New research: Iron Age Hillforts in Britain

On Friday 6th September, The Times ran a piece on a recent archaeological project examining the Iron Age hillfort of Ham Hill, near Yeovil in Somerset (‘Diggers find signs of Roman massacre’, p. 21). In it, it was reported how victims had been disarticulated, stripped of their flesh and had their remains displayed on the ramparts. Marcus Brittain, from Cambridge University (who led the project), commented that this practice was unusual in the Roman period, but quite a common practice within  Iron Age society. Perhaps, then, it was the Iron Age inhabitants, and not the Romans, who had carried out the act in some form of ritualistic practice, perhaps to help send the dead to the next life.

celt-maiden-castleMaiden Castle.

Source: timetrips.co.uk

This story reminded me of the scene at Fin Cop, the Iron Age hillfort near Monsal Dale in the Derbyshire Peak District. Here, excavations in 2009 & 2010 discovered the grisly remains of nine individuals who had been murdered and their remains thrown into the rampart ditch, before the rampart itself had been toppled over on top of them. What made the scene worse was that all the victims were women and children (including one newborn baby), except for one teenage boy. Initial thoughts were of a Roman massacre, like Ham Hill, with the Iron Age tribes swept aside by the invading Roman army as it made its way north. Radiocarbon dating, however, informed us the massacre took place some 400 years before the Romans turned up. Clearly, the Iron Age tribes could be as hostile and brutal to each other as any invading Roman army could be.

nmr20492-52-fincophillfortFin Cop, Derbyshire Peak District.

Source: english-heritage.org.uk

Discoveries such as these are changing the way we view both Iron Age society and the role that hillforts played. The term hillfort itself is misleading, as many ‘hillforts’ are not located on top of hills, and many are either poorly defended (through earthworks) or just too large to have been able to physically defend. The problem we have is that we still know so little about them. For example, Derbyshire has at least ten known hillforts, and yet only Fin Cop and Mam Tor (at Castleton) have seen any useful investigation take place. The same story no doubt exists across the whole of Britain. This is about to change.

The Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have just been awarded £950,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct the Atlas of Hillforts Project. This aims to document all known hillforts within England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and create both a paper and electronic atlas, with the latter linked to Google Earth, which will seek to aid future research.

On a more local scale, MBArchaeology is about to undertake a Community Archaeology project to explore the hillforts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The Iron Age Hillforts project, funded by Derbyshire County Council under the wider Limestone Journeys Project, begins later this month and runs until June 2014. The aim is to identify and map existing sites, carry out archival and field-based explorations of these, and conduct new research in order to identify new sites in the region, or shed more light on those we know little about. Our working hypothesis is that the Magnesian Limestone ridge, which separates the Peak District and coal measures in the west from the Bolsover District and through into Nottinghamshire to the east, was the tribal boundary between the Brigantes and the Corieltauvi, and that hillforts were strategically located to defend the ‘frontier’. Although we cannot promise any massacres at this early stage, we do hope we can add useful information that can guide future research.

MBArchaeology specialise in Community Archaeology, Education & Research, and offer courses, walks, talks and projects throughout Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire. The Iron Age Hillforts project starts on Tuesday 17th September and is based at the Bolsover Adult & Community Education Centre on Castle Street, Bolsover. For more information, or to get involved, visit http://www.mbarchaeology.co.uk/current-projects/derbyshire-hill-forts/

Are you fascinated by the landscape these hill forts have left behind? Let us know what you think by commenting below…

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