Friday, October 17, 2008
By far and away the best-known sites of the Iron Age are the hillforts. The name is used to describe a wide variety of earthworks and is somewhat misleading since quite a lot of them were neither on hills nor functioned as forts. At its simplest the term covers any fortified site that is defended by one or more banks and ditches and encloses areas as widely varied as 0.1 ha. (0.2 acres) and 240 ha. (593 acres). In 1979 A.H.A.Hogg defined hillforts when he published an index of ‘enclosures with substantial defences, usually on high ground and probably built between about 1000 BC and 700 AD, but showing no significant Roman influence’. The index included some 3,840 sites, the majority in central, southern and western England, Wales and south-east Scotland.
Whilst it is true that many hillforts do lie on high ground—Ingleborough in Yorkshire for example is at 716 m. (783 yd)—others like Holkham in Norfolk are at sea level and Risbury in Herefordshire is overlooked in a valley. Generally speaking a hillfort is a deliberately constructed fortification built of earth, timber or stone, situated in a position which will make it easiest to defend and can offer the best protection for its inhabitants. Whilst taking advantage of such natural features as steep escarpments and cliff-like rock faces for defence whenever they existed, the majority of forts relied on deep external ditches and ramparts faced with timber or stone, topped by wooden stockades. Forts with a single circuit of rampart and ditch are known as univallate; those with additional circuits are called multivallate and are often of more than one period. Whilst some ramparts were constructed in close proximity to one another, others are more widely spaced down a hillslope, giving defence in depth. In other cases there is room between the ramparts, possibly for corralling cattle, a feature which was developed in the south-west with a series of annexes outside the main fort.