Friday, December 12, 2008

The Iron Age hillfort of Uffington Castle, Berkshire, England, with the carved hill figure-the White Horse of Uffington-nearby. The hill fort was constructed in the sixth or fifth century Be and subsequently modified when one of its gates was blocked. The hill figure has been suggested, on the basis of some scientific dating evidence, to be a little earlier in origin.

The social systems in eastern Britain, with their elite gear and nucleated settlements' contrast noticeably with those of the west, but are far more closely paralleled by those of northern France and Belgium, where the distribution of prestige warrior metalwork, the vehicle burials of the Lower Seine, the Haine, and the Ardennes, and large open settlements like Haps in the Netherlands reflect, though with regional differences, much the same overall structure.

A third area of Britain-the central southern zone-presents an altogether different picture to that of both the west and the east. Its most obvious characteristic is the dominance of hill forts-hilltops of some 5-10 hectares enclosed by substantial defences sometimes multivallate and with elaborate entrance earthworks. The hill-fort-dominated central southern zone extends from the south coast, between Devon and East Sussex, in a band of decreasing width to north Wales, with outliers spreading into Northamptonshire. It is a region of different landscapes and encompasses a number of communities demonstrating their separateness through different styles of pottery decoration: the common link between them is the hill fort.

Although a number of excavations have shown something of the variety within the general 'hillfort' category, some generalizations can be offered. The earliest of the forts at present known, dating to the end of the Bronze Age, concentrate in the Welsh borderland, but by the sixth century the phenomenon has spread to the Wessex region, extending into the south-east (Surrey and Kent) by the third century. In some areas, such as central Wessex, it is possible to show that over time the number of forts in active use decreased, but the strength of those surviving, and the intensity of their use, was enhanced.

Functionally, the forts seem to have served their region in a variety of ways, providing central places where the different needs of the community could be articulated. Some, like Danebury and Maiden Castle, were intensively used for settlement, production, and storage on a large scale. The extent to which the forts were designed to provide defence is debatable. The enclosing earthworks and the structure of the developed gates would certainly have offered efficient protection, but there may well have been an element of display involved. However, that some were actually defended and attacked is clear from the excavated evidence. At Danebury, for example, large numbers of sling stones were hoarded on at least two separate occasions, in the third century and again in the early first century, and after both phases there is evidence of burning at the gates, the last burning marking the abandonment of the fort. Other forts offer similar evidence, and at Bredon Hill in Gloucestershire the mutilated remains of bodies were found at the entrance.

The hill forts are only one aspect of the settlement pattern. Elsewhere the contemporary countryside was densely scattered with farmsteads, many of which showed continuous occupation over centuries. Most of the farmsteads seem to have been of family size and were therefore probably centres of single estates practising a mixed farming with a heavy emphasis on cereal production; a few larger agglomerations indicate a scatter of more substantial communities.

Apart from the massive nature of the hill forts, there is very little evidence in this central southern zone for a hierarchy or an elite, but the heavy emphasis on the intensive working of the land and the production of grain might indicate that status was measured by land or livestock. In the second century the two wheeled chariot, represented by decorated bronze fittings for the vehicle and the bronze harness attachments for the horses, becomes far more evident. Whether the vehicle was simply an indication of status or a means of warfare is impossible to say, but most likely it served as both. The virtual absence of elaborate weaponry is at first sight puzzling, but it could be that this was simply a reflection of the fact that prestige weapons were not consigned to rivers or burials within this region and therefore stood less chance of survival.

The developments in central southern Britain are in marked contrast to those in the west and east. One possible explanation is that the central southern zone was a border region between the metal-producing west and the warrior elites of the east. The instability of such a region, perhaps under threat of continuous raids from the eastern zone, may well have led to the need to develop and maintain fortifications.

Similar hill-fort-dominated zones dating to the fourth to second centuries can be seen elsewhere in west central Europe, especially in the region between Trier and the Rhineland, where again it could be their border position, between the fully developed La Tene warrior elites in the south and zones with totally different socio-economic systems to the north, that created a 'marcher' society.


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