May Talk: Glyn Barratt on Iron Age Hill Forts

Glyn Barratt’s scholarly and well-illustrated talk on “Iron Age Forts” attracted an audience of around sixty people. Glyn Barratt is Chair of the Titterstone Clee Heritage Trust; originally a surveyor for the Ordnance Survey, he retrained as an archaeologist and has accrued over 40 years’ experience in the field, both in the UK and overseas. With fine archaeological detail from Titterstone Clee, and wider reference to other parts of the UK, European sites and even Australian culture, his talk focussed mainly on Shropshire.

We learned that about 3,000 hill forts have been identified in the British Isles, with particularly dense clusters of them in the Marches and in South-West England. Whilst they are primarily associated with the Iron Age, which occupied the years from around 900 BC to the advent of the Romans in Britain, perhaps this is misleading: the new technologies of first Bronze, then Iron working overlapped with the use of worked stone for tools, and it is likely there was continuity in the defensive and other uses of the hill-tops. Incidentally, during the Iron Age other new technologies were significant too, such as the invention of the potters’ wheel and the introduction of new farming techniques. Modern research suggests that rather than Britain being introduced to new ways by successive waves of invading Celtic hordes from the continent, it is more likely that changes were indigenous and spread slowly, resulting primarily from trading.

Hill forts gradually became more complex too, starting from the system of banks and ditches known as cross-dykes which probably date from the end of the Neolithic period, right through the Oppida of Roman times. The complex systems with many banks and ditches and staggered entrances, archetypally what the label “hill fort” conjures up for many of us, such as Bury Ditches, were constructed probably from about 400 BC onwards. Their earlier predecessors from nearer the beginning of the Iron Age were univallate (i.e. with just the one ditch and bank) with simple entrances. It is likely most ramparts were surmounted by wooden palisades, though there are some with the remains of dry-stone walls.

Glyn Barratt took us on a virtual tour of the major hill forts of our area, occupied during the Iron Age by a tribe named the Cornovii. Ratlinghope on the Long Mynd, the Caer Din ring in Clun Forest, the Roveries at Bishops Castle, one below Brown Clee, the huge area on Titterstone Clee, Caer Caradoc at Chapel Lawn, The Burrow at Craven Arms, Bury Ditches, Old Oswestry, the British Camp on Malvern, the Berth at Baschurch, Bury Walls at Shawbury … to see ground and aerial photography of these sites showed both how much they have in common and how much they differ. Because of the designation “hill fort” it is easy to assume their prime purpose is always defensive, but Glyn Barratt explored possible different interpretations of these features. Some, where the remains of huts have been identified in their interiors, may have been primarily settlements, with defining and possibly defensive boundaries (though it should be noted many hill forts have no immediate access to fresh water); others, a last retreat where those under attack could gather to defend themselves. Apparently siege warfare was pretty much unknown and disputes were likely to have been speedily resolved by fights between individual champions, hence the lack of water would not have signified.

If we visit a hill fort we will be well aware of how far one can see from these places and the defensive merits of their situation. Equally, though, by the same token, they are visible in the landscape. There may have been an element of show-of-strength to deter potential land-grabbers from even trying. Furthermore, many are situated on geographically distinctive features which may have functioned as navigational aids. Some of these places, including Clee Hill, are possible sites of Neolithic flint mines, so may well have lain on major trade routes since ancient times. It is even credible that such places may have had a spiritual importance for our ancestors. In a teasing link with our talk of two months ago, Glyn Barratt wondered if this might be why Clee Hill was still deemed significant enough to be referenced on the Mappa Mundi.

The audience had many questions answered and other tantalising queries were raised. Many archaeological studies of our hill forts have focussed on the obvious ramparts, with perhaps less work done on what lies within their boundaries. This was a talk to stimulate the imagination as well as assess the evidence, but above all, perhaps, to challenge the assumptions we make about our hill forts.





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