What were bronze age hillforts, like Earnsheugh, used for?

Why would someone want to live in a Bronze Age hillfort?


The high point in these images is a ‘hillfort’ 150m above the North Sea and with nothing but water and ice between this point and the north pole. The name ‘hill-fort’ suggests a fort on a hill. Archaeologists have never been happy with this term but are unable to think of anything better. Hillforts were made about 2500 years ago, in many parts of NW Europe, and there is no firm evidence concerning their use. Some hillforts are thought to have been military, some residential (many contain hut circles), some religious. The hillfort at Earnsheugh in Berwickshire, in the above photographs, would seem a very odd choice for a residential site, even if for a tribe which enjoyed seaviews as much as I do. It also seems an odd choice for a military site, because it would be so easy to starve out the occupants. So what were hillforts used for? An archaeological dig at Fin Cop in the Peak District has been in the news this week with interpretations of why the skeletons of women and children, only, have been found. http://www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com/projects/fincop.html http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/Mass-grave-holds-evidence-horrific-massacre-Iron-Age/article-3461045-detail/article.html Some newspapers have suggested they were sacrificial sites. Heaven knows. The unusual semi-circular form of the Earnsheugh hillfort may result from 2400 years of erosion. Vitruvius’ account of the aims of construction was: Commodity, Firmness and Delight. Which of these qualities, if any, does Earnsheugh have? It is a great place fort a walk, if you do not suffer from vertigo, but why would anyone want protection from the landward side when visiting the place? Is it an example of ‘landscape architecture’?

7 thoughts on “What were bronze age hillforts, like Earnsheugh, used for?

  1. Christine

    I suppose if the construction served military purposes the qualities of commodity, firmness and delight would have to be viewed in this context.

    Did they fulfill the function for which they were designed? Were they structurally adequate? What was their aesthetic relationship to their socio-cultural and landscape context?

    As for the definition of ‘landscape architecture’? I guess you would have to consider what that might be…[ http://www.jdtours.com/img/jordan_petra.jpg ].

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  2. Tom Turner Post author

    The Wiki article on hillforts is more confident that the archaeology books about hillforts having been for defense: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillfort and gives Sea Cliff forts as a type which is common (eg in Ireland) Daw’s Castle, Dinas Dinlle, Dún Aengus, adding that ‘Some forts were also settlements, while others were only occupied seasonally, or in times of strife’. I spent some time walking around Earnsheugh this week and cannot see how it can have had a useful military role. Nor can it have had ‘commodity’ in the sense of a comfortable place to live! This makes me think the symbolic role (‘delight’) is plausible.

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  3. Robert Webber

    Perhaps their roles were as various as those of gardens are today?
    Have seen lots of these in Pembrokeshire and until I read a few years ago of erosion I had supposed that the sea is the wall u don’t have to build in one of these u shaped defences.
    Could they have been protective for the defenceless while the rest of the occupants harried the attackers from behind? Did the women and kids, when battle was lost then take their own lives rather than be tortured or enslaved? Who knows! But these structures offer us clues to a whole age and it is where you can movingly feel the strong links to your past. Design wise the earthworks are bang on trend!
    Thanks for raising an interesting subject!
    Best
    R

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  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Good ideas, thank you. Archaeologists often seem to base their evidence on such slender evidence that I thinking that landscape architects could make a useful contribution to the subject by studying the siting of henges, stone circles, hillforts etc and trying to work out what they could have been used for. The first stage in doing this would be a study of the climatic history of the area. If Earnsheugh had a balmy climate the siting of the forts would make more sense,

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  5. Christine

    Given that there were over 1,000 hill forts in the UK it is surprising that more is not known about them. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hill_forts_in_England ]

    I wonder what was the significant change that occurred in the 2nd century BC that caused a trend for them to fall out of use?

    The Roman conquest of Britain did not begin until 43AD. [ http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/classics/modules/introhist/essays/the_supposed_roman_manpower_shortage_of_the_later_second_century_b.c..pdf ]

    If the Celts arrived in Briton in around 517BC and the hill forts fell into disuse some 300 years later, perhaps the Celts had completed the conquest of the existing inhabitants? Perhaps the Picts? [ http://genealogical-gleanings.com/Britons.htm ]

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  6. Tom Turner Post author

    One problem is that the word ‘fort’ implies an exclusively military use (ie a place occupied by soldiers, on the Roman model) whereas hillforts were often settlements and were often cattle kraals. It may have been the Roman system of building fortified settlemnts, like walled towns, which made the hillforts obsolete.
    Regarding the Celts, it is now thought their ‘conquest’ was cultural rather than genetic (like the European ‘conquest’ of Japan in the early twentieth century). The Roman ‘conquest’ is also likely to have been more cultural then genetic (because they used local people to administer Britain).

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  7. Christine

    I suppose this is the intellectual province of both the archaeologist and given the distinction you have made been genes and culture, the anthropologist (ethnoarchaeologists)?

    If the above suppositions are correct, then the Celts origins predate the Classical period in Greco-Roman culture (500-300 BC). They are said to have connections with Troy, located in modern day Turkey. They would have been associated with the city somewhere between Troy VIII and Troy IX.[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy ]

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