HILLFORT ENTRANCES

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The weakest part of any hillfort was its entrance and consequently few forts have more than two. The builders went to great lengths to strengthen them and protect the wooden gates which were particularly vulnerable to fire and battering. Many early gates were simple straight-through affairs, but more ingenious works were constructed later at either end of long barbican passages, tucked into claw-like outworks, or set obliquely between staggered ramparts. Some were protected by guard chambers; others had a bridge over the top for sentry patrols.


It is worth noticing that sometimes gates were not actually present and entrances may have been blocked by felled tree trunks, as at Bigbury (Kent) according to Caesar, or by thorn bushes. At Crickley Hill (Glos) a wall curved outwards from the main gate forming a hornwork, from the end of which sentries could survey the whole of the entrance area. Similarly at Danebury (Hants) a curving hornwork at the end of a long entrance passage provided what the excavator called a command post, from the top of which a competent slinger could hurl sling-stones well over 70 m. (77 yd). In other parts of the country extra lines of rampart in front of the entrance made direct access difficult and in some highland areas carefully placed grids of small upstanding pointed stones or posts called chevaux de frise served the same purpose, e.g. Pen-y-Gaer (Gwynedd), Kaimes (Midlothian).


There is a strong possibility that the more elaborate the entrance design, the greater would be considered the social status of the builders and the more impressive it would appear to visitors. Michael Avery has described the earliest gates being protected by short range weapons such as the sword, axe, spear and stones used in hand-to-hand fighting in a continuation of Bronze Age traditions.


The elaborate entrances of the later Iron Age were designed to place the gate out of easy range of attack. Caesar in the first century BC describes his tactics: first clear the defenders from the ramparts by a barrage of stones and then move under cover of shields to fire the gate. Of course, these were Roman methods; the hillforts were designed for local warfare, but the same principle may have operated, with the defenders also hailing down stones upon the attackers. At Maiden Castle Mortimer Wheeler found pits filled with stones at the eastern gateway, 22,260 in one haul. Wheeler identified them as slingstones, though Avery suggests they were probably hand-thrown.


In southern England the rampart was often of chalk faced with wooden posts, turf, or chalk blocks. Excavation has often shown a sequence beginning with a single palisade, developing into a series of box ramparts in which an outer face of closely set timbers was tied back to a lower inner set by horizontal beams, the gap between them being filled by turf, chalk and earth. The latest ramparts are often nothing more than dumps of loose, slipping rubble known as glacis, although their core consisted of carefully laid layers of soil and they would have been capped with a wooden breastwork. Soil and turf used in the ramparts came either from external ditches or from quarries deliberately dug inside the fort.


In the upland areas of south-west England, Wales, northern England and Scotland, stone walls in a variety of local styles surrounded the forts. Some timber posts were set in a dry-stone wall; in others, vertical or horizontal timbers strengthened the structure. Alternating upright stones and horizontal layers of dry-stones are known as post and panel and occur at Maiden Castle (Dorset) and Moel-y-Gaer (Clwyd). In many Scottish forts transverse timbers ran from back to front of the stone walls, their ends often protruding from the wall face. When these timbers accidentally or deliberately caught fire the burning was often so fierce that the rampart melted and vitrified. An example of this can still be seen at Barry Hill (Perth). Forty-eight such instances are recorded in the Forth-Clyde isthmus alone. Some of the stone used in constructing these forts came from quarries nearby; the rest was obtained from surface outcrops and scree slopes.


It is possible to divide hillforts into a number of broad types based on their siting. Those built on hilltops whose ramparts follow the contours are known as contour forts, e.g. Eggardon (Dorset) and Eildon Hill (Roxburgh). Where there is no suitable high land and the fort occurs on more or less flat ground it is identified as a lowland or plateau fort, e.g. Warham (Norfolk). If the sides of a hill spur were steep enough to offer natural defence, the neck of the spur might be cut off by one or two lines of rampart and ditch creating a promontory fort, e.g. Crickley Hill (Glos). If the hillspur jutted into the sea, with steep inaccessible cliffs all round it, the term cliff-castle is used, e.g. The Rumps (Cornwall) and St David’s Head (Dyfed). In south-west England and south Wales are a group of forts composed of a number of widely spaced enclosures, usually on the slope of a hill. It is believed that these were for gathering livestock, and they are known as hillslope or multiple enclosure forts. On a much smaller scale a fort like The Ringses (Northumb) in northern England also seems to have provision for enclosing stock.

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