Iron Age Hillfort

Some hillforts were simply defensive strongholds, while others developed roles involving the storage and redistribution of surplus agricultural production. Some may have only seen seasonal or occasional occupation, although the later Iron Age hillforts began to develop as significant settlements — the impressive fortification at Tre'r Ceiri on the Lleyn peninsula is one such example, containing the stone foundations of over 150 roundhouses.

Hillforts with only one rampart are described as univallate, while those with two or more ramparts are described as multivallate. Most multivallate hillforts had several phases of construction and maintenance, with particular emphasis placed on impressive and complex entrances. Promontory forts have defences that cut off the neck of a headland and can be found both on coastal cliffs and inland, situated between two converging stream valleys.

Defences varied widely in their construction methods, including massive earthen dump (or glacis) ramparts, stone or timber reveted earthworks, timber-laced earthworks and drystone rubble walls. The former was a relatively late style of defence in which the massive earthen rampart was given a sloping outer face continuous with the slope of the inner face of its deep outer ditch. This produced an impressive and effective barrier that required very little maintenance. Such ramparts often remain steep to this day, over two thousand years later. Entrances varied, sometimes boasting additional defences such as in-turned corridors or complex external approaches. All would usually possess a timber palisade and gateway. Many hillforts show evidence of intensive occupation — the hillfort interiors contained roundhouses, grain storage pits, rubbish pits and other auxiliary structures such as four-post structures. However, the multiple house platforms and ring ditches that are often visible today were usually not all contemporary in construction and use.

Although often still impressive, we must remember that the hillforts that survive in Britain are ruins — the summits and slopes that are cut by ditches and girdled by ramparts no longer display the sophistication of the original timber and stone fortifications. Neither is the effort that must have gone into construction immediately apparent — effort by a large community working with common purpose and direction. More than any other prehistoric monument, the hillfort truly is a symbol of power — and its message is as much about status, possession and control as it is defence.

Hillforts would have had monumental or symbolic functions, roles suggested by the effort often expended upon their entrances. Even quite small hillforts may have boasted gateway passages lined with massive timbers, overlooked by high towers and flanked by guard chambers. Archaeological evidence also indicates that ritual activities and social gatherings such as feasts or seasonal occasions may have been important functions of a hillfort. They are also thought to have been the focus for the storage and redistribution of any agricultural surplus. There is some evidence that they may not have been occupied on a permanent basis — perhaps used as seasonal meeting places similar to medieval fairs. These communal roles must have reinforced both tribal identity and the authority of the dominant warrior aristocracy. However, defence remained a primary function of the hillforts, as archaeological evidence has been recovered indicating both destruction (the burning of timber-laced ramparts) and defence (the caching of sling-stones ready for use).

Locations of Iron Age Hillforts in Roman Britain

Different Types of Iron Age Hillfort