THE FUNCTION OF HILLFORTS

Wednesday, October 22, 2008





The ramparts of Eggardon Hill fort (Dorset) were probably faced in timber and stone, making them almost impregnable. (J.Dyer)


It is time to speculate on the function of hillforts. We have already described some as permanently occupied fortified villages, but such a description could only apply to a few where many contemporary huts have been identified. In southern Britain it is likely that most hillforts should best be seen as either administrative or exchange centres, or centralized storage depots, to which people travelled in order to deposit or acquire commodities of which they had excess or need. Whether this was done freely or compulsorily— in the form of tithes for instance—we do not know. There is some evidence to suggest that forts like Danebury and Winklebury were only seasonally occupied during the autumn and winter months when animals and agricultural produce needed storing. In the summer attention may have concentrated on more fertile, low-lying pastures with ample meadowland for grazing and hay production and a plentiful water supply. It is unlikely that anything more than an administrative staff of maintenance men and security guards lived permanently in the forts.


It is important to question the nature of the Iron Age society that dwelt in the farmsteads, open settlements and hillforts in the mid-first millennium BC. There is little to suggest the emergence of any major hierarchy at this time. Little has been found in forts such as Danebury or South Cadbury to indicate that they were the headquarters of a tribal king or chief. Extra-large houses or sophisticated artefacts have not been recorded and their identification as centres for storage or exchange seems more logical. Whether anything as elaborate as a centre for redistribution of produce was really needed at that time is open to question. It seems reasonable to envisage a fairly egalitarian society in which land was held in common and which elected a local council of leaders or ‘magistrates’ to administer the affairs of the community. Caesar described such an arrangement operating in Germany in the mid-first century BC. From common ownership of land we can expect common ownership of its products, all of which could be stored and cared for in the communal stronghold. Such a system ensured that wealth was equally divided and in Germany even the land was reallocated annually so that no one was favoured by ownership of particularly rich arable. Cattle, collected as booty after raiding a neighbour, may also have been divided although claims of exceptional prowess might have been rewarded with a larger share.


Consideration of the massive fortifications surrounding many hillforts suggests that the defence of the interior was all-important and we cannot escape the fact that all were capable of serving a belligerent function. This would be in the control of the local council or ‘magistrates’ under the guidance of their elected or hereditary leader. The fortifications were strengthened and remodelled from time to time as necessity dictated and in response to local crises. It seems clear that a powerful driving force would be required to build such enormous earthworks. We have mentioned the rectangular structures, identified by their excavators as shrines, at places like South Cadbury and Danebury, which could perhaps hint at a religious presence. That alone is unlikely to have been enough to generate the energy needed to dig and build for a half a year. Fear of attack and the loss of valuable commodities including livestock, foodstuff, personal possessions and perhaps personal freedom are great stimuli, and by the middle of the first millennium much of the countryside of southern, central and western Britain was divided up into hundreds of little territories of varying sizes, each with farms and villages and a central hillfort. In the east of the country the farms and villages existed but there were far fewer hillforts.


In peacetime the fort was the commercial and administrative centre for the area but in times of stress it offered protection to both people and their animals. For a brief period folk might crowd inside the defences, sheltering in temporary huts. As soon as the alarm was over they would return to their farms and settlements. Fighting may not have been commonplace but it was a threat and the fort would be kept in good repair, perhaps by a few days’ work required from each man during the year. Fighting may have been between one fort and another over ownership of stray cattle, a disputed boundary or grazing rights. According to later Celtic literature such skirmishes were short and sharp. Sieges were almost unknown, fortunately perhaps, since most forts lacked a permanent water supply and resort to hill-foot springs for drinking and cooking water was frequently necessary.


Although the great strength of many forts suggests that the fear of attack was always present many may never have seen any fighting at all, and the actual evidence from excavation provides few signs of real destruction. The first Iron Age fort at Crickley Hill (Glos) was destroyed by burning, brushwood being piled against its protective wall producing so great a heat when it was fired that the limestone was reduced to quicklime. Not far away a similar state of affairs was revealed at Leckhampton (Glos) where timbers in the eastern wall were ignited. In the Chilterns the skeletons of adults and children thrown into the ditches at Maiden Bower (Beds) and Arbury Banks (Herts) suggest disasters which brought a temporary end to both forts early in the fourth century BC.

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