Massive Iron Age hillfort unearthed

Sunday, November 16, 2008


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)


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