Hillforts after Roman Times in England

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Iron Age hill-fort of South Cadbury (Som)

Archaeology has been particularly useful in showing that many Roman communities throughout Britain experienced substantial changes during the fourth century before Anglo-Saxon settlement began. The changes appear to have included a shift from an urban to a rural-based economy. In Wroxeter (Salop) and Exeter stone town houses were replaced in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by simpler, flimsier buildings made entirely of timber, while some areas of the towns were abandoned altogether or were farmed. Comparable drastic changes seem to have occurred in towns like Canterbury and Winchester in the eastern half of the country. The eventual result was the virtual abandonment within Britain during the fifth century of towns as centres of population. Some rural villas initially gained advantage from the changing economic circumstances, but there are also signs of villas being adapted in the fourth and fifth centuries to become more self-sufficient. At Frocester (Gloucs) and Rivenhall (Essex) the villa buildings were allowed to decay or were turned into barns while new timber buildings, more typical of the early Middle Ages, were erected. Although attacks by Anglo-Saxons (and in the west of Britain by Irish) exacerbated a difficult situation, they did not cause it, as Gildas’ account seems to imply. The complex problems which caused the decline of the Roman empire affected the inhabitants of Britain well before Anglo-Saxon settlement began on any scale,4and, by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the Romano-British inhabitants had already begun to adapt themselves to a way of life that can be described as ‘early medieval’.

By the end of the fifth century different settlement patterns are discernible between eastern Britain (which had been settled by Anglo-Saxons) and western Britain (which had not). One sign of changing circumstances in the west of Britain was the re-emergence of hill-top settlements which, it has been argued by Leslie Alcock in particular, may have functioned as chieftain centres and be linked with the emergent British kingdoms we can dimly discern in the written sources. The reoccupation of the impressive Iron Age hill-fort of South Cadbury (Som) is a good example of the type. The whole of the innermost rampart of nearly 1100 m in length was refortified in the sub-Roman period and a substantial timber hall built on the highest point in the interior. Yet there were very few finds of artefacts from the South Cadbury excavations, and this helps to explain why the British generally have proved very hard to detect in the sub-Roman period. After the Romano-British lost access to Roman industrial products, they become all but invisible in the archaeological record as they were no longer using on any scale artefacts which were diagnostically Romano-British or, at least, not of a type that survives in the soil. The Britons of the west country received the occasional consignment of pottery from Mediterranean kilns brought by foreign traders, the Britons in the east presumably made use of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen. We should not assume that every owner of an artefact of ‘Germanic’ type in eastern England was of Germanic descent.




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