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.






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