Should Wessex hillforts be regarded as centres of political control?


During the period between the late Bronze Age and the late Iron Age (800BC-100BC) a series of large defended enclosures emerged. These are known as hillforts and are regarded today as the most visibly striking monuments from the Iron Age period in Britain. These structures are found all over Britain, however, the majority of which appear in Wessex in the counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Hillforts are settlements which contain a variety of fortifications of different sizes that broadly span the period from around 800 to 100 BC (Cunliffe, 2005, p.348). Over the last hundred years archaeologists have focused their attention on these prominent monuments of the landscape. There have been many excavations of hillforts especially in Wessex .Very few have been examined on a large enough scale (with the exception of Maiden Castle and Danebury) to enable their developing functions to be properly identified. The majority of excavated hillforts have mainly had their ramparts and gates sectioned but little else. Numerous excavations provide evidence of visible hut emplacements where the ground has remained undisturbed. This illustrates that almost all hillforts were inhabited (Hogg, 1975, p.34).


The purpose of these fortified structures has been debated over the last hundred years or so were they places of seasonal retreat? Were they centres of political control?

Background of Excavated Hillforts over the last Century

It was not until the late 19th C that archaeologists, such as Augustus Lane Fox (also known as Pitt Rivers) began to study hillforts. The interest of large scale excavations only began in the 20th C (Payne, 2006, p.2). Between 1907 and the 1940’s Maud Cunnington, Elliot Cecil Curwen and Christopher Hawkes investigated several hillforts in the Wessex area. Hawkes published the first major report of the excavations in the journal ‘Antiquity’ titled ‘Hillforts’. This brought together reports of various hillfort studies. Nevertheless, a chronological division of the Iron Age was still needed. This was first attempted by Hawke’s in his ‘ABC of the British Iron age’. His written work describes the various changes in the development of hillforts throughout Britain. Archaeologists used this information for the next thirty years (Payne, 2006, p.4). The theory he used was that the hillforts had undergone successive waves of invasion. This was based on the archaeological evidence of the change of the hillfort structures during the Iron Age. Hawkes theory was also elaborated by others such as Gordon Childe. The theory of invasion went out of fashion in the 1960’s and now there is no specific chronological order of the development of hillforts for the whole of Britain, yet some geographical areas of England do have a chronological order.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations of the interior of Maiden Castle in the late 1930’s were the first of its kind. Prior to this, archaeologists had focused on the ramparts. During the 1970’s a number of excavations took place in order to understand the interior of hillforts. These included South Cadbury in Somerset, Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire, and three sites in the Welsh Marches – Croft Ambrey, Credenhill and Midsummer Hill, and finally Balksbury, Winklebury and Danebury in Hampshire (Payne, 2006, p.5).

Danebury itself was undertaken over a period of 20 years by Barry Cunliffe and is now the most studied hillfort in Britain. A recent geophysical survey has revealed considerable information about the interior of hillforts. It has also now become clear that most hillforts in the southern area including Wessex were abandoned by 100BC. From looking at the background research, the following three sites are important examples of hillforts which have been extensively excavated and studied.

Maiden Castle

Maiden castle has been deliberated heavily throughout the past hundred years, but most famously by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and recently by Niall Sharples. It is situated just outside of Dorchester, Dorset and could well lay claim to be the largest hillfort in Western Europe. Occupation of the site of Maiden castle began as early as the Neolithic period when an enclosure was present. The existence of the hillfort we see today was not constructed until the 7th century BC and ended during the 1st C AD.

The construction of Maiden Castle was slightly later than other hillforts in Wessex, such as Chalbury and Poundbury. A large area of the Early Iron Age hillfort was excavated by Wheeler who discovered 27 pits, hearths and also postholes which were dated to the Early Iron Age (Sharples, 1991, p.79). Wheeler’s excavations in the 1930’s covered an area of the ramparts and a small part of the interior. In 1934 he excavated a rampart and a ditch. Wheeler (1937, p.273) states:

that around 200 BC the neglect of the ramparts betokens a period free from military anxiety where the population grew to such an extent as to require a city three times its original size.

This expansion in the 3rd C BC suggests that Maiden Castle became more important to the inhabitants. Evidence from excavation by Wheeler in the form of five houses, grain storage pits, an iron working industrial area and an extensive cemetery indicates that an increase of activity during this period. But why was there an increase in activity? It seems that during this period of social unrest, warfare was becoming an increasing problem. We see this furthermore at Danebury with the burning of the main gate. The construction of large defences around Maiden Castle and other hillforts in the Early Iron Age suggests a period of social unrest. Perhaps the inhabitants were fighting over control of land for farming or for access to areas of trade.

Following its initial construction Maiden Castle underwent a major change when in 450 BC the area enclosed by the defences increased dramatically. It is during this period that the developed hillfort emerges. A similar hillfort at Hambledon hill also enlarged and expanded twice during this period (Sharples, 1991, p.83). The interior of Maiden Castle contained several four post structures. These have been interpreted as granaries. Given the size of the hillfort, it would have taken many people to construct the defences. This means a large amount of food would have been needed indicating a great workforce.

Maiden Castle’s interior occupation can be divided into several phases. The first phase contained a gully, several post holes, pits and the possible remains of a house. During the second phase several structures, that are thought to be houses, were excavated along with the occurrence of postholes.. The successive phase consisted of a row of houses (some built with stone) and were all rebuilt at least once, meaning this area was inhabited for a considerable amount of time. The final phase occurred in the south west corner of the fort where many features including hearths, pits and post holes were uncovered, yet only a single house was identified. With the high density of finds and features, a large amount of activity must have taken place here, the most recent finds dating from the first C AD (Sharples, 1991, p.97).

These phases of occupation provide evidence of Maiden Castle’s use. It is clear that there was little suggestion of domestic inhabitation in the early period, other than the construction of the granaries which coincide with the erection of the defences. The domestic activity of the hillfort’s interior steadily increases with indication of small houses to support this. Lastly the final phase shows a breakdown of occupation with slight evidence of activity. So what was the purpose of Maiden castle? Wheeler and Sharples findings have given further support to the idea of a political centre. It derives from the remains of the houses and the industrial area which exposed iron working. The abundance of storage facilities indicates a large population, nevertheless we do not know if the inhabitants lived there continuously or seasonally.


Danebury was excavated for two decades by Barry Cunliffe and his team. They have provided ample evidence for hillforts and their potential use. Excavations began in 1969 and continued annually until 1988, in which the interior of the hillfort was excavated alongside the gates and ramparts (Cunliffe, 2003, p.7). The Royal Commission on Historic Monuments produced a survey of archaeological sites in the surrounding area to Danebury and it was following this survey that another project began. The purpose of the Danebury environs project was to select eight Iron Age sites around Danebury which would provide evidence necessary to create a picture of how people lived and worked in the Iron Age.

Danebury all feature plan

Image of Danebury showing the excavated areas of the interior and the gate (Cunliffe, 2004, p.356).

In the first stages of the excavation of Danebury sections were dug on the defences, main entrance, and the ramparts. The excavations then progressed on to the interior of the hillfort revealing pits which contained domestic products, animal bones and pottery .The concluding phase began in 1982 when large amounts of structures including houses and their occupation layers were discovered. A chronology of the hillfort was established with the large amount of data collected. It revealed that the hillfort was defended from the 6th C BC and continued till around 100 BC when occupation was more sporadic (Cunliffe, 2003, p.26).

It has been estimated that 4,500 storage pits (which were possibly used as storage silos) and 18,000 post holes were dug over the duration of the occupation of Danebury. One sound feature which may support the idea of hillforts being a political centre is a group of four rectangular features in the centre of Danebury which may have been a temple. The fact that the rectangular features are comparable to many Romano-British temples and the fact the one of the buildings was in use throughout the occupation of the site may prove this hypothesis (Cunliffe, 2003, p.104). Although the structural layout of the feature may support the theory of a temple, there have been no religious finds at the site. Nevertheless temples are rarely found in Britain during this period and points to Danebury being a site of importance. The size of the ramparts gives an indication that the settlement needed protection and there is evidence of burning here. The main gate was burned around 100BC-50BC and bodies were thrown into pits. Recent excavations at Fin Cop, in Derbyshire have uncovered evidence of a massacre with human remains being discovered in the rubble of the hillforts wall which has been dated to the Middle Iron Age. This suggests that warfare or at least violence in these hillforts was nothing new (Waddington, 2011, p.24.)

The hillfort of Danebury must have held some significance to the inhabitants and to outsiders. The evidence for interior structures such as the pits, houses and finds indicates a substantial population. The site must have been known to neighbouring tribes; the burning of one of the gates at Danebury indicates that Danebury was under attack for some reason.

The evidence gathered from the excavations of Danebury and its surrounding environs enabled Cunliffe to hypothesise a settlement model. The hypothesis is that the king and his craftsman would reside at the settlement drawing in products such as cereals and livestock, then redistributing them where ever is needed for, e.g. client chiefs.(Cunliffe,2003:166). However this model has been criticised by John Collis (1977, p.5) who questions this model saying that ‘Cunliffe and also Hogg’s failed to define the sites in which they are comparing or to ensure that they represent a contemporary system’

Cadbury Castle

Cadbury Castle a multi-vallate hillfort located in Somerset which has a long history dating from the late Bronze Age to the Saxon period. The hillfort was excavated by Alcock during 1966 – 1970 and also in 1973. Her excavations were concentrated on the enclosing earthworks, the south western gateway and the interior occupation (Barrett, 2000, p.3). The hillfort of Cadbury developed from a late Bronze Age settlement and evolved into an established defended settlement during the Iron Age. Following this a great growth of occupation arose in which many houses have been discovered. Trenches on the ramparts revealed that it was reconstructed several times, between the Early to Late Iron Age yet the interior had the most visible signs of occupation.

As in other hillforts such as Danebury and Maiden Castle many rock cut pits were discovered and were probably used for storing grain or for domestic refuse. Many of the pits contained pottery and animal bones. Within the interior the ubiquitous round houses were also discovered containing hearths and objects of domestic usage, the majority of which were built in the late Iron Age. The discovery of loom weights and Iron working suggests industrial work was being undertaken at Cadbury. There are also similarities with Danebury as there may also be evidence for a shrine according to Alcock (1975,p.153),’ a rectangular building (which is unusual in Britain at this time) surrounded by pits with skulls ‘. A religious shrine s has been discovered at Duxford near Cambridge. Excavations revealed a wooden temple structure surrounded by pits containing several ritual deposits (Denison, 2002)

Excavations at the south western gate revealed a large amount of bodies are thought to have been the remains of the inhabitants resisting an attack again comparable to Danebury.

This site is very similar to Danebury and Maiden Castle in terms of the buildings discovered. According to Alcock (1975, p.15):

All the weight of evidence at Cadbury, the large and permanent buildings the storage pits the practice of both domestic industries and more specialised crafts point to the permanent occupation of the late Iron Age town .


Even though there are hillforts situated all over Britain some of the most impressive and intensively studied hillforts appear to be in Wessex. The hillforts of Danebury, Cadbury and Maiden Castle while of varying sizes have clear similarities with each other. Primarily they all share similar structures; houses are found in each of these hillforts as well as storage pits and presumably grain stores. There is even suggestion of possible shrines at least in Danebury and Cadbury and a later temple at Maiden Castle which may suggest a continuation of religious practices from the Iron Age. The research also illustrates the significance of industrial work at all three hillforts.

Given the large amount of evidence provided by the buildings, domestic deposits, storage facilities and possible religious buildings, it seems plausible that these hillforts were places of political control. Whether or not this was on a seasonal basis is difficult to judge. Some Archaeologists such as Wheeler believed that the hillfort at Maiden Castle was an example of one of the earliest towns and may be seen as centres of political control. Also a hypothesis by Cunliffe seems to suggest that Danebury may have been home to the king and his family and craftsman. His view supports the idea of a political centre. Excavations at Cadbury provided Alcock with her knowledge of the domestic features the hillfort had. This allowed her to come to the conclusion that the evidence provided suggests a political centre. Hogg, another eminent archaeologist believes that the character of theses hillforts gives the impression that they were permanently inhabited (Hogg, 1975, p34). We must take each case on its own basis and hopefully further excavation will provide us with more answers.


Author:  Jeremy Hallatt




Alcock,L.1975.’By South Cadbury is that Camelot’: the excavation at Cadbury castle 1966-70. London : Book Club Associates.p15,119,153.

Barrett, C.J, Freeman, M.W.P and Woodward, A, 2000. Cadbury Castle the later prehistoric and early historic archaeology. London: English Heritage.p3.

Cunliffe,B.2003. Danebury Hillfort. Charleston:Tempus publishing Inc. p7,26,66,94,104

Cunliffe,B.,2004. Iron Age communities in Britain. 4th ed. Abingdon: Routledge.p348,356,534.

Collis,J.1977. The Iron Age in Britain: a review. Sheffield: University of Sheffield.p5

Denison, S. 2002. Rare Iron Age temple excavated near Cambridge.British Archaeology, Issue 66, Available from ( [Accessed 15th November 2011]

Hogg,A.H.A. 1975. Hill-Forts of Britain. London: Granada publishing limited.p34.

Payne, A., Corney,M. and Cunliffe,.B.,2006. The Wessex Hillforts Project: extensive survey of hillforts in central southern England. London:English Heritage.p2,4,5.

Sharples,N.,1991,.Maiden Castle. London: English Heritage.p14,72,79,81,83,90,97,117.

Waddington, C.,2011. Massacre at Fin Cop, Current Archaeology, Issue 255,p.24.

Wheeler,R.E.M.,1937,.The Excavation of Maiden Castle Dorset: Third interim report. No.XII. Oxford: University Press.p273,278.


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