dates offer insight into the latest period of habitation, for obvious reasons, or at best, the principal period of occupancy, but they do not unveil the secrets of the site’s birth – its construction date.
A cursory search reveals that Hampshire archaeology has, intriguingly, reclassified Danebury as a Bronze Age relic. According to this new classification, “Evidence suggests that Danebury Iron Age Hill Fort was built 3000 years ago. It started life as a Late Bronze Age stock enclosure, while the main defences that are now visible were constructed around 2500 years ago. The fort continued to be in use until around 100 BC, a century and a half before the Roman invasion of AD 43.”
The basis for this shift in classification can be traced to carbon dating, which exposed samples reaching as far back as 700 BCE, leading to the realisation that the site was never truly of the Iron Age.
In fact, during the extensive excavation conducted between 1969 and 1978, which included a rare examination of the ditches outside the fort, a treasure trove of flints spanning from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age was unearthed, along with a smattering of Beaker period pottery. Consequently, we find ourselves teetering on the precipice of a profound reevaluation, one that suggests that Danebury might not be Iron Age, nor Bronze Age, but quite possibly a relic from the Neolithic era. The ability to definitively differentiate Neolithic flints from their Mesolithic counterparts is a matter that deserves thorough exploration, even if it may lead us to reject some preconceived notions.
Moreover, the excavations carried out at Danebury between 1979 and 1988 yielded an impressive assemblage of flints, totalling 2,896 items. It is of paramount importance to note that these archaeological endeavours unveiled a linear earthwork. The contours of this earthwork had been accentuated by a worn hollow trackway (F295), reaching a depth of approximately 0.3 meters behind the ditch on the northern side. Regrettably, the age of this feature remains elusive, but it’s conceivable that this trackway might constitute one of the original routes leading to the fort’s entrance.
A striking observation made possible by LiDAR technology, although unmentioned in the report, is the linkage between this ‘Dyke’ and the outer ditch of the site. This intriguing connection hints at the possibility of a nautical route to the site, presumably navigable during higher river levels in prehistoric times.
So it’s Prehistoric and not Iron Age – therefore is it a hillfort at least?
In our quest to ascertain whether this site was initially conceived as a ‘fortification,’ we must examine two critical aspects: its original design and the practical function it served in the past. It is crucial to consider that, like many ancient structures, this site could have been adapted for a new function in later historical periods.
Official schematics detailing the phases of Danebury’s evolution shed light on its original design. Notably, the previously recognised ‘Linear Earthwork’ (Dyke) played a pivotal role in its construction, linking to another ‘defensive’ ditch, designated as A1. However, an intriguing twist emerges.
Regrettably, LiDAR technology uncovers a discrepancy in Barry Cunliffe’s illustrative depictions of the site. It appears that some creative liberties were taken in these drawings. The FULL linear feature was not only omitted from the diagrams but a somewhat exaggerated kink was added to the south of the Dyke, creating the impression of a deliberately planned entrance. In reality, this feature formed a complete circle and did not resemble the ‘banjo entrance’ that Cunliffe sought to convey. The reality is that the straight linear earthwork preceded the outer circle.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the original ditch A1 appears to have had more earthwork material deposited on its outer section than on the inner portion. This particular characteristic, where more soil is added to the outer side, raises questions about its viability as a purely ‘defensive’ element.
So, Danebury is probably Neolithic/Mesolithic in date (shown by flint numbers on site) and not defensive as the original ditch was made probably to link a Linear Earthwork to the river system.
Let’s look at Maiden Castle to see if the ‘traditionalists’ have better luck with their hypothesis.
According to Wikipedia – Maiden Castle is an Iron Age hillfort 1.6 mi (2.6 km) southwest of Dorchester, in the English county of Dorset. Hill forts were fortified hilltop settlements constructed across Britain during the Iron Age.
The earliest archaeological evidence of human activity on the site consists of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and bank barrow. In about 1800 BC, during the Bronze Age, the site was used for growing crops before being abandoned. Maiden Castle itself was built in about 600 BC; the early phase was a simple and unremarkable site, similar to many other hill forts in Britain and covering 6.4 ha (16 acres).
Around 450 BC it was greatly expanded and the enclosed area nearly tripled in size to 19 ha (47 acres), making it the largest hill fort in Britain and, by some definitions, the largest in Europe. At the same time, Maiden Castle’s defences were made more complex with the addition of further ramparts and ditches. Around 100 BC, habitation at the hill fort went into decline and became concentrated at the eastern end of the site. It was occupied until at least the Roman period, by which time it was in the territory of the Durotriges, a Celtic tribe.
After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD, Maiden Castle appears to have been abandoned, although the Romans may have had a military presence on the site. In the late 4th century AD, a temple and ancillary buildings were constructed. In the 6th century AD, the hilltop was entirely abandoned and was used only for agriculture during the medieval period.
The study of hill forts was popularised in the 19th century by archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers. In the 1930s, archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and Tessa Verney Wheeler undertook the first archaeological excavations at Maiden Castle, raising its profile among the public.
Allow me to elucidate our quandary further. Recent excavations in the year 1985 revealed artefacts hailing not only from the Neolithic era but also from a substratum that likely originates in the Mesolithic epoch. Therefore, the label ‘Iron Age’ begins to appear somewhat askew.
The question arises: could this subsequent ‘addition’ truly be classified as a fortification?
Our scrutiny of the construction once more casts doubt on this notion. The ditches, ostensibly designed for defence, present a conundrum. The sole cross-sectional glimpse into these ‘defensive’ trenches reveals an uncanny resemblance to the flat-bottomed counterparts witnessed in other prehistoric sites like Avebury, Stonehenge, and Old Sarum.
Curiously, signs of later defensive ditches emerge, and they bear a different, smaller, and V-shaped profile. Their purpose, it seems, was to ensnare any marauding adversaries. The round and conspicuously capacious ditches we encounter here bear a striking resemblance to a singular category of defensive structure in history – Norman Castles. The Normans, however, chose moats, not ditches, as their preferred defensive fortifications. An enigma indeed.
Might we be gazing upon prehistoric moats, which, in the bygone era of elevated water tables, would have readily filled to assume the characteristics of a moat? Could these have served as a defence, or might a more plausible function be inferred – a conduit for waterborne trade, facilitating the ingress of boats?
Finally, let us contemplate a pivotal factor, one I have thus far refrained from disclosing, for I deem it the most crucial piece of evidence, the ‘smoking gun,’ as it were, in our argument against the notion that these sites were constructed for defensive purposes. Not a solitary remains of a life extinguished in conflict has ever been unearthed within the confines of the ditches encircling any of the two thousand so-called ‘Iron Age Forts’ that punctuate history.
It is an assertion that prompts us to reconsider their true nature, to entertain the possibility that these were not fortifications but, rather, bustling hubs of trade and commerce.
For information about British Prehistory, visit www.prehistoric-britain.co.uk for the most extensive archaeology blogs and investigations collection, including modern LiDAR reports. This site also includes extracts and articles from the Robert John Langdon Trilogy about Britain in the Prehistoric period, including titles such as The Stonehenge Enigma, Dawn of the Lost Civilisation and the ultimate proof of Post Glacial Flooding and the landscape we see today.
Robert John Langdon has also created a YouTube web channel with over 100 investigations and video documentaries to support his classic trilogy (Prehistoric Britain). He has also released a collection of strange coincidences that he calls ‘13 Things that Don’t Make Sense in History’ and his recent discovery of a lost Stone Avenue at Avebury in Wiltshire called ‘Silbury Avenue – the Lost Stone Avenue’.
Langdon has also produced a series of ‘shorts’, which are extracts from his main body of books:
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