Illuminating Iron Age hillforts in Wales
In CA 388 we asked, ‘what are hillforts for?’, and Toby Driver’s new book Hillforts of Iron Age Wales has some suggestions. Based on his many years spent recording these monuments on the ground and from the air, he concludes that no single explanation fits every example. Rather, like terraces of seemingly identical Victorian or Edwardian houses, external similarities disguise the many different functions, ideas, and ways of life that hillforts supported, as Chris Catling reports.
Compared to the number of surviving hillforts – there are almost as many on Toby Driver’s distribution map as there are settlements in modern Wales – only a tiny handful have been excavated. As a result, there is much that we do not know about the later prehistory of Wales, or, as Toby puts it, there are ‘many dark corners that require illumination, or the spark of imagination’ if we are to piece together the lives of our Iron Age ancestors.
Hillforts, along with promontory forts, are one of the three main types of later prehistoric settlement in Wales, the other two being small, defended enclosures and hut groups/field systems. The Historic Environment Records for Wales, accessed via the online portal Archwilio, currently list 764 hillforts, 1,191 defended enclosures, and 1,332 hut groups. In parts of Montgomeryshire and Pembrokeshire, there is a prehistoric fort or farmstead for every modern farm, hinting at the density of settlement, population size, and extent of land cultivation in the period from the earliest Iron Age (around 800 BC) to the early medieval period. Although Rome occupied parts of Wales from c.AD 70, the hillforts and farms of Wales changed little as a consequence, and some that had fallen out of use under Roman rule were reoccupied after AD 410, especially those on coastal sites.
Hillforts are categorised by the size and strength of their enclosing ramparts, and many have elaborate gateways, marked by outworks, hornworks, and annexes. Most occupy striking natural locations, often on prominent hilltops, ridges, or plateaus, though some were constructed on low-lying knolls, ridges, and hillocks. It is more than likely that these commanding sites were regarded as significant long before they were given the additional definition of hillfort ditches and banks. Finds of worked flints and stone axes at Breiddin and Ffridd Faldwyn in Montgomeryshire, at Pen Dinas in Ceredigion, and at many of the coastal promontory forts of Pembrokeshire indicate an importance for these locations at least two millennia before they became hillforts. Neolithic causewayed enclosures have been found underlying hillforts such as at Caerau, Cardiff, where one of the later gateways is aligned on the main eastern entrance of the Neolithic enclosure, which must therefore have been visible as an earthwork when Iron Age people began work there.
Bronze Age burial mounds and cairns were also frequently enclosed by later hillforts, to survive untouched among later roundhouses and ramparts, and thus clearly of continuing importance or reverence in Iron Age society. An upstanding barrow occupies a prominent position within Moel Fenlli, just south of the highest point in the Clwydian Range, Denbighshire, while mounds or stone burial cairns command the summits of Foel Trigarn in Pembrokeshire, Pen y Gaer at Llanbedr-y-Cennin in the Conwy Valley, Penycloddiau and Foel Fenlli in the Clwydian Range, Ysgyryd Fawr (the Skirrid hillfort) in Monmouthshire, and Caer y Tŵr on Holyhead Mountain.
Why did the late Bronze Age and earliest Iron Age communities begin enclosing these places of ancient ritual and burial? The beginning of the 1st millennium BC was a time of change in Wales, and Britain in general, to a cooler and wetter climate. It is likely that the resulting competition for resources, especially in upland regions, created the need for defence. The development and rapid spread of iron tools and weapons to all levels of society must have had a profound effect on the ways in which elite members of any community had been used to establishing their status through the ownership and display of elaborately ornamented bronze objects. It is no coincidence that the hoarding and deposition of bronze objects suddenly ends in south Wales around 600 BC – bronze had ceased to be regarded as a sufficiently special gift for the chthonic deities or to be a precious material that needed to be hidden from view and secured against possible theft until needed.
Perhaps it is in this context, of changing status values and new pressures on territorial ownership, that we can find the reasons for the rise of a new and highly visible type of monument. The place of conspicuous metalwork was subsumed by a new form of power: the ‘power of place’, to use a phrase made popular by the publication by English Heritage of a report on the future of the historic environment in 2000.
For, in order to build on a prominent hill that probably had considerable spiritual significance for the people of the region, you must have been recognised by the community as having the right to make such an intervention. You must have been acknowledged to be the effective owner of the hill, with the spiritual authority to convince everyone that the heavens and/or ancestors will smile upon your appropriation of an ‘iconic’ location. And you must have had the unquestioned power to be able to command the necessary resources in terms of people, time, and tools.
Community consent was surely vital. Viewed like this, it is clear that hillforts were a symbol of regional power, whether that power was vested in a high-status individual, an elite family, a social class, the community as a whole, or a combination of all four. But as well as representing power, they gave power. From the highest summits, such as the striking Breiddin hillfort, which rises 300m from the floor of the Severn Valley to the north-east of Welshpool, in Powys, one could survey 100km of the surrounding countryside on a clear day, including the lands of the Cornovii to the east.
The builders of these high forts acquired considerable knowledge of the surrounding landscape that could be difficult to gain at ground level: a ‘map of the known world’, as Toby terms it. From these high places, they could observe other settlements and hillforts; watch over travellers, trade routes, and approaching visitors; keep a watchful eye on fields and livestock; and be warned about approaching weather systems. Hillforts overlooking rivers and seas could also observe waterborne traffic. Pen Dinas, on the coast at Aberystwyth, looks across Cardigan Bay to the Llŷn Peninsula, 70km to the north-west, while several of the hillforts of south Wales take in views across the Severn Estuary to the lands of the Dumnonii in modern-day Devon and Cornwall.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 404. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.