This time of year (end of Feb going into March) I just need to get outside into the wide-open spaces. I want to experience freedom, open air and see landscapes disappearing into the distance. One thing that always stops me in my tracks is an Iron Age hillfort. What takes my breath away, apart from the strong side winds you often encounter, are the views. You can see for miles. We often talk about the defensive nature of these sites, and the monumental look that they would have had with the high walls, towers, gateways, and sometimes complex earthworks. This is very much a traditional view, of us looking from the outside, up to the hillfort, in awe and wonder. But I am thinking of the view looking from inside to the outer world.
Generally speaking, we don’t have a lot from the Iron Age. Some finds, a few bog bodies and skeletons, and the negative imprints of infrastructure, that is the post holes that made up the houses and other structures. The actual buildings have not lasted 2000 years due to them being made of wood, hay, clay and straw, but they leave filled in post holes in the ground that archaeologists detect and excavate. This is another story. The hillforts still retain the earthen ramparts, the ditches and mounds, which have pretty much stabilised. Although, the palisades, the wooden walls, have gone. What we are left with are isolated items, objects and monuments without any context or connections. It makes interpretation difficult, but for those who are incredibly nosey, like me, irresistible.
One thing that has not disappeared, are the views. Today we see a 21st century landscape, but with a bit of imagination and with the view being so high up, you can visually take out the modernity, the barns, the straight lines of trees lining the roads and the industrial sized fields. Saying that, I don’t think the Iron Age farmers were farming on a small individual scale. Their fields could be quite large. Getting back to the view, I am suggesting is, it hasn’t changed that much. After all, we are looking at the result of a geological process, not human one. Change in geological terms, takes a long time.
The mainstream thinking of hillforts are that they were places of power, defence and status. The term “chief” and “tribe” are ones that we use today and easily understandable for us. We really don’t know the society and hierarchical structures, but it is fair to say hillforts were places for the elite. Maidan Castle in Dorset has the most intricate and elaborated system of ditches and banks, which not only looked impressive, but would have need a vast amount of labour to create. Signs of status and power.
Round houses were built within the forts, indicating people lived there. Four to eight post structures are common and are likely to be above ground grain storage, which would be used on a daily basis. There is also the idea that hillforts acted as places of refuge during times of conflict.
Evidence for metal working has been excavated on hillforts, possibly showing a control of production. At Danebury, massive underground pits have been excavated which were used for storing huge amounts of grain over long periods, a good indication of someone with control and thus power. The person, or group, that controls the grain supply, controls life. Within one of the pits a pelvis of a young man was found, cut-off across the upper femurs and lower back. Not much care was taken over the butchery, indicated by the cut marks on the bones. Crops need fertility, humans need crops. Join some logical thinking dots, and you have the sacrifice of a young man, with the most fertile part of him, thrown into the pit to appease the gods who can grant good harvests.
In archaeology and heritage, we often look internally to what’s going on inside the hillfort. We focus on the structures, chambers and the finds. Perhaps it is because traditionally we excavate in the ground, drawing our attention to what is under our feet. We focus on objects, which become the heroes of the story. We report on assemblages and types, categorizing the finds. We display the objects in museum cases, almost obsessing about the object, what it is made of, how big it is, and sometimes (rightly so), the artistic merit. I fell in love with an Iron Age object in the Ashmolean Museum, becoming quite captivated by it. But I was completely detached from where it came from, Hod Hill in Dorset. That was just writing on a label. See below. Occasionally we look externally, but really not enough.
Old Winchester Hill
Back to hillforts. Old Winchester Hill is one of my favourites. It is very well preserved, unexcavated and not that big. It dates from the Early or early-Middle Iron Age (600-300 BCE) and fell out of use around the beginning of the Late Iron Age (150-100 BCE).
The view from it is phenomenal and must stretch uninterrupted over 270 degrees, from Sussex, passing through the Solent and on to Winchester in the West. The whole of the northern side of the Isle of Wight is clearly seen. It overlooks what is known as the Hampshire Basin, a geological term. This view made me think about the impact it would have had on the Iron Age hillfort inhabitants and their relationship with the landscape.
There is a central mound on the hillfort (which is Bronze Age) from which I often stand and take in the view. It roots me to the spot. I take a camera with me, just to give the impression that I am actually doing something and not unnerve other visitors.
I don’t really know where to start with describing the landscape. You can see the various features in the landscape and the routes that link them. We often refer to the routes as ancient trackways, which has a romantic idyll about it in our minds today. Perhaps the term “trackway” conjures up images of the Haywain. Many of our roads follow the ancient trackways, which go back further than the Iron Age.
Iron Age Britain was not an isolated island made up of small farms with no communication between one another. Far from it; survival requires non-isolation. The routes were part of ancient well-established networks that linked the settlements, land and sea. When I say routes, I do also mean rivers and the sea.
The Solent and English Channel is in full view, which led on to north Gaul, the Low-Lands and Germany. There is strong evidence for trade with the continent during the Iron Age. Evidence for ports may no longer be with us in the Solent, as it has widened over the past 2000 years, and much has been lost to the sea. There was a port at Hengistbury Head, in Dorset. Not that far away from here.
It is important to not think that prior to the Roman Invasion, Britain was not connected to the Roman world and Europe. With links to the Empire, there were further connections to the east, the Silk Road, and south to Africa. There has always been a healthy trade and interaction throughout the world and prehistory.
You can’t see any of this in detail from the hillfort, so no spotting ships coming into harbour, or the “Phoenician Trader” (Asterix and the Black Gold) landing just off-shore. It would also have taken a good half a day to walk to the coast from Old Winchester Hill, so not a case of quickly popping down to meet traders selling their wares as they landed on the beach.
Scattered across the landscape there were the features, farms and settlements. To the east of Old Winchester Hill is Butser Hill, Beacon Hill in the opposite direction, the Isle of Wight in the distance and St Catherine’s Hill further to the west at Winchester, which was a contemporary hillfort. Iron Age peoples would have had knowledge of their landscape, other settlements, who lived there, what went on and so on. From the Hillfort, you could not see individual people or activity going on, but perhaps signs of life, such as plumes of smoke. Saying that, sound travels up to the hillfort. On certain days, when the wind is low, the sounds of cattle, sheep, cars, machinery and even people talking and laughing are gently blown up onto the hill top. It can be quite earie.
You can trace the routes connecting these places in the landscape. Hollowed tracks runs south of Beacon Hill connecting Winchester to Old Winchester Hill and further east. The “hollow” being a track literally worn into the ground by millennia of footsteps, hooves and carts. From Winchester there is a route that runs north connecting with the Harrow Way, which runs east to west south of the Thames Valley. That then connects to the Ridgeway, Icknield Way and so on across Britain.
Then there is the landscape of barrows and other religious and funerary mounds. There is a Bowl Barrow (late neolithic/Bronze Age) 825m to the north and two to the east, a Long Barrow (Neolithic) to the south, and many other long and round barrows in the vicinity. Beacon Hill, just a stone’s throw away, has a Bronze Age Round Barrow cemetery. I cannot say how the Iron Age peoples regarded their heritage, ancestry and archaeology, and how they interacted with it. But I did mention that I was stood on a Bronze Age barrow, which implies they at least worked around them, for whatever reason. You can’t get inside the head of the Iron Age peoples. They were very different to us. As the saying goes, and the title of David Lowenthal’s great book, “the past is a foreign country…”
They had the same needs of course, water, food, shelter, stability, reproduction, enjoyment. We know they had many skills that we don’t have and vice versa. Language was different. But it is the deeper stuff I am thinking of, their values, beliefs, and deeper psychology. Let’s not even go there because we would be wasting our time and energy trying to “understand”. Saying that, you cannot help but wonder.
Evidence suggests that their gods were everywhere. For me, when I am on top of a hillfort, I feel close to the sky, and when there is low cloud (often), you feel closer to it, almost in touching distance. The breaks in the cloud reveals glimpses of the blue sky and higher white clouds above. It looks like another world, and it is. Talk to any pilot. Through the gaps in the cloud the sun projects beams of light down onto the landscape picking out fields, woods and patches on the sea. I watched the 1999 solar eclipse from Old Winchester Hill. It was cloudy, but as soon as the moon started its journey to obscure the sun, the atmosphere changed and after the event, the hill felt full of energy. In the evening too, the atmosphere is a wonderful, the stars, the sunsets and the sounds of the landscape putting itself to bed.
Today we pick up on a spirituality of the place. Or rather, the place picks up on a spirituality within us. There must have been an element of this 2200 years ago. We can’t say what or get any more detailed than that and I could be well off the beaten ancient track here.
By the late iron Age, Hillforts were becoming obsolete. The trade had become increasingly important and centre of trade were replacing the need for monumental structures. Shifts like this is something we see throughout prehistory and history. Smaller settlements that had strong trade routes were being established and the hillfort locations abandoned. One thing I have never been able to fathom, is the effort required to get to the entrance of a hillfort is huge. You usually have to climb a long track up a steep hill, so imagine that with goods to trade with. More practical locations became the centres, such as Winchester where the focus moved from the hilltop of St Catherine’s Hill to the area that is today’s town centre.
Who knows what place the hillforts had in the latter Iron Age. I have been going on about the views and the human psyche, but in reality the views had no practical use. As I said, you could not actually see people coming up the trackways and rivers, or traders sailing into the Solent and coming onto a beach head. It has been stated that Old Winchester Hill gave a commanding and defensive view, being able to see anyone approaching the hillfort. Yes, in the immediate distance but nothing further than say a mile. Although, as I mentioned, sound could play a role in identifying activity in the area around a hillfort.
Perhaps just the knowledge and sight of the landscape gave a feeling of connectedness, being networked, belonging and even power. And let’s not underestimate the significance of religion, ancestors, other worlds and gods in the sky. The living and the dead in one place could have made the hillforts very special places.
Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country, CUP.