Providing invaluable defensive strongholds, hill forts were a common feature of Bronze and Iron Age Europe.
Hill forts were raised defended settlements, often built on cliff tops or large knolls and spurs, that provided trading centres and secure enclosed habitats for people during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Their construction came to a peak in Britain during the last 500 years BC, where numerous improvements were made to their defensive structures – such as extra lines of earthworks, stockades and defensive walls – due to the multiple invasions the country was subjected to that culminated in the Roman occupation from AD 43 onwards.
Many hill forts have their origin in the Neolithic period and were originally not used as centres of trade and dwelling but instead to pen and protect agricultural animals, which were an invaluable source of both food and drink to the people. During the Bronze Age hill forts evolved to include roundhouses, longhouses and granary huts, as well as underground souterrains and fogous (underground cave structures used for food storage and preservation), before becoming more military focused through the Iron Age with guarded entrances, guard houses and ramparts integrated into them.
Indeed, the main structure that characterizes most hill forts is its ramparts. These large man-made mounds of rock, wood, earth and dead animals, served as valuable fortifications against any attacking forces and created a series of ridged circular ditched rings that proved difficult to circumvent.
These fortifications were hardly impregnable however, and a number of invading forces – such as the Belgic invasions of Britain in the 1st Century BC – took many of them under sustained pressure and either inhabited them themselves, or burnt and sacked them. Instead, the native Britains and Europeans relied on the natural positioning of the fort to repel invaders.
The largest and most complex of all Iron Age hill forts in Britain is Maiden Castle, located in Dorchester, Dorset. This large raised hill fort was first laid out back in 600 BC over the remains of an earlier Neolithic settlement. Its multiple rampart enclosure is larger than the area of 50 football pitches and at its peak this colossal fort housed over 700 people.
Hill Forts facts
Widespread – There are the remains of over 2,000 Iron Age hill forts in Britain today.
Defensive – Alfred the Great built a series of hill forts along the coastal hills of Wessex to guard against Viking attack.
Habitable – The hill fort of Old Sarum was lived in up till the 19th Century.
Heritage – Maiden castle, an Iron Age hill fort once occupied by the Celtic Durotriges tribe, is now protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.