DEFENDED SETTLEMENTS

Friday, April 2, 2010






 Cadbury Castle and environs
The phenomenon of fortification-building was not new to the Middle Ages. For millennia, humans have felt the need to protect themselves and their territory and have erected fortifications to provide safety and security from the elements and also from covetous neighbors. Well before the first castle arrived in England, fortified settlements occupied craggy hilltops and jutting coastal headlands throughout the British Isles. Many still dominate those sites and are easy to spot on a day's outing. Many, like Maiden Castle in Dorset, date to the Iron Age and have acquired place-names that imply a dual usage as a properly fortified military residence. In some ways, the military terminology can be extended to cover many of these fortifications. Nonetheless, these premedieval structures lacked the essential ingredient that would otherwise characterize them as true castles: private ownership.

The univallate and multivallate sites of prehistory offered substantial protection from an attack or prehistoric livestock rustling, functioning as fortified communal settlements (comparable to medieval walled towns) rather than individual ranches. The group's leader or chief probably lived in a separate, private dwelling at the site, but his home was just one part of the whole complex, which often formed a densely occupied settlement. Some hillforts and promontory forts, which guarded headland settlements, served as supply and distribution centers, granaries, animal pounds, and possibly as military establishments or ritual sites. Many times, embedded rings of steep-sided earthen ramparts and deep ditches defended the entire settlement, sometimes cut into chalk-beds, buttressed with timber posts or compacted stone, and stockaded with timber palisades. Like medieval castles, many defended settlements were fronted with substantial gateways. However, these prehistoric earthwork forts were never intended exclusively for use as fortified private residences.

Arguably Britain's most legendary Iron Age fort, Cadbury Castle commands a hilltop overlooking the tiny village of thatched stone cottages in South Cadbury, Somerset. Long touted as the site of King Arthur's Camelot, archaeological excavations directed by Leslie Alcock from 1966 to 1970 targeted portions of the enormous multivallate fort, the summit of which covered 18 acres. The effort revealed that the fort was occupied as early as 3300 BC, during the Neolithic era, and that Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples added the defenses, lined the concentric ramparts with limestone slabs and deepened the ditches. By 100 BC, the entire set of four ramparts and ditches had been completed and small huts and storage pits filled the summit and accommodated the expanding settlement.

During the first century AD, the Romans devastated the hilltop settlement, the home of the Durotriges, members of the Celtic tribe based at Dorchester (then known by the Roman name, Durnovaria) who commanded at least twenty hillforts in southern England, including mammoth Maiden Castle. The bodies of thirty adults and children slaughtered by the Romans lay buried at the southwest entrance to Cadbury Castle until their discovery in the 1960s. In addition to collecting scores of pottery sherds imported from France and the Mediterranean, archaeologists discovered the remains of a large timber hall, dating to about AD 500. Whether or not the man who spawned the Arthurian legends actually called this place his palace, someone of considerable status —perhaps a chieftain —decided the hillfort should be reoccupied and ordered the construction of the timber framed structure. Perhaps, the leader administered justice and watched over the surrounding lands from this fine vantage point and guided his community into a period of sought-after calm after the Romans retreated from England. Some historians believe Cadbury Castle could very well have been the inspiration for Camelot.

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