How To… Tell The Difference Between A Hill And A Hillfort

CdC Chavella Hillfort Cork Tree

This isn’t just any hill, this is an Iron Age hillfort

So you’re standing on top of a hill admiring the view. Yes, the view is very beautiful, but are you missing out on something even more spectacular? We asked Carlos Otero (who will be leading our crowdfunded dig at Coast of the Hillforts) how to tell whether that hill you’re standing on is actually an Iron Age hillfort…

As the Bronze Age drew to a close and life moved into the Iron Age, people in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland started building huge structures on the tops of hills, but they weren’t alone. People in France, Spain and Portugal were doing it too, and so were people across huge swathes of Europe.

Regardless of which country it’s in, a hillfort, castro, citania or oppida, is a settlement (usually in an elevated position) that has been enclosed by huge banks of earth, ditches or parapets, or even a combination of all three. One of the things we get asked most often when talking about excavating hillforts is “how can you tell this was a hillfort?”

In many cases, people modified the hilltop to such an extent that thousands of years later, they’re still visible as long grassy banks, flattened terraces and rolling undulations that might look natural to the untrained eye, but really aren’t.

If you suspect the hill you’re standing on might actually be a hillfort, these tips could help you find out if that is actually the case.

1. Check out local myths and legends

Costa dos Castros beer festival 3

Costa dos Castros beer festival is a chance to retell old stories and legends.

Hillforts were made to stand out in the landscape, and many of them still do even thousands of years after being abandoned. Such big features don’t go unnoticed by the people living nearby. At Coast of the Hillforts in Galicia, for example, stories have built up over the years as communities created their own explanations for these alien features, and tales of the ‘mouros’ (a supernatural society of magical beings that lived in the castros and other prehistoric sites) are common. If you hear a legend like this, stay alert; it could be a clue to the whereabouts of a real hillfort!

2. Is there a clue in the place name?

CdC Cano dos Mouros

The age-old name of this hillfort means ‘tunnel of the mouros’.

Hillforts not only leave a physical imprint in the landscape, they also give rise to place names as rural communities often needed to name the features on their landscape very precisely in order for people to find their way around. Studying these names is called toponymy, and in Galicia, places names often include variants on the word ‘castro’ (hillfort), like O Castriño (‘the little castro’), O Castrillón (‘the big castro’), or even ‘mouros’, like Mouradela or Cano dos Mouros (‘tunnel of the mouros’).

3. Are there flat bits, lumps, bumps and long undulations?

CdC Chavella Bank

The ground is suspiciously flat, and that grassy bank… well that’s not natural! It would once have stood over 6ft high.

Hillforts were essentially enormous landscaping projects. As well as building huge banks, people used rubble to create wide, open terraces. Hillforts were also often multistorey, with roundhouses on lower terraces, and an ‘apostole’ at the top. Even if the ramparts might now be just a few feet high and covered with grass, they would once have stood as tall as you or me, and any related lumps and bumps may well be bits of collapsed wall.

5. Can you confirm it with a bird’s eye view?

Chavella LIDAR 600x390

A LIDAR scan of Chavella Hillfort reveals an apostole, and at least two terraces.

Even if the hill is now overgrown with bushes, archaeologists can use LIDAR, which uses a laser light that eliminates all vegetation (only in the image, don’t worry) to build up a more accurate picture. Failing that, archives of aerial photographs and even satellite imagery can help you see additional features that aren’t always visible from the ground.

4. Is there a… cork tree?

CdC Carlos Cork Tree

Which of these hills is a hillfort? In this case, the cork tree gives it away!

Hillfort construction often led to deforestation, but at Costa dos Castros there is (by happy coincidence) a small cork tree growing ontop of the walls at Cano dos Mouros, A Cabeciña and Chavella hillforts. We don’t recommend using this method of identification elsewhere, but if you’re ever at Costa dos Castros, it could be a clue that the hill you’re standing on is one of our hillforts!

6. Excavate!

CdC Cabeciña 2015 excavating

Clearing away rubble and fallen walls… what will we find below?

Of course, there is only one real way to tell for sure if a hill is actually hillfort, and that’s for archaeologists to ‘groundtruth’ it. We’re crowdfunding an excavation at Costa dos Castros to find out more about when these hillforts were built, and how they evolved over time. Support the project, and you’ll get to learn more about hillforts, all while contributing to important archaeological research. Read our next blog for examples of what you could help us find.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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