Towards the end of the Bronze Age the climate had deteriorated, resulting in the spread of bogland, and, therefore, a reduction in the amount of productive farmland. There is speculation that competition between neighbouring groups, for control of the remaining productive land, lead to warfare, and that this, in turn, lead to the conception of hillforts. Though their development was under way, in most parts of Britain, by the 9th century BC, the heyday of hillfort construction was in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
Hillforts are defended enclosures, usually, as the name suggests, built on a hill-top. There are three thousand-odd sites in Britain that fall into the broad category of hillfort. Most are found in central, southern and western England, Wales and south-eastern Scotland. They come in diverse shapes and a vast range of sizes (from less than one to tens of hectares). Some have just one circuit of defences (univallate), whilst others have more (multivallate). At most sites, the circuits comprise a rampart and a ditch (being defensive structures, the ditch is outside the rampart), but at some they are formed of ramparts only. The ramparts themselves were constructed using various methods and materials.
Some sites categorised as hillforts are actually built on relatively flat ground. They are sometimes described as ‘plateau forts’, and, getting no advantage from natural features, rely entirely on man-made defences. Rainsborough Camp, in Northamptonshire, is an example.
The entrances (there are usually one or two, which would have had timber gates) are the weak points in a hillfort's defences, so much ingenuity and energy was often devoted to their design and construction. The entrance earthworks can be complex, and might incorporate long passages, bastions, barbicans, guardrooms, overlapping ramparts, hornworks and outworks.
All this variety and complexity is, however, the product of some eight or nine hundred years of hillfort evolution. Generally, early hillforts were relatively simple, univallate, affairs. During the period 400–300BC, it appears that many were abandoned. A few, however, not only continued in use, but received elaborate enhancements, such as multivallate defences and labyrinthine entrance passages. A possible explanation is that the abandoned hillforts belonged to tribal groups whose lands were annexed by stronger neighbours. These dominant groups developed their own hillforts as a demonstration of their strength. Indeed, like a modern corporate skyscraper, ‘developed hillforts’ appear designed as much for their impressive appearance, as for their actual purpose.
Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, in Dorset, is the largest developed hillfort in Britain. In Neolithic times, there had been a causewayed enclosure at the eastern end of the site (the dark line running north–south on the satellite view delineates its western boundary), and then a large 'bank barrow' (about 545 metres by 19 metres) had been erected (faintly visible as the line running east–west across the centre of the hill). Around 600BC, more or less on top of the old causewayed enclosure, a univallate, ditch and rampart (utilising simple dump and, timber revetted, box rampart, techniques), hillfort was built. Between c.400BC and c.100BC, the hillfort underwent several phases of development, to produce the massive glacis ramparts and complex entrances which are still impressive today. The enclosed area of the developed hillfort, at about 18 hectares, is almost triple that of the original fortification, and the overall size of the site is in excess of 45 hectares. Sir Mortimer Wheeler excavated at Maiden Castle in the mid-1930s. Based on his findings, Sir Mortimer produced a, famously, dramatic description of Maiden Castle's fall to the Romans, led by, the future emperor, Vespasian, in their westward advance after the invasion of AD43. Further excavation, by Niall Sharples, took place in the mid-1980s, and a new appraisal of the evidence suggested that the Romans did not take Maiden Castle by force. What seems clear, however, is that the hillfort was finally abandoned within a few decades of the Roman conquest. A small Romano-British temple complex was built within the interior (the foundations can be seen towards the north-east corner in the satellite view) in the late-4th century AD – possibly on the site of an earlier shrine.
In total contrast to Maiden Castle is Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire, which only encloses about ½ hectare. Maiden Castle is classed as a ‘contour fort’, that is to say that its defensive circuits follow the contours of the hill on which it is superimposed. Castell Henllys, however, is a ‘promontory fort’. A promontory site provides a hillfort with natural defences for much of its perimeter, requiring extensive man-made defences only across the neck of land joining it to the adjacent area. (If the promontory in question juts out into the sea, then the fort is often called a ‘cliff castle’). Castell Henllys is built on a small spur overlooking the River Gwaun. There are precipices to the east, south and west, so most of its man-made defences are directed towards the north. These defences comprise a large inner bank, a ditch, a smaller outer bank and another ditch. The earthworks curve round to meet the precipice at the east, and at the west they merge at the place where the entrance was. Thirty metres north of the fort is an outer bank and ditch. Beneath the bank, archaeologists discovered a band of upright stones. The rows of stones, which are called 'chevaux-de-frise', and are rare in Britain, would have impeded a mass attack, and provided a defence against chariots. Nevertheless, at some point in the hillforts evolution, they became superfluous, and the bank was thrown up on top of them. Castell Henllys was occupied from c.500BC to c.100BC. It was, seemingly, crowded with roundhouses, and may have had a population of 100–150 people. A lack of evidence for preliminary food processing, e.g. threshing, butchery, might imply that Castell Henllys was home to the local elite – prepared foodstuffs being brought into the hillfort by lower status families from the surrounding countryside.
The ‘roundhouse’ is the classic Iron Age dwelling. Typically, between 6 and 15 metres in diameter, the walls were constructed from whatever materials were most convenient – it could be stone, timber or wattle and daub. It is assumed that the walls would have been at least chest height, to allow maximum use of the enclosed space. It is also assumed that, since the walls were round, the roof would have been conical. It would have had a timber framework and a covering of thatch (or possibly turf, which, being heavier, would require more support). Often, the house's entrance, which might have a porch, faces east or south-east – away from prevailing westerly winds, but, perhaps more importantly (for reasons of belief), towards the rising sun. At the centre of the house was an open-hearthfire, which would have been maintained at all times. A bronze cauldron might be suspended from a tripod, by a chain, over the
Iron Age roundhouse reconstruction (based on one from Glastonbury Lake Village) at the Peat Moors Centre, Westhay, Somerset.
fire. The fire would have also enabled food to be preserved by drying and smoking. (Salt was also available to preserve meat). Spinning and weaving were domestic activities.
Glastonbury Lake Village was built, on an artificial island, in shallow water on the Somerset Levels. It was discovered, by Arthur Bullied, in 1892. Excavations began in that year, and were completed in 1907. Since then, interpretations of the layers of archaeology that were uncovered have varied. It seems possible, however, that development of the village started around 250BC. It peaked about 100BC (a, roughly, triangular site of approximately 1.4 hectares, housing perhaps fourteen or fifteen extended families, some 200 people), but rising water levels caused its abandonment about 50BC. As a result of the waterlogged conditions, structural woodwork and wooden objects were very well preserved. The island's foundations were made of brushwood and logs, filled in with rushes, bracken, peat and clay – the whole being retained by a perimeter palisade. On top, individual, circular clay floors were laid as bases for roundhouses. The wall of a house was made by driving a circle of posts, through the floor, into the foundations (leaving a gap for the entrance of course). The spaces between these uprights were then filled with wattle and daub, and a thatched roof was erected.
“Dwellings were occasionally burnt down ... It was in the locality of the burnt huts that information was forthcoming regarding the construction of the walls and roofs. The floors were thickly covered with baked clay rubble, charcoal, and pieces of charred reed. The pieces of baked clay were frequently marked with the impressions of wattle work on one side, and with finger-prints on the other. The fragments of charred reed were presumably burnt thatch. The roofs of the dwellings were supported by a central post, the base of which was usually found near the margin of the hearth embedded in the clay floor. Some of the larger dwellings appear to have had two or even more central posts. Other details of the construction are left largely to our imagination... From the complete hurdles that were discovered we conclude the walls were about six feet high, and some dwellings had partitions. Remains of flooring boards and joists were found in a few huts.”
Arthur Bullied ‘The Lake-Villages of Somerset’ (Fifth Edition, 1958)
As, over time, the foundations beneath a house compacted, so the floor would have to be built up again. In one instance a sequence of ten floors was found.
“In dwelling-mounds with several floors, the superimposed layers of clay generally increased in diameter from below upwards. A new floor was usually accompanied by the re-erection of the dwelling, the diameter of the hut being increased.”
The roundhouses were between 5½ metres and 8½ metres in diameter. The entrances were not on any particular alignment. It seems that some houses must have had solid wooden doors (though none remained), since an iron ‘latch-lifter’ and a stone with a pivot-hole were among the finds. In fact, a vast array of everyday objects were found in and around the village – items of bronze, tin, lead and iron; amber, glass, jet and shale; wood, bone and antler; pottery, baked-clay, flint and stone. Bronze-working and iron-working were carried out on the site. Of the 274 bronze items found, most were “objects of personal adornment”, though the prize find was a bowl. Of the 18 tin objects, the most intriguing was a:
“... round and solid bar of pure tin; it was capped at each end by a bronze terminal, and measured 10¼ inches in length, and one inch in diameter.”
Analysis of the bar's surface suggested it had originally been gilded. There were 32 lead items, of which 13 were fishing-net sinkers. Of the 111 iron items, only 7 could be classed as weapons – “Daggers (including fragments) 3, spearheads 3, fragment of sword 1” – although:
“That the inhabitants had iron weapons is certain, for numerous pieces of bronze bordering, and the terminals of three sheaths were discovered.”
There were parts of 4 snaffle-bits; and 4 saws – the teeth were set so that the cutting action was on the backward rather than, as in a modern handsaw, the forward stroke. Some of the iron tools still had their wooden handles. 2 ‘currency bars’ were found, but just a single coin – an incomplete ‘potin’, dating from around 100–50BC.
From about 300BC, iron bars, called ‘currency bars’ after a remark by Julius Caesar, were being produced, apparently, specifically for trading. These bars were forged into distinctive shapes which, it is thought, signified the source, and therefore the quality, of the iron. The ‘sword-shaped’ currency bar pictured right is about 80 cm. long, and is one of a hoard of 21 similar examples, found at Danebury Hillfort, Hampshire.
Objects more recognisable as currency, i.e. coins, first arrived, as cross-Channel imports, during the last half of the second century BC. Coins were being manufactured in Britain by c.100BC. These were cast (not struck) in a tin-rich bronze, usually called 'potin', and they appear to emanate from Kent. Their design, derived from bronze coins originating in the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles), depicts the head of Apollo on the obverse, and a butting bull on the reverse. However, as can be seen from the example on the left, this quickly became abbreviated to just a few lines. (Note also the sprue where the coin was linked to others in the mould). The, rather primitive, potins remained in production until soon after the mid first century BC, overlapping with more sophisticated coinage. The use of coinage did not spread beyond south-eastern Britain until Roman times (after AD43).
“Five objects of amber and twenty-seven of glass were found, and with the exception of three glass specimens, all the objects were beads. A lump of greenish-blue glass slag is of much interest and importance, as it strongly supports the supposition that glass was made at the Village... Only one object was found made of jet, a highly polished ring or bead ...”
The lathe was another innovation of the Iron Age, and objects of turned-wood and turned-shale were found at the Village. There were 31 shale objects:
“... these include two very fine lathe-turned and ornamented armlets. From the fact that a waste core was found, and several rings and other specimens in the process of making, we are led to believe that the shale was imported and worked at the village.”
Amongst the “large collection” of wooden items were:
“Portions of fourteen tubs and cups, either cut from the solid or stave-made. In some the staves were dowelled together, in others fitted together like a modern barrel and hooped. Sixty-three pieces of frame-work, parts of looms or apparatus for making textile fabrics. Five ladles, parts of three lathe-turnedwheel-hubs, several wheel-spokes, a ladder with four steps, a small door ... [handles from various tools] ... fragments of baskets, two small wood pins found in association with a bronze mirror, tweezers and some dark colouring-matter, a draughtsman, the tops of two spade-handles, three pieces of finely ornamented wood bands, two wooden mallets, three stoppers, an oak dish or trough, beams and planks with mortise holes, and several wicker-made hurdles.”
A dugout canoe, of oak, was discovered by a labourer clearing the ditch of a nearby field. There were hundreds of bone and antler objects, including 89 weaving combs (counting fragments, and 5 which were not finished) and 5 dice. Three of the dice were found in association with 23, disc-shaped, polished pebbles, which, presumably, were counters.
“Although several tons weight of pot-sherds were unearthed only some half-a-dozen vessels were found intact... With reference to the production of the pottery, the clay and the other materials composing the various pastes were probably all products of the immediate neighbourhood, and there are reasons for thinking that the whole of the Glastonbury pottery was made at or near the village... With regard to the mechanism employed in making pottery, very few pots show any evidence of being wheel-made; the large bulk of the pottery was built up by hand.”
The potter's wheel was introduced into southern and eastern England, from the Continent, around 100BC, though some areas appear to have been reluctant to abandon the traditional method of producing pots. Whatever method was used to make them, pots would still have been fired in a 'clamp' – the pottery kiln not being, clearly, evident until Roman times.
Among the “very numerous” objects made of baked-clay were loom weights and spindle whorls, pieces of two tuyères (used to conduct the blast of air from bellows into the furnace), and hundreds of sling pellets. Most of the (in excess of 230) spindle whorls found at the Village were of stone. There were 18 saddle querns and 38 rotary querns. There were also a few flint artifacts:
“There is no actual proof that the fabrication of flint implements took place at the Village, but as the collection includes 362 flakes and chips, some of the latter being very small, we are led to believe that a flint industry was carried on, if for no other purpose than for the making of scrapers.”
There was also a flint arrowhead and a saw. A, Neolithic, polished axe-head, and part of a second, were found. They would not have been brought to the Village for practical use, but as curios or objects of reverence.
In Scotland, loch-dwelling, on artificial islands called ‘crannogs’, has a history spanning thousands of years – from around 3000BC, in the Neolithic Age, until the 1600s AD. It does appear, however, that the Iron Age was their heyday. There are two basic types of crannog: true islands, with solid bases built up from the loch floor (where possible, taking advantage of natural rock outcrops); or wooden platforms, raised above the water on timber piles. Generally, a single building tops the crannog, and the whole structure is joined to the shore by a walkway.
There are the remains of eighteen crannogs in Loch Tay. On the largest of them, Priory Island (oval, approx. 70 metres by 50 metres), the substantial ruins of a stronghold, constructed by the Campbells of Glenorchy in the early-16th century AD, can be seen. (The island itself is known to have been there in the early-12th century, but how far back its origins lie is not known). In contrast, Oakbank Crannog is a totally
submerged mound of around 25 metres in diameter. It has been explored by underwater archaeologists since 1980. Oakbank is a wooden platform crannog, radiocarbon dated to c.600–400BC, the structural timbers of which have been remarkably well preserved. Based on this evidence, a reconstruction has been built, some four miles from the original's site. Amongst the objects which survived at Oakbank are: a wooden dish with butter sticking to it; a fragment of woven woolen cloth; a turned wooden disk (the waste removed from the base of a bowl once it has been taken off the lathe); an ard.
In the wild, rocky, landscape of north-western Scotland, the Northern Isles and the Western Isles, drystone-walled roundhouses (today, called ‘Atlantic roundhouses’) began to be built c.700BC. The early types, ‘simple Atlantic roundhouses’, had solid walls – sometimes quite massive: in the region of 4 metres thick. From c.400BC, they began to acquire architectural features, such as galleries and stairways, within the thickness of the wall. These are classed as ‘complex Atlantic roundhouses’. Traditionally, Atlantic roundhouses are, in general, called ‘duns’. The word ‘dùn’ is Gaelic for ‘fortress’, but it seems likely that they were actually family homes. Some are constructed on rocky-based crannogs, and these are known as ‘island duns’.
Mousa Broch (above), in Shetland, is the most complete surviving tower. It stands c.13 metres high with, at its base, an exterior diameter of c.15 metres, and an interior diameter of c.6 metres. Dun Carloway (below) is a broch tower on Lewis, in the Western Isles (exterior diameter: c.14 metres, interior diameter: c.7 metres). Its hollow-wall construction can be clearly seen.
The imposing drystone towers, traditionally called ‘brochs’, fall under the heading of ‘complex Atlantic roundhouse’. Broch towers were probably fully developed by c.200BC. They are entered by a single, low, doorway and have no windows. This somewhat featureless exterior, combined with the slope of the wall, has led to them being likened to power station cooling towers. The entrance passage usually has a, so called, ‘guard-cell’ to one side, within the wall's thickness. There is general agreement that the towers would have had a number of wooden upper floors, and a, conical, thatched roof. Indeed, typical features of ‘broch architecture’ are ‘scarcements’ – stone ledges around the inside of the tower which probably provided support for the internal timber structure. It is conjectured that the upper floors provided the main living accommodation, whilst the ground floor may have provided a refuge for livestock during severe weather, or in times of conflict. The name ‘broch’ is derived from the Old Norse ‘borg’, meaning ‘fortress’, and these substantial towers would, no doubt, act as a stronghold when raiding parties attacked. They are, however, very prominent in the landscape. They were, clearly, built to be impressive. It does not seem unreasonable to see them as status symbols – blatantly advertising the wealth of the family who lived there. Their heyday would appear to span four hundred years, the last two centuries BC and the first two AD.
Broadly contemporary with the brochs, and found in the Western Isles and Shetland (but not Orkney), is a completely different class of circular drystone building: the ‘wheelhouse’ – named from its distinctive floorplan. Arranged radially around the interior, like wheel spokes, are a number of stone piers. The central hub area is left open. The wall and piers supported corbelled stone roofs, which domed above each of the inter-spoke cells. At Cnip, on Lewis (Western Isles), the corbelled roofing of a wheelhouse is partially intact. The domes' apexes would have been something like 6 metres above floor level. Whereas brochs made lavish use of timber, in an area where its supply was very limited, wheelhouses only required timber to construct the framework of a thatched roof over the hub area. The example at Cnip had an interior diameter of 7 metres, it had eight spokes, and the hub diameter was in the region of only 3½ metres. An example at Sollas, on North Uist (Western Isles) was 11 metres in diameter, it had 13 spokes, and a 7 metre hub diameter. Frequently, wheelhouses are sunk into machair (sand-based grassland), so don't need massive walls to hold them up – Cnip and Sollas are both like this. Only the roofs would have projected above the land surface.
Wattle and Daub: upright timbers, interwoven with hazel or willow withies, plastered with a mix of clay, straw and manure. It is likely that coppicing was being practiced to manage timber resources.
Smoke from the fire probably just percolated through the thatch. Apparently, experiments have shown that a central chimney produces a strong, uncontrollable, draft. On the other hand, it has been found that a good quality thatch makes it difficult for smoke to escape. Perhaps types of wood which naturally produce little smoke (once the bark has been removed), such as willow, were burned, or charcoal (which also produces more heat).
Salt was obtained by evaporating brine – either seawater at the coast, or at inland saltwater springs (such as at Droitwich). The, coarse baked-clay, paraphernalia (vessels, supports etc.) used in brine evaporation, and for salt transportation, is called ‘briquetage’.
The photograph on the left (taken at the Peat Moors Centre, Westhay) gives an idea of how an Iron Age loom would have looked.
‘Spindle whorls’ and ‘loom weights’, of stone or baked-clay, and ‘weaving combs’, of bone or antler, are commonly found on domestic sites. Spindle whorls weight the spindles used in spinning thread from raw wool. Loom weights were used to tension the warp threads. Weaving combs would be used to tamp-down the weft.
Although wool was probably the material most utilised to produce textiles, flax was grown to make linen, and, apparently, nettle fibres can also be used.
The above weaving combs are from Glastonbury Lake Village.
Of course, not all the “dwellings” shown on Arthur Bulleid's plan were in existence at the same time, nor would they have all been domestic quarters. According to Arthur Bullied, “evidence of occupation in about twenty was very scanty”. The limb to the east of the village is a causeway/landing stage arrangement. The wetness of the village's surroundings would have varied with the seasons – perhaps around a metre of standing water in the winter, but maybe little more than quagmire in the summer.
The Glastonbury Bowl (about 11½ cm. diameter, 8 cm. deep) is made from two bronze-sheet sections riveted together. Presumably, the original top section was damaged, since the present one would appear to be a replacement. The bowl, along with a great many other finds, was unearthed immediately outside the perimeter palisade. Of course, some items may have simply been dropped accidentally, others dumped as rubbish, but it seems reasonable to suppose that many, the bowl included, were purposely committed to the water as votive offerings.
Pictured are (from top to bottom) a reaping-hook/sickle, two adzes and a billhook, all with wooden handles.
Of the 6 reaping-hooks/sickles found, 2 had handles; of 7 adzes, 2 had handles; of 8 billhooks, 2 had handles. There were also 4 gouges, one of which still had its handle, and of the 4 saws already mentioned, one had its handle. 7 files, 13 assorted knives, and 2 awls complete the inventory of iron tools.
The design of Iron Age lathes is by no means certain, however, it is assumed that they would have been of the reciprocating (i.e. rotating first in one direction and then the other) type, such as a ‘bow lathe’ or a ‘pole lathe’. Basically, the piece to be turned is mounted, so that it is free to rotate, on a firm trestle. In a bow lathe, the bowstring is wound around the piece. The bow is moved back and forth, either by the woodworker himself or by an assistant, producing the alternating rotations. Cutting is done during the revolutions in one direction only. In the pole lathe, a cord is attached to an overhead springy pole or branch. It is wound around the piece, and attached to one end of a length of wood, hinged to the ground at the other end, which acts as a treadle. Pushing down on the treadle produces the cutting revolutions. Releasing pressure on the treadle allows the overhead spring to reset the machine for the next push.
Essentially, the pots are placed within a bonfire, which is then covered-over with earth. When the fire has burned itself out, the clamp collapses. It is allowed to cool, and the fired pots are removed from the ashes.
Intra-mural stairs at Dun Carloway (Dùn Chàrlabhaigh).
In Broch towers, the stairways always ascend in a clockwise direction. The width of the wall cavity narrows as the tower rises, and Mousa Broch is the only surviving example in which there is sufficient space to fit a stairway all the way to the top. It has been suggested that the wall cavity's real purpose was to provide insulation, and channel heat around the tower.
Charred barley grains, from the construction layer of Old Scatness Broch (Shetland), have been radiocarbon dated to c.400–200BC.
‘Broch architecture’ refers to the hollow-wall construction and structural traits – scarcements, intra-mural stairs, guard-cells, etc. – of complex Atlantic roundhouses.