Sites of physical eminence in the landscape have been important throughout prehistory. Hilltops may well have been liminal places where the world of the living met the world of the supernatural, where the dead were laid to rest in a sacred space. They could have been locations for religious gatherings, perhaps at specific times of the year.
Hilltops also could have offered a measure of short-term protection in uncertain times, but a longer-term threat would have called for defensive building. Initially, wooden palisades might have been sufficient, but soon more substantial structures of earth or stone would have to have been built. Many of these sites were never more than places of temporary refuge. There is no doubt that in all areas of Europe such defended enclosures were sites of permanent occupation that often were associated with industrial, commercial, and probably also administrative and ritual activity. Security and defense must be seen as the dominant function of hillforts, but these frequently impressive constructions must have served other, less material purposes. The great sites—Maiden Castle in Dorset, England, as a prime example—possess massive ramparts that appear far larger and more elaborate than was dictated by the needs of military defense. With these sites, considerations of prestige and ostentation may be assumed. Dominating the physical horizon, such great hillforts were tangible statements of tribal power.
It is not completely clear when hillforts in the truest sense first were constructed in continental Europe. As early as the late fifth and early fourth millennia b.c., simple palisaded enclosures were elaborated by the erection of earthworks, often of impressive dimensions, in ostensibly defensive situations. At least a few of them were for protection. In Britain hilltop settlements of the Neolithic, such as Carn Brea in Cornwall and Hambledon Hill in Dorset, suggest a similar function.
Early Bronze Age Europe saw continued, sporadic use of hilltop sites, especially in parts of Germany and farther east, though these were a response to local needs rather than a widespread development. The evolution of hillfort construction on a significant scale across Europe, however, commenced in the later Bronze Age, perhaps at the beginning of the last pre-Christian millennium. There has been considerable discussion concerning the impetus for this trend: population pressure, climatic deterioration, changing polities, security uncertainties, and novel methods of warfare all have been proposed. It is likely that all these factors played a part in this trend to a greater or lesser extent, but significant resources, in both materials and manpower, clearly were involved in their creation.
Within the fortified area at this time, houses frequently were situated along the ramparts or filling much of the internal area in regular, parallel rows. The Wittnauer Horn in Switzerland, a promontory site defended by a massive, timber-framed rampart with an external ditch, is one of the best examples. It originally was proposed that there were two rows of houses, about seventy in all, but research leaves room to doubt this figure and even the contemporaneity of the structures. Differing in internal layout is the contemporary Altes Schloss, near Potsdam in eastern Germany. There, within a roughly pear-shaped enclosure about 100 meters in greatest width, some thirty houses occurred in at least five rows, along with storage pits and a well. Such sites indicate the emergence of agglomerated settlements of considerable size.
Apart from the large-scale excavations of the proto-urban sites of the Late La Tène period, such as Manching in Bavaria and Mont Beuvray in France, emphasis in hillfort excavations over the last half of the twentieth century has concentrated to a large extent on the nature of defensive construction. There was great variety in the details, of course, but, in broad terms, during the Bronze and into the Iron Age there were two essential styles: those with vertical faces and those that originally presented a sloping surface to the exterior. Without excavation, however, it generally is impossible to distinguish between the two.
Among the many forms of timber-laced defenses are those of the so-called Kastenbau type, involving boxlike compartments of longitudinal and transverse beams filled with stones and rubble. They were built without the vertical timbers at front or back that are features of the widespread box rampart. These ramparts, of necessity, possessed transverse beams through the body of the rampart to prevent the outward pressure and collapse of the uprights. A variant of this is the Altkönig-Preist type (named after two typical examples in Germany), which is characterized by the additional presence of stone walls at the front and the particularly heavy use of internal timbers. Other, less elaborate forms of construction are known, including those where the uprights were secured in position by the transverse lane alone and those with verticals on the front only, the supporting transverses being held in place solely by the weight of the bank. The culmination of timber-laced construction was the massive murus Gallicus of the Late La Tène period, which possessed ramparts of nailed box construction with an outer masonry facing and, on occasion, a substantial internal earthen support. Such ramparts enclosed settlements that often were of considerable size, with houses arranged along streets and possessing most of the specialist activities of the true town, including the minting of coins. In Gaul, in the last century before Christ, the Roman general Julius Caesar had no hesitation in using the term oppidum to describe them.
Defenses of dump construction consisted of wide, sloping ramparts of piled earth lacking the support of timber elements. More economical to build than were the timber-laced ramparts, a potential weakness was that the outer face, without support, of necessity sloped to the interior. Its height thus was critical, and associated ditches of substantial depth were common, especially in England. In northern France a variant, the so-called Fécamp type, possessed shallower but considerably broader ditches. Some British hillforts were constructed with the sloping outer face of the rampart continued by the inner face of the ditch, thus maximizing the defensive potential. Massive ramparts constructed solely of rubble, such as the huge German site of Otzenhausen, also occur. Its prodigious dimensions alone were deemed sufficient for effective defense, but, as elsewhere, the scale of the protective ramparts may well have been intended for more than merely defensive use.
Entrances, potentially the weakest point in the defensive circuit, included angled approaches, overlapping ramparts, mazelike arrangements of strategically placed ramparts, and various timber constructions, including footbridges or towers. Associated especially with the Late La Tène oppida, inturned entrances were constructed to create long, narrow passages along which attackers had to progress. Massive timber gateways, sometimes doubled or even trebled, also were present.
The varying types of rampart construction cannot in any way be seen as regular developments over time. It seems more likely that from a number of self-evident structural variables, individual building teams chose specific construction methods that were deemed suitable in the context of the available workforce and for the immediate needs. The Late La Tène oppida stand apart, however, as does the spectacular mud-brick wall of the Late Hallstatt Heuneburg hillfort in southwest Germany. The latter, an obvious imitation of a Mediterranean town wall, emphasizes once again that functional considerations alone were not always paramount concerns in defensive construction.
The trend toward hillfort building that gathered momentum across Europe from the later Bronze Age onward can be mirrored in Britain and in Ireland. In the former area, Rams Hills, Berkshire, and the Breidden, Powys, represent early examples. In Ireland, too, modern investigations show with increasing clarity that the centuries c. 1000 b.c. witnessed a significant explosion in hillfort construction. Rathgall, County Wicklow; Mooghaun, County Clare; and Haughey's Fort, County Armagh, all now yielding radiocarbon dates between 1000 and 900 b.c., are but three examples of this early development. In all cases occupation of some permanence has been recognized.
Britain, with more than three thousand structures of notionally hillfort character, presents acute problems of definition. The classic examples, numbering several hundred, occur in south-central England in a broad band that runs from the southern coast to northern Wales. Construction, as noted, commenced early in the millennium, but the major sites belong to the period from the mid-millennium onward. Timber-laced ramparts of types comparable to those found on the European mainland have been identified (with the notable absence of the murus Gallicus) and, of course, massive defenses of earth alone, often in multiple form, are widespread. Entrances of varied complexity occur, including those of inturned form. The latter resemble the inturned entrances in Europe, but it must be stressed that the British forts are not a product of invading groups, as was once believed. They are entirely indigenous developments.
Large-scale excavation at selected sites, including Danebury, Hampshire; Maiden Castle, Dorset; Croft Ambrey, Hertfordshire; and elsewhere, has provided extensive information on the nature of hillforts in late prehistoric Britain. Danebury, a triple-ramparted hillfort of 5 hectares, was subjected to research excavation over twenty seasons, which ultimately exposed 57 percent of the interior. This site has provided us with the most detailed and comprehensive insights into the nature of the late prehistoric hillfort in Britain.
Three main phases of activity, reflected in the three ramparts, were recognized, and dating evidence indicates that the site was in use from about 550 b.c. to the beginning of the Christian era. The innermost, primary rampart is a massive earthen construction with a deep, V-sectioned ditch: from ditch base to the crest of the bank was a distance of 16.1 meters, dimensions surpassed only by the corresponding inner defense at Maiden Castle, which totaled an astonishing 25.2 meters. Initially, there were two entrances and later just one, and they were developed to a level of exceptional defensive complexity, providing complex, mazelike approaches to the interior. Large, strategically placed caches of sling stones underlined the military aspect of the construction.
Within the enclosure, houses, both rectangular and circular, were aligned along streets extending more or less east to west across the interior. Well over one hundred houses were identified, but not all of them were contemporary. Numerous small square or rectangular structures, which may have been grain silos, also were revealed. Most spectacular were the 2,400-odd pits densely concentrated in all excavated zones, superficially resembling the surface of Gruyère cheese. These pits, carefully dug and as deep as 3 meters, generally are seen as having functioned for the storage of grain. In the center were four small rectangular structures, which might have been temples. Extensive evidence for a wide range of secular activities also was brought to light.
The most remarkable feature of Danebury was the evidence for grain storage on what must have been a prodigious scale. The enormous storage capacity implied seems far in excess of the needs of the occupants of Danebury, a number estimated to have been between 200 and 350 at any one time. It has been suggested that the primary function of Danebury was to act as a central place for the storage and protection of grain for the peoples of the surrounding landscape.
Danebury is the classic British hillfort, but it is scarcely typical for the whole island. In Scotland, for example, structures of other types occur, including those with various forms of timber lacing. Most notable, however, are the curious vitrified forts, so called because of the intense burning to which the stones of the ramparts have been subjected. These sites have engendered considerable discussion—accidental burning, hostile action, or even deliberate burning by the inhabitants of the forts have been suggested to explain the vitrification. Hostile action perhaps is most likely, but in any event such ramparts originally must have been laced with timber.
The great southern English hillforts mirror the trend toward centralization, if not urbanization, that had already begun on the European mainland in the latter part of the second century b.c. Belgic influences in southern England advanced this trend a step further, but, as was the case on the mainlaind, it was halted by Roman occupation, soon to be reborn in another guise under the Pax Romana, or age of Roman peace (37 b.c.–a.d. 180).
See alsoMaiden Castle vol. 1, part 1); Hambledon Hill (vol. 1, part 3); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Manching (vol. 2, part 6); Danebury (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6).
Avery, Michael. Hillfort Defences of Southern Britain. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum, 1993.
Collis, John. R Oppida: Earliest Towns North of the Alps. Sheffield, U.K.: University of Sheffield, 1984.
Harding, D. W., ed. Hillforts: Later Prehistoric Earthworks in Britain and Ireland. London and New York: Academic, 1976.