Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement

Beside the Loch of Harray (Mainland, Orkney), on an area measuring 80m x 60m, are the reconstructed remains of a Neolithic settlement, similar to the better preserved Skara Brae.

The site was severely damaged by ploughing: only the bases of the houses have survived, but the excavated remains have been reconstructed. In the houses, there are central kerbed hearths, bed alcoves and stone dressers.

The base courses of at least 15 houses have been found. These houses have similarities to Skara Brae in that they have central hearths, beds built against the walls and stone dressers, but differ in that the houses seem to have been free-standing. Pottery of the grooved ware type was found, as at the Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. Flint and stone tools were found, as well as a piece of pitchstone thought to have come from the Isle of Arran.

The largest building had a room about 7 m (23 ft) square with walls 3 m (10 ft) thick and an entrance facing towards the north west so that the midsummer sunset shines along the passageway, with similarities to some chambered cairns.

Throughout the settlement there is a complex series of ditches and drains. There must have been a relationship between Barnhouse inhabitants and the nearby ceremonial site of the Stones of Stenness.





Saturday, November 29, 2008


From Caledonia to Pictland

Scotland to 795

Volume Number: Volume 1

Author: James E. Fraser

Publication Date:

Dec 2008


234 x 156 mm


448 pages


New Edinburgh History of Scotland

From Caledonia to Pictland examines the transformation of Iron Age northern Britain into a land of Christian kingdoms, long before 'Scotland' came into existence. Perched at the edge of the western Roman Empire, northern Britain was not unaffected by the experience, and became swept up in the great tide of processes which gave rise to the early medieval West. Like other places, the country experienced social and ethnic metamorphoses, Christianisation, and colonization by dislocated outsiders, but northern Britain also has its own unique story to tell in the first eight centuries AD.

This book is the first detailed political history to treat these centuries as a single period, with due regard for Scotland's position in the bigger story of late Antique transition. From Caledonia to Pictland charts the complex and shadowy processes which saw the familiar Picts, Northumbrians, North Britons and Gaels of early Scottish history become established in the country, the achievements of their foremost political figures, and their ongoing links with the world around them. It is a story that has become much revised through changing trends in scholarly approaches to the challenging evidence, and that transformation too is explained for the benefit of students and general readers.

Key Features

The only detailed political history to treat the first eight centuries AD as a single period of Scottish history.

Redresses the imbalance created by an existing literature dominated by archaeologists. From Caledonia to Pictland provides a narrative history of the period.

Bridges a traditional disciplinary divide between the Roman and early medieval periods.

Locates this phase of Scotland's history within a European context, emphasising what is unique and what is not.

Friday, November 28, 2008


An artist’s interpretation of the Viereckschanze at Winden (“Vinida”) in southeastern Germany based on aerial photographs and the results of excavations at other enclosures in Germany. The Winden enclosure measures about 80 × 80 meters. The drawing illustrates the characteristic shape and construction of a Viereckschanze with an uninterrupted rectilinear ditch, inner walls and gatehouse, and scattered interior buildings aligned with the enclosure’s walls. The artist has placed the Viereckschanze within a larger settlement following the current interpretation of excavated sites such as Bopfingen-Flochberg. © RUDOLF MÜNCH.

Viereckschanzen is a German word (Viereckschanze in its singular form) that may be translated as “rectilinear enclosures.” The term refers to enigmatic Late Iron Age “ditch-and-berm” constructions and associated archaeological deposits that are still visible in central and western European landscapes.


The Viereckschanzen are associated with pre-Roman Celtic populations living at the end of the Iron Age who produced a material culture known as the Late La Tène culture. Precise dendrochronological (treering dating) measurements of oak timbers preserved in wells at four Viereckschanzen in southern Germany (Riedlingen, Fellbach-Schmiden, Plattling- Pankofen, and Pocking-Hartkirchen) range across a 130-year period, from 181 to 51 B.C. These dates correspond to the La Tène C2 and D1 horizons of the central European Iron Age chronology and indicate that the Viereckschanzen were contemporaries of the large, defended settlements known as oppida.

Southern Germany, including the states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, is the main focus of the distribution of Viereckschanzen, where approximately five hundred enclosures have been identified. Significantly smaller numbers of sites are present in the Czech Republic and Moravia (to the east) and in northern Switzerland (to the south). Rectilinear enclosures, known in the French as enceinte quadrilaterale or enceinte carrées, also exist in eastern and northern France, but these terms are used to describe a variety of sites dating to the final millennium B.C. The classic southern German Viereckschanze can be differentiated from Belgic sanctuaries of northeastern Gaul, such as Gournay-sur-Aronde, by the Viereckschanze’s larger size and lack of structured deposits of weaponry and animal remains.


The classic Viereckschanze is identifiable by its standardized form and construction. A typical enclosure was created by excavation of a steepsided, V-shaped ditch in a square, rectangular, or slightly trapezoidal form. The excavated soil was placed on the inside edge of the ditch, forming a simple earthen berm or rampart. Ditches were maintained through periodic re-excavation. There is some evidence that a wooden palisade or other superstructure was placed along the top of the rampart to increase the height of the walls. Although the ditch was continuous, a single opening was left in the rampart. This opening was usually in the eastern or southern side of the enclosure, but never to the north. Access to the interior required construction of a wooden causeway over the ditch, which led to a small timbered gatehouse erected within the opening of the rampart. Dimensions of the enclosures range from less than 50 meters to more than 100 meters on a side, but most sites are between 80 and 100 meters across and enclose about 1 hectare. At some sites, a rectilinear palisade predated the ditched enclosure. About 5 percent of all enclosures have one or more internal divisions or external annexes, such as at Plattling-Pankofen in Bavaria and Mšecké Žehrovice in Bohemia (Czech Republic).

Viereckschanzen exhibit considerable diversity in the quantity, character, and arrangement of features in their interiors, such as post-built structures, wells, pits, and hearths. Sites such as Holzhausen, Arnstorf-Wiedmais, and Fellbach-Schmiden had few preserved features within their excavated interiors, perhaps an indication of short-term or intermittent occupation. Other sites, such as Bopfingen- Flochberg and Plattling-Pankofen, contained evidence of more intensive, long-term activities and greater accumulation of cultural debris. Well shafts (often wood lined) and distinctive buildings with wraparound porches or ambulatories are known from a number of excavated sites, but they are not found in all enclosures.


Viereckschanzen are found in a variety of landscape settings, including stream terraces, broad loess plains, and upland slopes and ridge crests. A significant number of sites in upland settings were established near natural springs, suggesting that the provisioning of water was an important consideration in site location. Sites in poorly watered locations often had wells placed in their interiors. Most enclosures that remain intact are sited in forested uplands on terrain unsuited to modern agriculture. Since the early 1980s, intensive aerial reconnaissance and large-scale excavations of cultivated portions of southern Germany have led to the discovery of many Viereckschanzen that had been leveled by plowing.

The ditch and wall suggest that defense was an important function of a Viereckschanze; however, the topographic placement of many enclosures shows that they were not effective fortifications. In southwestern Germany, approximately 40 percent of known enclosures are located on low-lying or sloped terrain, where their interiors would have been vulnerable to attack by ranged weapons (such as javelin, arrow, and slingshot). Viereckschanzen generally do not take advantage of the most strategically valuable terrain, so it is likely that defense was not a primary motive for their construction.

The location of Viereckschanzen in the cultural landscape provides clues to the nature of the enclosures. Earlier investigators used the distribution of preserved enclosures in the forests of southern Germany to suggest that the sites were placed in remote locations separate from settlement areas. The distribution of known sites extends into the most fertile agricultural regions. Walter Irlinger has pointed out the close geographic relationship between Viereckschanzen and undefended rural settlements. These types of site are either found near to one another or are mutually visible and connected through lines of sight. Some enclosures are even located within large settlement complexes, such as at Bopfingen- Flochberg and Plattling-Pankofen.

Viereckschanzen were also placed in apparent reference to older monuments, such as tumulus cemeteries from the Middle Bronze and Early Iron Ages. The situation at the Hohmichele (Heiligkreutztal- Speckhau) in Baden-Württemberg, one of the largest Early Iron Age burial mounds in western Europe, is the most dramatic example of this correspondence between a Viereckschanze and earlier burial monuments.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Raths, crannogs, and cashels are the primary settlement types during the early medieval period in Ireland (c. A.D. 400–800) and also occur in Irish influenced areas of Scotland and Wales. Until the establishment of Viking cities in the ninth century A.D., Irish society was entirely rural in character with individual farmsteads as the predominant feature of the settlement pattern. The Irish economy was based on mixed farming with cattle as the basis of wealth. This set of circumstances encouraged a dispersed settlement pattern, with each farmstead separated by extensive fields and grazing lands. Although these settlements are considered the classic sites of the early medieval period, the construction of crannogs may have begun in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200–700 B.C.), and these settlements certainly continued in use through the Viking and Hiberno-Norse periods (c. A.D. 800–1200) and in some areas as late as the sixteenth century.

Raths and cashels together are referred to as ringforts, and they are easily the most common type of early medieval archaeological site. Ringforts were most likely the homes of the majority of the population during the medieval period, and in excess of forty thousand ringforts have been identified in Ireland. Similar in form, both raths and cashels are circular areas surrounded by a bank of earth or stone. Raths are ringforts that have earthen banks and are often surrounded by a shallow ditch. Cashels are stone-built ringforts and usually occur in areas with poorer soil and a natural abundance of stone. Some ringforts have a combination of earthen and stone walls, although these are uncommon.

Ringforts vary widely in size and may also have more than one set of encircling walls. While the largest may have a diameter in excess of 75 meters, the majority are about 25 to 30 meters in diameter. Cashels, however, are on average somewhat smaller. About 20 percent of ringforts are enclosed by multiple banks; these are referred to as multivallate ringforts and were most likely the farmsteads of wealthy or high-status individuals. Regardless of the number of embankments, multivallate ringforts have internal diameters that are not appreciably larger than most single-banked examples and served much the same role.

Ringforts generally functioned as the farmsteads of single families. Excavations have revealed that most contain only a small number of structures, typically a stone or wattle house with a handful of outbuildings. These would have served as the economic center of the farm, and excavations often highlight the self-sufficiency of ringforts as economic units. Raths and cashels would have comprised the home of the inhabitants, enclosures for the farm’s animals, a storage place for grain, and workshops for common crafts, such as ironworking. Excavations of higher-status ringforts often reveal a greater range of crafts produced, including the manufacture of objects made of bronze and precious metals. However, the essential function of high- and low-status ringforts varied little.

The actual defensive capabilities of ringforts is debated, with some archaeologists viewing the walls simply as a way to keep animals in the farmyard and having no defensive use, while others have argued for palisaded or hedge-lined embankments with some sort of defensive character. The most defensive element of ringforts, however, was perhaps not in their physical layout but in their distribution across the countryside. Studies have shown that ringforts regularly occur in semiclustered groups. Although quite separated in distance, each ringfort would have been within sight of another, and these clusters often have a larger and presumably more defensive multivallate ringfort within close proximity. This would have created an interlocking community that used the view across the landscape as a type of defense and that would have given the inhabitants time to flee to more defensive positions in the larger ringforts or in the surrounding mountains and bog lands.

Crannogs are artificial islands built in lakes and rivers that are located primarily in the northern and western parts of Ireland. While not as numerous as ringforts (about two thousand Irish crannogs have been identified), these sites are the second most common type of early medieval settlement and have played a central role in understanding the period. They are considered a predominantly early medieval class of settlement, although research in the 2000s has extended the chronology of crannog construction back into the Late Bronze Age and perhaps earlier. The nature of crannog use may have been much different prior to c. A.D. 400, with crannogs perhaps serving a predominantly ritual use in earlier periods or as seasonal dwellings only. Evidence for their use in the Iron Age (c. 700 B.C.–A.D. 400) is very scarce, and it is during the early medieval period that crannogs developed as settlements. Most crannogs are built up on lake and river beds with stones and debris until they emerge from the water, and some have stone causeways built connecting the crannog to the shore. These artificial islands were then surrounded with wooden palisades, and houses and other outbuildings were located inside. Crannogs vary greatly in size and shape but are most commonly oval or round in plan and about 20 meters in diameter.

Unlike ringforts, crannogs were probably not directly related to the farming economy, as their location in the water would make access to fields and animals quite difficult. However, large amounts of animal bones are often found on excavated crannogs, and this is commonly interpreted as evidence of feasting by the occupants. This supports the belief that crannogs were the bases of powerful lords, and some crannogs have been identified by historical documents as royal centers. Excavations of these high-status and royal crannogs have revealed extensive evidence of metalworking, the large-scale manufacture of brooches and other high-status personal objects, and impressive collections of imported goods, such as Continental and Mediterranean pottery. Despite the large amounts of archaeological material commonly found on crannogs, most seem to have no more than one or two small houses and were probably inhabited by a family group. Excavations have traditionally focused on these higher status sites, but research since the late 1990s has revealed that there are also less-wealthy crannogs. Their role in the early medieval settlement pattern is, however, less well understood.


Edwards, Nancy. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: Routledge, 1990.

Fredengren, Christina. Crannogs: A Study of People’s Interaction with Lakes, with Particular Reference to Lough Gara in the North-west of Ireland. Bray, Ireland: Wordwell, 2002.

O’Sullivan, Aidan. The Archaeology of Lake Settlement in Ireland. Discovery Programme Monograph, no. 4. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1998.

Stout, Matthew. The Irish Ringfort. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The fortress of Fyrkat in Denmark.

The Viking fortresses of Trelleborg, Aggersborg, Nonnebakken, and Fyrkat played a decisive part in the battles for power at the end of the 10th century. During the Viking Age, both defence and warfare involved ships, although it is still uncertain whether and how the Danish Viking fortresses were associated with the contemporary royal naval power. “The King’s Fortresses“ project attempts to answer this through archaeological investigations and excavations in the vicinity of the fortresses.

Archaeology has contributed greatly to the understanding of Viking lifeways. Viking houses were built with timber, stone, and turf. In this class stratified society, large chiefly estates with good pastureland and large boathouses were the homes for local earls. Inside the houses were central fireplaces for warmth and cooking. Remains of cauldrons and steatite vessels, together with other artifacts such as whetstones for sharpening knives and loom weights from the upstanding looms that women used to weave fine woolen clothing, offer glimpses of domestic life. Implements for farming, hunting, and fishing along with animal bones from middens provide information on activities involving subsistence as well as those involving economy and trade. Charcoal pits, molds, slag, and recovered implements point to highly skilled craftsmanship in metalwork while the Viking ships and their surviving wood ornaments are a stellar example of woodworking. At Oseberg and Gokstad in southeastern Norway, excavations of sunken Viking ships undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century revealed beautifully crafted sledges and wagons. Fine gold jewelry and inlaid silverwork from finds throughout the Viking world also show a high degree of craftsmanship. Chess games, horse fights, and wrestling were all part of Viking daily life, and finds such as the Lewis chessmen—beautifully carved figurines of walrus ivory—show the Vikings applying their talent as artisans to their entertainment as well as their livelihood.

Military settlements such as Trelleborg in Zealand, Nonnebakken at Odense in Fune, Fyrkat near Hobro, and Agersborg near Limfjorden were all situated to command important waterways that served as lines of communication. The layouts of these camps reflect influences of symmetry and precision of the Roman castra. The Vikings were organized in bands called liý, a kind of military household familiar in western Europe. A chieftain might go abroad with just his own men in a couple of ships, but more commonly he would join forces with greater chieftains. These were often members of royal or noble families, styling themselves as kings or earls, and they frequently seem to have been exiles—for example, unsuccessful rivals for the throne—who were forced to seek their fortune abroad. Such men were often willing to stay abroad to serve Frankish or Byzantine rulers as mercenaries, to accept fiefs from them, and to become their vassals. They thereby became a factor in European politics. Vikings were frequently employed by one European prince against another or against other Vikings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Celtic migration refers to the Late Iron Age expansion and resettlement of people affiliated with various Celtic tribes. Historic sources establish the start of this period of upheaval at about 400 B.C. This date is supported by archaeological evidence that indicates an intensive and rapid southward spread of Celtic cultural material and practices. However, archaeological investigations also suggest that 400 B.C. was not the beginning of movement for Celtic peoples and indicate that such migrations were not an isolated phenomenon.

Economic disruption and social transformation were experienced across south-central and eastern Europe throughout the latter half of the final millennium B.C. By the fifth century B.C. population pressure had compelled the Greeks and Phoenicians to establish colonies at coastal Mediterranean sites, such as Massalia (Marseille), Emporion (Ampurias), and Carthage. The fourth and third centuries B.C. were a time of national redefinition and included the consolidation of Greece and Macedonia under Philip II of Macedon, followed by the conquest of Persia and Egypt by his son Alexander III (Alexander the Great). Roman territorial expansion contributed to regional destabilization and population movement throughout Etruria and parts of Iberia, setting the stage for the Punic Wars. Celtic warriors participated in most of these conflicts as mercenaries.

The first wave of historically documented migration is archaeologically evident both at its point of origin (the Champagne region of France) and in the area that was invaded (the Po Valley of northern Italy). Reduced population in Champagne is indicated by the abandonment of settlements and by a decrease in graves, especially those belonging to young adult males. Chariot burials, in particular, practically disappear. Throughout the Cisalpine region (which now forms part of northern Italy), foreign burial practices attest to the arrival of Celts, who established themselves across the plain of the Po River. In Bologna grave markers from the era depict combatants armed with weapons of northern (Transalpine) design. Also burial sites have yielded grave goods that were carried south by the deceased or their acquaintances. Bologna itself was renamed from Etruscan "Felsina" to Celtic "Bononia." Body adornment in the form of bow-shaped brooches (fibulae) of a Transalpine La Tène style are distributed from Champagne and Burgundy across Europe to the Carpathian Basin and south of the Alps throughout Italy.

Not all of the invaders were satisfied to remain in northern Italy. Around 390 B.C. a Celtic invasion force sacked and looted Rome. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century B.C., the event was witnessed by residents who had taken refuge in the citadel. The city was later ransomed, and the barbarians packed their plunder and left. The effect of the devastation was profound and influenced Roman military commanders in their interactions with Celtic warlords for centuries. Julius Caesar, for example, rushed to meet the Helvetii in 58 B.C. to prevent them from turning south into the Po Valley. Following the battle, he turned the survivors around and provisioned them to make certain that they would continue on their eastward journey back to Switzerland.

The path of migration appears to have first traversed the Alps along the western side of the Italian Peninsula but was soon expanded to include routes south from Bohemia. A delegation of Galatian Celts met Alexander the Great on the banks of the Danube during his campaign in the Balkans in 335 B.C. The source is Ptolemy I, later the ruler of Egypt, who was present on the occasion. Celtic incursion into Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece in about 280 B.C. was the culmination of frequent movements of war parties that had begun nearly a century earlier. Delphi was attacked around 279 B.C. by Brennos, who led his warriors to the temple of the Oracle, which they burned. There is no evidence for Celtic resettlement in Greece, and artifacts associated with the assault on Delphi are few.

Classical sources settled upon various accounts to explain why Celts left their homeland and journeyed south through Alpine passes to establish communities in Italy and Asia Minor. A report by Livy states, "There is a tradition that it was the lure of Italian fruits and especially of wine, a pleasure then new to them, that drew the Gauls to cross the Alps and settle in regions previously cultivated by the Etruscans." The Greek scholar Dionysius of Halicarnassus elaborates on this sequence of events, saying that the Gauls were enticed to Italy with wine, olive oil, and figs and were told that the place was occupied by men who fought like women and would offer no real resistance. According to these two authors, the quality of life available on the Italian Peninsula attracted Celtic immigrants. In another version, the Greek geographer Strabo reports that tribes joined forces in pursuit of plunder. A further account says that population stress prompted consultation with the gods who directed one brother to take his followers to the Hercynian uplands in southern Germany while the other was told to take the more pleasant road into Italy. Scholarly analysis suggests that population growth was a contributing factor, along with a deteriorating climatic phase. These conditions, combined with the disruptions in the traffic of Mediterranean imports that followed the establishment of Roman colonies competing with the Greek trading post at Massalia, may indeed have been sufficient cause.

It is probable that the migration that began in the Champagne region was motivated by a desire to acquire luxury goods and wine and that it was carried out by young adult males of the warrior aristocracy, as the archaeological evidence indicates. However, movements such as that of the Helvetii included men, women, and children, and they were most likely motivated by other factors that included hardship.

Migration contributed greatly to restructuring Celtic society. Large numbers of Celts were introduced to different lifestyles in the various Mediterranean civilizations. When they returned to their homes north of the Alps (and many of them did) they brought back coinage and an appreciation of its use. They also transported ideas, technologies, and objects that they acquired, along with contacts that enabled them to enter into new trade relationships. Further, the process of migration itself had temporarily reorganized tribal units. During migration, loose coalitions of otherwise distinct groups formed under the leadership of single individuals. Post-migration Celtic Europe during the proto-urban oppida phase (150–50 B.C.) reflects these economic and social transformations.


Arnold, Bettina, and D. Blair Gibson, eds. Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State: The Evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Barry. Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction. New York: Methuen, 1988.

Kristiansen, Kristian. Europe before History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books I–V of the History of Rome from Its Foundation. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1965.

Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Wells, Peter S. The Barbarians Speak. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.



Monday, November 24, 2008


In 1992, winter storms at Bosta exposed a number of structures which, upon excavation, proved to be from Iron Age to Norse times. Three of the houses dated from the 6th to 8th centuries and had a figure of eight layout. A replica house has been built nearby, based on one of the excavated structures. While it is not known what the roof would have looked like the reconstruction gives a vivid impression of the amount of space available in such a house. Once inside you realise it is able to accommodate far more than one would imagine from the outside. The houses had a large main room about 6m in diameter with a smaller room - probably a store room - on the North side. The entrance is south-facing. The houses were built into the sand with double-skinned dry-stone walls. The circular shape would have resisted the pressure of the sand and has resulted in good long-term preservation.

While the elites were participating in an increasingly shared and internationally connected culture, there are regional differences in the archaeological record, particularly in settlements. In the south, among the British and Angles, slightly different forms of rectangular post-in-ground timber halls have been excavated on such sites as Doon Hill in the east and Whithorn in the west, some defended by palisades; similar forms appear to have been used by the southern Picts. (This thinking is based largely on the evidence of crop marks and soil marks visible in aerial photographs, however, and excavation is needed to confirm the dates of these structures. One such hall, believed to be early medieval, turned out to be three thousand years too old.) In the west, among the Britons and the Scots, are crannogs— natural or modified islands, usually with round timber and wattle houses. These are considered defended settlements because of the water barrier, and examples such as Buiston and Loch Glashan were high-status sites. Along the West Highland coast and in the Northern Isles, duns and brochs, large round drystone structures built in the Late Iron Age, were reoccupied, often with modifications, or cannibalized for the construction of more modest cellular or figure-of-eight houses. Figure-of-eight houses have been found from the Orkneys to County Antrim, Ireland, illustrating the wide spread of some elements of material culture. It is well to remember that the Picts and Scots were allies against the Romans, and both could assemble substantial fleets of ships, which would have been used to sail between the islands during peace as well as war.

The promontory fort at Burghead, in the northeast, is the largest fortified site of this period in Scotland, and it overlooks an excellent harbor. At least thirty stones carved with Pictish bull symbols were found there, and the wooden framework for its timber- laced ramparts was fastened with nails. The only other known example of nailed timber-laced ramparts is at Dundurn, another Pictish stronghold. Dundurn is a nuclear fort: it has a small citadel at the summit of a hill, with annexes built wherever the hill is relatively level. Britons and Scots as well as Picts used nuclear forts; the type site is Dunadd, the capital of Dál Riata. Fortified sites such as these forts and crannogs would have been the residences of royalty, and these sites have produced evidence for specialized craft working, particularly the production of fine metalwork, suggesting that smiths worked under the patronage or control of kings and other nobles.

Bostadh Iron Age House

Saturday, November 22, 2008



Avebury 'restored'

Stonehenge is a comparatively small henge site and, with its curious inner bank and outer ditch, one of a small, rare group within the eight different henge forms that have been identified. Most henges have outer banks and inner ditches, crossed by one to four causewayed entrances. With the largest henges spanning 500 meters in diameter, Stonehenge measures only 110 meters; clearly, its size is not a significant factor. Stonehenge’s ceremonial complex of sites is repeated as a distinctive “module” elsewhere in Neolithic Britain. At Avebury, Dorchester, Cranborne Chase, the Thames area, and the Fenland, similar associations of successive enclosures, barrows, monuments, and henges have been documented. In the uplands, tor (high granite outcrop) enclosures seem to represent comparable ceremonial foci, and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, pit enclosures, palisade sites, and cursus and other structures similarly cluster around concentrations of early burials and megalithic tombs. Research shows that the distribution of these complexes is related closely to the parent rock and draws on local traditions. Eastern Britain tended toward monuments built of ditches and pits, earth, wood, and gravel, whereas the rockier north and west invariably made use of local stone, with fewer attempts to excavate deep ditches. Common to all areas was construction of manmade landscapes of ritual significance, focused on a series of ceremonial sites.

The use of megalithic stones in monument building was adopted from the beginning of tomb building in the west and north of Britain, soon after 3900–3800 B.C. Megalithic cemeteries, such as Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, Ireland, employed large boulders and stones in early passage graves. The use of large stones in other types of ceremonial monuments is difficult to date, as the complex succession of Stonehenge demonstrates, but it seems likely that standing stones became common as ceremonial markers and components of structures during the first half of the third millennium B.C. For example, the stone circles at Avebury in Wiltshire, Stanton Drew in Somerset, Arbor Low in Derbyshire, the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, Callanais on Lewis, or the Grange circle in Limerick, Ireland, seem to have been constructed in the second half of the third millennium B.C., in the Late Neolithic, with additions in the Bronze Age. Beaker burials inserted at the base of some standing stones show that these structures were erected before the end of the third millennium B.C. Many of the stone circles of the west of Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland—such as Machrie Moor on Arran (an island off the west coast of Scotland)—and the recumbent stone circles of northeastern Scotland— such as Easter Aquhorthies—date from the earlier Bronze age, contemporary with the final stages of Stonehenge. Although local practices clearly continued in remote areas, the use and construction of stone-built circles, rows, alignments, and individual menhirs seem to have faded in the mid-second millennium B.C.

The range of megalithic structures across the British Isles is varied and often regional in distribution. In Scotland complexes of stone rows, often in elaborate fanlike arrangements, as at Lybster in Caithness, appear to have had observational functions. Similarly, the concentrations of stone rows in southwestern England and Wales represent alignments on major focal points, such as barrows and ceremonial sites. The equivalent structures in the lowlands and in eastern Britain are represented by earth avenues and post alignments, both of which are found at Stonehenge and many other sites that have been identified through aerial photography.

The interpretation of Stonehenge and thus, by association, many of the other stone-and-earth ceremonial complexes across Britain suggests that these monuments were focused on mortuary, death, ancestral, and funerary concerns. Barrows, deposits, stone and timber structures, and ritual activity indicate dimensions of a spiritual and symbolic worldview. Analysis has indicated that the use of stone was itself symbolic of the dead, whereas the living were represented by wood and earth.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Massive Henge Discovered Near Hill of Tara - Indymedia Ireland

News of this discovery in Lismullin has been shrouded in secrecy. The entrance to the henge is facing Tara. It is not known if it is a wooden or stone henge.

For those of you unfamiliar with henges, here is the Wikipedia definition:

Henge -

A henge is a prehistoric architectural structure which consists of nearly circular or oval-shaped flat area over 20 metres (65 feet) in diameter that is enclosed and delimited by a boundary earthwork that usually comprises a ditch with an external bank. The earthwork permits access to the interior by one, two, or four entrances. Internal components may include portal settings, timber circles, post rings, stone circles, four-stone settings, monoliths, standing posts, pits, coves, post alignments, stone alignments, burials, central mounds, and stakeholes (English Heritage definition).

Because of the defensive impracticalities of an enclosure with an external bank and an internal ditch (rather than vice versa), henges are considered to have served a ritual, rather than a defensive, purpose.

via Massive Henge Discovered Near Hill of Tara - Indymedia Ireland



In recent years some excavation has been carried out in this area, most notably at North Mains Farm on the Strathallan Estate where a massive mound dating from about 2,700 BC and a 'henge' from about the same period were excavated. Henges are large, roughly circular enclosures containing circles of wooden posts or standing stones. The most famous henge is of course Stonehenge, but there are many others throughout the country.

Several burials were found within the North Mains henge - the best preserved being that of a young woman in a stone cist accompanied by a fine pot, which seems to have contained ale flavoured with the plant Meadowsweet. Two groups of henges have been found by aerial photography, at Forteviot and at Huntingtower near Perth. The mound at North Mains did not appear to cover burials. Rather it covered a roughly circular structure which had a function similar to that of the henge, that is a ceremonial one. However burials were dug into the surface of the mound. Most were cremated burials in small stone cists, with up to eight bodies in each, but two were not cremated. One of these was accompanied by a necklace made of jet, a fine black stone.

PDF The cultivation remains beneath the North Mains, Strathallan barrow

Gordon J Barclay

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Lutetia (sometimes Lutetia Parisiorum or Lucotecia, in French Lutèce) was a town in pre-Roman and Roman Gaul. It was located on what is now the Île de la Cité, an island on the river Seine, in the centre of the modern city of Paris. It was the chief settlement (or oppidum) of the Parisii, a Celtic people who settled in the area during the 3rd century BC.

Most scholars believe that in 52 BC, at the time of Vercingetorix's struggle with Julius Caesar, a small Gallic tribe, the Parisii, were living on the island. It has also been said that a Roman by the name of Lutece founded the Île de la Cité which started as a fortress. At that time, the island was a low-lying area subject to flooding that offered a convenient place to cross the Seine and was also a refuge in times of invasion. However, some modern historians believe the Parisii were based on another, now sunken island. After the conquest of the Celts, the Roman Labienus created a temporary camp on the island, but further Roman settlement developed in the healthier air on the slopes above the Left Bank, at the Roman Lutetia. [1]

Lutetia Parisiorum (Paris) was a typical northern Gallic civitas-capital, with a population of about 7,500. It succeeded a Celtic oppidum located on the Ile de la Cité—an easily defended site which controlled an important route across the River Seine. However continuity of settlement was only assured when the Romans built a road which crossed the river at the same point. The main part of the Romano-Gallic city lay on the left bank. Its layout reflects the Gauls’ ready acceptance of Greco-Roman ideas of urbanisation. There was regular street planning, and lavish provision of public buildings for administration, entertainment and relaxation. To be noted are the central forum complex—which included an open area with surrounding portico, a great hall and temple—and the bath buildings. The city was unwalled, a tribute to secure conditions during the Principate. In true Roman fashion its cemeteries were placed beyond its sacred boundary. The later Roman and medieval cities retreated again to the island in the Seine.

[1] The meaning of name came from Latin: "Midwater-dwelling".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Dyke was thought to be a Roman defensive structure until excavation revealed that it was in fact a Neolithic Cursus (a ceremonial earthwork), which must have been one of the largest - and most labour intensive - monuments in Scotland at the time of its completion.

The dyke runs for one and a half miles through an area that is now planted by coniferous forestry, and is around two metres high and ten metres wide in the best-preserved sections. The dyke also incorporates a central mound.

The purpose of cursuses is open to debate, but they can be seen as ritual monuments - perhaps processional route ways - with deep significance to their builders.

There have been several outlandish theories put forward over the years - one antiquarian thought that they were race courses, and during the UFO fervour in the 50's and 60's it was proposed that they were landing strips for alien craft, which is to denude the achievements of our ancestors.

Cursuses are more associated with Southern England than with Scotland on the whole, but it now seems that may have been more widely dispersed than was thought before. Cleaven Dyke dates back to at least 3500BC, these structures must have been a huge undertaking and may date through several generations, the tradition continuing over the years. This does say something for the strength of the beliefs held by these early farmers.

Map ref: NO 155 409

Directions: The dyke cuts across the A93 between Perth and Blairgowrie.



Monday, November 17, 2008


Danebury Hillfort

The Iron Age hillfort of Danebury dominates the chalk lowland of western Hampshire. Although the hill is not particularly high—only 465 feet above sea level—it can be seen from miles around, and from the hilltop a vast panorama of lowland opens up with distant views of several other contemporary hillforts.

The earthwork fortifications of Danebury occupy the end of an east–west ridge and are very well preserved. Three distinct circuits can be traced. The inner earthwork, which was the main defensive circuit throughout, encloses a roughly circular area of some 12 acres (almost 5 hectares). As originally built the fortification had two entrances on opposite sides of the enclosure, but during the life of the fort one entrance was blocked, whereas the other, on the east side of the fort, was strengthened with forward- projecting hornworks that still dominate the approach. The middle earthwork ran between the two gates and was constructed to create an annex, possibly for corralling animals, sometime during the life of the fort. The outer earthwork is comparatively slight. Unlike the other two earthworks, which comprise a rampart and a ditch, the outer earthwork is really only a ditch with the spoil thrown up in low mounds on both sides. The outer earthwork is the earliest of the enclosures on Danebury Hill and dates to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000–700 B.C.); it is joined by a linear earthwork boundary that has been traced eastward for several miles toward the valley of the River Itchen.

Excavations at Danebury began in 1969 and continued annually until 1988. During the twenty seasons of work the entrances were examined, the earthwork circuits were sectioned, and 57 percent of the interior of the main fortified area was totally excavated. This work established that within the Late Bronze Age enclosure, defined by the outer earthwork, the first defense, probably a palisaded enclosure, was erected in the sixth century B.C. This first enclosure was replaced a century or so later by the inner earthwork, built originally as a massive timber-faced rampart fronted by a deep ditch. At this stage there were two gates. The earthworks and gates underwent various phases of modification, the most significant coming around 300 B.C., when the rampart was heightened and reconstructed to have a steeply sloping outer face fronted by a deep Vsectioned ditch. From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart measured about 6 meters (20 feet). At this stage the southwest entrance was blocked, and the east entrance began to be massively extended. In this later stage of its life the hillfort was intensively occupied. The end came some time in the first half of the first century B.C., when the gate was destroyed by fire, and there is some evidence to suggest the slaughter of the inhabitants. After this the enclosure continued to be used for another fifty years or so, but activity was at a low level and may have been linked to the continued use of a temple complex in the center of the old settlement.

Throughout its life from c. 500 to c. 50 B.C. the hillfort was occupied. From an early stage a system of roads was established with a main axial street running between the two gates. Even after the southwest gate was blocked the street remained the main axis. Other streets branched out from just inside the main entrance and ran roughly concentrically around the crest of the hill. Amid the streets were arranged circular houses, rectangular post-built storage buildings, and a large number of storage pits. Toward the center of the site, occupying a prominent position directly visible from the entrance, was a cluster of rectangular buildings that were probably the main shrines of the settlement.

There is, throughout the occupation, a sense of order in the layout of the various buildings and activities. In the early stage, when both gates were in use, the main occupation zone lay to the south of the main street, whereas the area to the north was used mainly for storage. After the southwest gate was blocked the order was reversed, suggesting that a major conceptual change had taken place.

In the last two centuries or so of the settlement’s life a rigorous order seems to have been imposed. The rows of four- and six-post storage buildings arranged along the streets were rebuilt many times over on the same plots, whereas immediately behind the ramparts—where the stratigraphical evidence is particularly well preserved and the circular houses cluster—it is possible to distinguish six major phases of rebuilding. In this area individual building plots can be distinguished. Although each had a different structural history, their discrete spatial identities were maintained, suggesting continuity of ownership over a long period of time. Arrangements of this kind indicate a high level of centralized control.

The most frequently occurring structures within the fort were storage pits, of which more than one thousand have been examined. For the most part they were probably used for the storage of seed grain in the period between harvest and the next sowing. Experiments have shown that, so long as the pits were properly sealed and airtight, the seed remained fresh and fertile. Evidence from many of the pits indicates that propitiatory offerings were made once the grain was removed, presumably to thank the chthonic (earth) deities for protecting the seed and in anticipation of a fruitful harvest. The offerings vary but include sets of tools, pots, animals complete or in part, and human remains.

Activities carried out within the fort included ironsmithing, bronze casting, carpentry, wattle work and basketry, the weaving and spinning of wool, and the milling of grain. Additional evidence points to the existence of complex exchange systems involving the importation and redistribution of goods, including salt from the seacoast, iron ingots, and shale bracelets. The presence of a large number of carefully made stone weights is clear evidence that a system of careful measurement was in operation. In all probability the hillfort, in its developed state, was a place where the central functions of redistribution were carried out to serve people living in a much wider territory.

The excavation of a number of Iron Age settlements in the landscape around Danebury showed that, although a number of farms existed during the early phase of the fort’s existence, after the major reconstruction c. 300 B.C. farmsteads for some distance around were abandoned. This coincides with an increase in the density and intensity of occupation within the fort, the implication being that the rural population coalesced within the defenses. Although this may have been a response to a period of unrest, it could equally be explained as a feature of socioeconomic change resulting in a greater degree of centralization.


Cunliffe, Barry. Danebury Hillfort. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2003.

———. Danebury: An Iron Age Hillfort in Hampshire. Vol. 6, A Hillfort Community in Perspective. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 102. London: Council for British Archaeology Research, 1995.





Sunday, November 16, 2008


Views of wall of reconstructed gród at Biskupin

The Biskupin site is a fortified settlement in Poland, occupied between the Late Bronze and early Iron ages, and belonging to the Lausitz (Late Bronze age) and Hallstatt C (Early Iron) cultures.

Known as the "Polish Pompeii," Biskupin was a walled settlement of about 800-1000 people on an island in the Warta River Valley about 500 BC. The planned settlement included thirteen parallel rows of densely packed together houses separated by corduroy timber roads. The 105 houses in Biskupin were packed so close together that there was only one roof to every three to ten houses. Around the settlement was a ring road, which itself was surrounded by a wall, 550 meters in circumference and about 3.5 meters wide and 3 meters high. The wall was built by a series of wooden boxes filled with dirt and stones

The site was discovered in the 1930s and excavated by Jozef Kostrzewsk of Poznan University. Its remarkable preservation has led to the reconstruction of some of the buildings, which are now open to the public.


History of the excavations

The site was excavated from 1934 onwards by a team from Poznań University, led by the archaeologists Józef Kostrzewski (1885-1969) and Zdzislaw Rajewski (1907-1974). The first report was published in 1936. By the beginning of 1939, ca. 2500 m² had been excavated. The settlement soon became famous in Poland, officials of the Piłsudski regime, members of the military and high churchmen, like the primate of Poland visited the site. The excavation soon became part of Polish national consciousness, a symbol of the achievements of the Slavonic forebears in prehistoric times. The site was called the "Polish Pompeii" or "Polish Herculaneum". The existence of a prehistoric fortress, 70 km away from the border to the aggressive German neighbour was taken to show that the prehistoric "Poles" had held their own against foreign invaders and plunderers already in the Iron Age. Biskupin featured in paintings and popular novels.

When the Germans occupied parts of Poland in the autumn of 1939, Biskupin became part of the Warthegau, an area that German Nationalist claimed to have been "Germanic" since at least the Iron Age (Gustaf Kossinna, Das Weichselland, ein uralter Heimatboden der Germanen, Leipzig, Kabitzsch 1919).

Biskupin was renamed "Urstädt". In 1940, excavations were resumed under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler by the SS-Ahnenerbe under the supervision of Hauptsturmführer Hans Schleiff, a classical archaeologist who was to excavate in Olympia, Greece as well. Schleiff published only two short popular accounts that describe how Germanic tribes overran the 'small Lusatian settlement'. The excavations were continued till 1942. When the Germans retreated, the site was flooded, which ironically led to the good preservation of the ancient timbers. Excavations were resumed by Polish archaeologists after the war and lasted till 1974.

The site

There are two settlement periods at Biskupin that follow each other without hiatus. Both settlements were laid out on a rectangular grid with eleven streets that are three meters wide. The older settlement consisted of ca. 100 oak and pine log-houses that are of similar layout and measure ca. 8 x 10 m each. They consisted of two chambers and an open entrance-area. An open hearth was located in the centre of the biggest room. There are no larger houses that could indicate social stratification.

The settlement was surrounded by a fortification that is 3,5 m wide. It is made up of oak trunks that form boxes filled with earth. The rampart is more than 450 m long and accompanied by a wooden breakwater in the lake. 6000-8000 m³ of wood have been used in the construction of the rampart.

There is a migration period (200-400 AD) settlement and a medieval stronghold on the peninsula as well.


The settlement at Biskupin belongs to the Hallstatt C and D periods (early Iron Age). There are four Radiocarbon dates from Biskupin (all B.C.):

* first settlement: 720±150 (Gif 494)

* later settlement: 560±150 (Gif 495)

* rampart: 620 ±150 (Gif 492)

* A2 4C, VII: 620±150 (Gif 493)



Podgoritsa is an eneolithic tell in northeastern Bulgaria on a plain in the foothills of the Preslavska Stara mountains. The tell is 4.5 meters tall and has a diameter of 80 meters. There is clear evidence for use of the land surrounding the tell as well, including linear features (boundary ditches?), midden deposits and perhaps some residential or farming hamlets.

The community grew and stored large quantities of wheat and barley, raised sheep, goats and cattle, and made a variety of distinctive pots and figurines in the shapes of animals.

Excavated in the 1990s by an international team led by Ruth Tringham and Douglass Bailey, Podgoritsa's primary occupation is associated with the Polyanitsa culture of 4600-4400 BC. A multi-year study was begun at Podgoritsa in 1995, but political events in the region caused a halt after the first year and much of the scientific samples were destroyed.



Ruth Tringham and Julie Near

The 1995 season of the Podgoritsa Archaeological Project was the culmination of over three years of preparations for the excavation of the Eneolithic tell site of Podgoritsa (4300 - 3700 BC), in Northeast Bulgaria. A team of US and British archaeologists led by Dr. Ruth Tringham of UC Berkeley and Dr. Douglas Bailey of University of Wales at Cardiff, collaborated with a team of Bulgarian archaeologists from Sofia and Turgovishte led by Dr. Ana Raduncheva of the Institute of Archaeology, Sofia and Dr. Ilke Angelova, Director of the Turgovishte Museum in a third field season of intensive research at the site in July 1995.

In previous seasons, the research at Podgoritsa had been funded by the Stahl Fund of the ARF. The research this season was funded by a research grant from the National Science Foundation. While much information and many new questions were produced during this season's excavation of Podgoritsa's upper (humus) levels and off-site reconnaissance surveying, this first season of excavation turned out also to be its last. Despite the unexpectedly short tenure of the project we feel some exciting windows into the Eneolithic of Northeast Bulgaria were opened this summer. A full report of the excavations and reconnaissance is being submitted to the Journal of Field Archaeology.

The goals of the Podgoritsa project were threefold, comprising landscape observations, sub-surface geophysical reconnaissance of the tell and its immediate environs, and excavation of the tell itself. Each goal was geared towards investigating the project's main question: Why and how were tell settlements formed during Northeast Bulgaria's Eneolithic?

The tell itself is located 18 km from the city of Turgovishte, and 1 km from the village of Podgoritsa from which the tell derives its name. It is relatively small (60-80 meters diameter, and ca. 5.5 meters high) in comparison to its Southeast Bulgarian counterparts, yet quite average in comparison to other local tells. On the basis of surface ceramics, it is suggested that the site represents approximately 500 years of settlement debris, thus making it a perfect place for an intensive but temporally specific excavation.

The 1995 project team included - in addition to the co-directors - from North America: a post-doctoral researcher (Dr. Nerissa Russell: fauna), 6 graduate students (Mirjana Stevanovic: architecture; Jason Bass: GIS and lithics; Julie Near: paleoethnobotany; Leola LeBlanc: microfauna; Thalia Gray and Douglas Molineu), and Michael Ashley for photography and database development, from UK: a post-doctoral researcher (Dr. Heike Neumann: soil micromorphology), a graduate student (Michael Walker: Geophysical survey), and 13 undergraduates, and from Bulgaria: 3 archaeologists and 2 students.

The first of the three goals of the project was to begin a regional and micro-regional investigation of the environment and landscape around Podgoritsa using data from satellite imagery and ground "truthing" integrated into a GIS program. Jason Bass directed this research, leading a group of students on ground-truthing expeditions in the region directly surrounding Podgoritsa for 12 days prior to excavation. Using public domain LANDSAT imagery the small teams attempted to match areas from the satellite maps generated in 1986 to the current landscape. In this way teams could identify patterns of land cover such as surface water, rock outcrops, and vegetation zones as represented by the images false color. Over 75 sq. km of land was surveyed, the data providing the fundamental information for the GIS investigation of resources, such as water, cultivable land and pasture land that would have been available to the inhabitants of Podgoritsa some 6000 years ago.

Nola: A Prehistoric "Pompeii"

Archaeologists Uncover a Bronze Age Village Buried by Vesuvius. This is the more famous Pompeii.

In May, 2001, a construction crew was ready to dig the foundation of a new shopping plaza in the Italian town of Nola, 7 miles southeast of Mount Vesuvius. Following standard procedure, the builders arranged for a preliminary survey to be conducted by archaeologists, who drilled deep beneath the surface in search of ancient remains.

Which, of course, they found. Some 21 feet below ground, they came across traces of a kiln used to smelt metals. In the ensuing excavations, the archaeologists have so far uncovered two elongated, horseshoe-shaped huts from the best-preserved Bronze Age village ever discovered in Italy.

Between 1880 B.C. and 1680 B.C., Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the prehistoric village with mud, pumice and volcanic ash. (The dates have been determined by carbon-14 analysis of skeletal and pottery remains.) Paradoxically, this destructive explosion preserved many artifacts under the hardened volcanic material. From these remains, archaeologists have even been able to recreate the villages' huts; for as the timber and thatch of the buildings decayed away, hollow impressions (or "molds") were left in the volcanic casing.

To date, five Bronze Age villages have been found near Vesuvius. "Obviously there were more," said Stefano de Caro, director of the Naples Archaeological Museum. "This shows how densely settled the area was even in prehistoric times." But de Caro also noted that the Nola site is by far the most complete Bronze Age village yet found: "This is the first time [in Italy] we have found everything together: the dead, dwellings, crafts, customs, food."

When a fast-moving cloud of poisonous gas and ash reached Nola more than 3,500 years ago, it blew large, hourglass-shaped clay pots of stored foodstuffs toward the back of the villagers' dwellings. Many of the pots still contain traces of what appear to be foods or other organic substances. Some of the pots have air slits on their lower halves, suggesting that they may have been used as food warmers.

Other finds include ceramic plates and cups, a pot still standing upright in the kiln where it was being fired, and a round terracotta bottle similar to baby bottles used in southern Italy until a few decades ago. Excavators have also found a headdress made of polished bone tiles crowned by a ring of wild boar tusks.

Bronze Age Nola shows not just one but two occupation levels. Claude Livadie, an archaeologist working at the site, speculated that villagers lived at Nola until its surrounding fields became depleted, and then they moved on. Generations later, they returned to their ancient home, or others settled at Nola, to farm fields that had lain fallow for years.

Judging by a similar village excavated at nearby Palma Campania, Nola's Bronze Age community probably contained about 30 dwellings, with each housing perhaps ten people. The two horseshoe-shaped huts uncovered so far are more than 50 feet long. An inverted-V-shaped stepladder found in one suggests that the hut may have had a sleeping loft. All of the huts were ingeniously constructed to protect villagers from the region's weather conditions—chilly and sometimes rainy in winter, sun-drenched and hot in summer. Exterior walls were made of a thatching of dried stalks of cereal grasses that were braided, threaded through a lattice of timber beams and then covered by a layer of wet clay. An 18-inch air space between the outer and inner walls (made of plaited reeds coated by a thin layer of mud) provided insulation.

Eerily preserved in one of the village's paths are fleeing footprints of some of Nola's inhabitants. Skeletal remains of two trapped villagers have been uncovered at the site; their arms were found clasped over their faces, as if shielding themselves from the volcano's fury. The villagers' domesticated animals shared a similar fate. A large cage—raised 6 feet off the ground near one of the huts—was found with the skeletons of pregnant goats and sheep.—Judith Harris, Rome


Massive Iron Age hillfort unearthed

The hill fort was more about power than defence.

English Heritage archaeologists announced that they had finally discovered a massive long-lost prehistoric fortress. Traces of the sophisticated complex on precipitous Roulston Scar, near Thirsk in North Yorkshire (England), have been recorded over the centuries, but it is only now to be given its proper place in the schedule of ancient monuments. Suspicions that a hill fort existed in the area date back to the mid-19th Century, when an Ordnance Survey team mapped a stretch 670ft long of "tell-tale" Iron Age earthworks, but they were later confused with medieval boundary ditches and deleted.

A combination of global positioning technology by mappers' satellites and "good old-fashioned legwork" revealed the true nature and the awesome scale of the fort. The survey revealed that the fort was enclosed by a two-metre-deep trench and a four-metre-high "box rampart", fronted by a timber palisade and topped by a defended walkway; only two entrances were detected, adding to the site's impregnability.

"We were shocked to discover such a huge complex," said Alastair Oswald, archaeological field investigator for English Heritage. Preliminary examinations of the remains suggest it was more than twice the size of most other prehistoric strongholds. Built of timber palisades and girdled by a 1.3 mile circuit of ramparts, 60 per cent of which are cut out of solid limestone, the fort has been provisionally dated at 400BCE.

As well as its defensive function, archaeologists think it may have been a "statement of power", possibly housing the Iron Age equivalent of a regional assembly. "Such a large fort would have taken a vast amount of timber and labour to build, which poses many more intriguing questions," said Mr Oswald. The fortress must have taken several years - and more than 10,000 cubic metres of earth and rock, and 3,000 trees - to build, but nobody seems to have lived there for any length of time. Most hillforts were more akin to fortified villages or walled towns, often with substantial permanent populations.

The evidence so far from Roulston Scar suggest it never was a permanent settlement. Significantly, the stronghold faces what was in Iron Age times the territory of the Brigantes tribe, on the border between the Brigantes and their neighbours, the Parisii. One possibility is that the fortress was built by the Parisian king or paramount chieftain to impress, deter or intimidate their Brigantian neighbours.

Roulston's colourful history has been one reason for the fort's elusiveness; the famous White Horse of Kilburn, carved in the chalk, obliterated a stretch of rampart with its head. Richard Darn, for English Heritage, said: "The Victorian schoolmaster who carved the horse created a fake prehistoric monument by destroying part of a real one, which he didn't know was there." The site was also damaged during the second world war, when defensive works were dug in the main area, which has been the base of the Yorkshire Glider Club for 80 years. So many German gliding enthusiasts had used the grassy hilltop in the 1920s and 1930s that it was seen as a possible Nazi invasion site.

Sources: BBC News (1 November 2001) The Guardian, The Independent, The Times (2 November 2001)



Hilltop fort from 1200 BCE uncovered in Ireland

An artist’s impression of the hilltop fort dating from 1200 BC which was uncovered recently near Innishannon by archaeologists from UCC.

Archaeologists from University College Cork have uncovered the oldest hilltop fort in Ireland on a ridge near Innishannon overlooking huge tracts of County Cork and believe that it was the first capital of Cork. According to Prof. William O'Brien of the Dept. of Archeology at University College Cork, the oval-shaped hilltop fort near Knockavilla, Innishannon, overlooking the Lee Valley, was built over 3,000 years ago, making it the oldest known prehistoric hillfort in Ireland. "For many years, an ancient enclosure, known locally as the 'Cathair' was known to exist on the ridge overlooking Knockavilla on the northern side of Innishannon parish," said Prof. O'Brien, adding that radiocarbon dating revealed the site was built around 1200 BCE.

Prof. O’Brien led a team of archeologists on an extensive survey and excavation of the 169-metre high site over the past three years and the team is currently writing up its report which they hope will help persuade the government to declare it a national monument. "This is a particularly significant site. It dates from some 500 years before the Celts arrived in Ireland, so it was built by the indigenous Irish. Its antiquity and size, covering about eight hectares, suggest it was one of the most important prehistoric settlements in the south west."

There were no professional standing armies in late Bronze Age Ireland. "Essentially it would have been built and defended by people who were farmers for most of the year, but who owed loyalty to their chieftain," the professor said. Professor O’Brien’s team think the ringfort was built in a very short time, possibly even within a couple of months. It would have been back-breaking work and its construction would have involved certainly several hundred, if not thousands of people. A ditch was built outside the first circular wattle fence defence. The second defence was a circular mound topped with massive oak palisades. "The ditch would have been dug primarily into rock. There were no iron tools at the time. They probably would have had to lever the rock out. That would take a lot of serious effort," Professor O’Brien said.

The hilltop fort defences included an outer enclosure measuring 1.02km in perimeter and surrounded by a stone faced field bank which was topped with a wattle palisade and an inner 0.8km enclosure, comprising an earthen and stone bank topped with a heavy oak palisade. "The original hillfort entrances were located on the western side of the hillfort, where a gated passageway was found in the palisaded bank of the inner enclosure," said Prof. O'Brien, adding that the use of timbers in the palisade may have given rise to the local townland name. "The townland name for the area is Clashanimud - the trench of the timbers - and the discovery of these massive timber fences around the hill raises the intriguing possibility that the townland name, Clashanimud may be connected to this Bronze Age site."

The late Bronze Age period in Ireland was a period of great political turmoil and endemic warfare, marked by the emergence of chiefdom societies whose territories centred on hilltop forts located in rich agricultural lands. "There would have been hillfort groups up in the area which is now Limerick and Tipperary, or even Kerry, and they would have been in warfare with this Cork political group," he explained. "Arguably, this was Cork’s first capital, but our excavations reveal evidence of deliberate burning of the inner palisade fence shortly after the hillfort was built and this appears to have been a deliberate act of war and it was never re-built or occupied after its destruction."

Sources: Irish Examiner (21 August 2007), The Southern Star (1 September 2007)