There are 4,174 hillforts dotted all over the British Isles and Ireland, making them one of the most prolific and well known legacies of the Iron Age. These whopping great constructions started to appear around 1,000 BC and remained in use well beyond the Roman conquest. For the first time, each and every one of them has been united in an online atlas that lets you look up the one that’s nearest to you, and find out its basic details.
Usually formed of huge earthen banks and ditches, hillforts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ovoid, some are rectilinear, some have single ramparts (known as univallate hillforts) and some have many (known as multivallate). Some are interpreted as being defensive, some for settlement, some for storing grain and others simply for showing off. But if there’s one thing they have in common, it’s that they’re all ontop of hills, right?
Wrong. While the most famous ones (like Ingleborough, Castle Bank and Old Oswestry) are indeed poised on hilltops, there is in fact a surprising richness of lowland hillforts; it’s just that compared to their more elevated counterparts they tend to get overlooked. And yet these lowland hillforts have so much to tell us.
The name ‘hillfort’ is in fact something of a misnomer; a hangover from the old days when archaeology was dominated by militaristic thinking. There are plenty of low-lying hillforts around, especially in eastern England, and in other lowland and wetland locations. Some of these have been dubbed ‘marsh forts’, owing to the strategic positions they seem to occupy in controlling access to and from rivers, creeks and wetlands. However, compared to their more dramatic hilltop counterparts, research is only really just beginning.
Open up the atlas, and search for a hillfort called ‘The Toot’. Not only is it listed on the Atlas as an ‘unusual’ and ‘possible marsh fort of uncertain date and origin’, it’s the very hillfort we’re digging in an attempt to figure out how old it is, who built it and why (all the latest updates from the excavation are available on the Dig Timeline).
Officially called Oldbury Camp, The Toot occupies a strategic, but low-lying prominence on the banks of the River Severn, just 200m south of Oldbury Pill (pill is the local name for creek).
Today, its outer bank stands up to 1.5m tall in places, and its inner bank up to a whopping 1.9m. Meanwhile, the southern half of the site is fronted by a huge earthwork platform about 150m x 75m in size. It’s possible that this platform was once some sort of wharf, although it might also be the result of later agricultural activity levelling the rampart in this area.
Oldbury Camp is the perfect example of a hillfort that doesn’t fit the traditional mould. It’s one of several that are perhipheral to the major group that the Cotswolds are so famous for. And that’s what makes it so important; Oldbury Camp’s lowland setting, well-preserved ramparts and unusual character all mean it’s (literally) in a position to help us understand the phenomenon of these huge earthen enclosures in completely new ways.
Hillforts come in all shapes and sizes and, as it turns out, not all of them were built on hills. It is only by investigating sites like Oldbury Camp, and their more varied locations, that we will truly begin to understand the phenomenon of these monumental Iron Age enclosures. Hopefully, the Atlas of Hillforts will spur on our collective understanding.
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