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A Brief Introduction to Iron Age Settlement in Wales

Matt Ritchie

Cite this as: Ritchie, M. 2018 A Brief Introduction to Iron Age Settlement in Wales, Internet Archaeology 48. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.48.2

1. Introduction

The encircling stone walls and imposing earthen ramparts of the great hillforts of Wales are testament to a period of great social and cultural change — changes in climate, in technology, in settlement patterns and in social organisation. This was a gradual process, taking place over the whole of the first millennium BC and only latterly beginning to accelerate. The hillforts of Wales are our most visible legacy of this period of change, a millennium with almost imperceptible roots in the Bronze Age and concluding or transforming with the arrival of the Imperial Roman Legions.

Figure 1: Distribution of all hillforts and defended settlements in Wales
Figure 1: Distribution of all hillforts and defended settlements in Wales

The Iron Age roughly spans the centuries between c. 800 BC and the beginning of the Roman conquest of Wales in AD 74. It is distinguished by the impressive numbers of surviving hillforts and settlements present in the archaeological record (Figure 1). However, archaeological excavations have been few and far between and the material culture for the Iron Age in Wales is correspondingly sparse. What there is, largely recovered from deliberately deposited hoards, is exotic and unusual rather than domestic and every day. Swords, spearheads and fine metalwork created in geographically widespread typological and artistic styles testify to broad cultural contacts and the presence of a warrior elite. However, the pottery or tools that could inform us of local society and the organisation of domestic life are usually lacking. Of course, everyday working tools in iron must have been regularly recycled — and the metal does not survive well in the ground, prejudicing its later archaeological recovery.

So to understand the Iron Age in Wales, we must largely look to analogies and comparisons drawn from elsewhere, and to the evidence that our well-preserved and extensive Iron Age settlement provides. But it is this settlement evidence — particularly the hillforts described in this volume — that allow us to experience the Iron Age in Wales. Climbing our well-known hillforts, such as Pen y Crug near Brecon, or Tre'r Ceiri on the Lleyn peninsula, and seeking out those forts less well-trodden, such as Castle Bank in Radnorshire (Figure 2), brings us closer to their builders. Dominating the landscape, controlling key routes, or standing proud on windswept promontories, the stone walls and earthen ramparts of these forts bear mute testament to a clear demonstration of power and prestige. Set alongside the enduring Celtic mythology of Wales, our many and varied hillforts contribute a firm rooting in place — a window onto the Iron Age, born of sculpted landforms, dramatic views and a ready imagination.

Figure 2:
Figure 2: Castle Bank. A well-preserved Iron Age hillfort, commanding a north-south ridge in hills to the east of the Wye Valley (Image: Matt Ritchie)

2. The chronological context

The transition from Later Bronze Age to Iron Age was gradual, taking place between c. 1200 BC and c. 800 BC. The primary evidence — the hillforts and settlements — are not all contemporary with each other and many will have experienced several episodes of construction or improvement and neglect or abandonment. Indeed, while the majority of hillforts in Wales date to the Iron Age, some have earlier origins in the late Bronze Age (such as the excavated hillfort at the Breiddin, Montgomeryshire). The development of the distinctive features of the Iron Age began in the later Bronze Age and continued to develop during (and should be considered in conjunction with) the Roman occupation of Britain. Thus the Iron Age should perhaps be considered in two parts: the earlier Iron Age in relation to the preceding second millennium BC in Britain; and the later Iron Age in relation to the influence of the Roman world, both in terms of Mediterranean developments affecting northern Europe and, latterly, Roman conquest and occupation.

In contrast to the relatively open settlement of the Bronze Age, an increasing preoccupation with defence during the Iron Age may be explained by reference to a marked deterioration in the British climate that began around 1250 BC and reached its coolest and wettest around 650 BC. The cooler summers and increased rainfall will have driven communities from the upland areas and the poorer-draining lowlands that had previously supported agriculture. The combination of pressure upon the better-drained and fertile lowlands and competition over resources must have increased tension and conflict, leading to a necessary emphasis upon defence and clear statements of land ownership and tribal belonging.

The earliest hillforts in Wales usually comprised simple palisaded enclosures. However, it is thought that the increased territorial competition caused by gradual climatic deterioration led to a sustained period of hillfort-building throughout southern Britain during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Outside northern Britain, hillforts are concentrated in a broad band that stretches from north Wales, through the Welsh Marches and the Cotswolds, to the chalk downs of Wessex and Sussex. The evidence in Wales points to a great number of relatively modest hillforts being built, most of which were subsequently enlarged and developed during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. In general, it is believed that the larger hillfort defences belong to the later Iron Age (from around the 4th century BC onwards).

As the Iron Age progressed it is clear that the tribal society of Britain developed and consolidated. Pottery typologies can be identified across lowland Britain, indicating many regional differences and traditions. Unfortunately, pottery is rare in the excavation records from earlier Iron Age contexts in Wales.

By the late Iron Age tribal society in Britain was varied and complex. Influenced by developments and events across the channel, by the later 1st century BC most areas of lowland southern Britain were striking gold and silver coinage, confirming tribal identity and centralised control. Similar evidence includes the increase in high-status Roman imports and larger, more complex settlement sites (known as oppida). All indicate a greater centralisation of wealth and political power in lowland southern Britain. Cross-channel trade is visible, with large quantities of Mediterranean wine amphorae being found in southern Britain, while distinct cultural transfer is visible in phenomena such as the prestigious chariot burials of north-east England. These chariot burials resemble similar burials in northern Europe, found in Champagne, the Ardennes and the Middle Rhine, although with distinctive insular variations. The defined inhumation cemeteries of Brittany, the Channel Islands and south-west Britain provide a similar example of cross-channel links.

In contrast to the developing centralised tribal groupings of southern Britain, it is likely that decentralised or localised social systems persisted in the north and west — the intensity of change is much less apparent in these areas. Indeed, the archaeological record of the late Iron Age in Wales predominantly comprises the settlements of small farming communities. Although there is evidence of local warrior aristocracies (the survival of high-status artefacts such as decorated weaponry, jewellery and feasting equipment for example) and evidence of regional exchange (in goods such as pottery), the majority of the population were farmers and herdsmen, practising a successful mixed subsistence economy. Cattle and sheep were the main livestock species, while pigs, dogs, small horses and domestic fowl were also kept. Barley and wheat were grown, alongside other plant crops such as beans, peas and flax. Transhumance, or grazing the higher pastures during summer, may have been practised. The agricultural surplus was likely surrendered to the local warrior aristocracy, with the control, storage and redistribution of this surplus helping to reinforce their dominant position, and hillforts are thought to be central to this system.

Roman historians and writers name four main Iron Age tribes in Wales. The northern marches were home to the Deceangli; much of north Wales was held by the Ordovices; the south-west was home to the Demetae; and Glamorgan and Gwent formed the territory of the Silures. However, these large regional groups are only the vestiges of the original tribal geography of Wales. Roman authors record two smaller tribes on the Western peninsulas, the Octapitae and the Gangani — and the settlement evidence also indicates a much more complex situation. The greater number and size of hillforts in the eastern Marches implies a much higher population density and more organised and stratified society, while the smaller individual defended enclosures of the western coastal regions perhaps implies a much more fragmented society without obvious symbols of aristocratic control. However, the traditional archaeological means of identifying tribal or ethnic identities is the study of typologies within material culture — often the distribution of pottery types. This has proved difficult given the sparse material culture present in the archaeological record for Iron Age Wales.

3. Settlement Types

A wide variety of Iron Age settlements can be found in Wales, differing in terms of size, construction techniques, landscape situation and function. Most of the visible earthwork and drystone evidence can be found in the uplands, or in unimproved areas of farmland (such as coastal heathland), but evidence also survives for sites in lowland areas and river valleys, the buried archaeology visible as cropmarks and soilmarks on aerial photographs. The settlement evidence reflects Wales' geographical position: looking eastwards from the Marches, an area dominated by hillforts, into the rich lowland open settlements of southern Britain; and looking towards the Atlantic coast, an area predominantly occupied by small defended homesteads.

3.1 Iron Age hillforts and promontory forts

Some hillforts were simply defensive strongholds, while others developed roles involving the storage and redistribution of surplus agricultural production. Some may have only seen seasonal or occasional occupation, although the later Iron Age hillforts began to develop as significant settlements — the impressive fortification at Tre'r Ceiri on the Lleyn peninsula is one such example, containing the stone foundations of over 150 roundhouses.

Hillforts with only one rampart are described as univallate, while those with two or more ramparts are described as multivallate. Most multivallate hillforts had several phases of construction and maintenance, with particular emphasis placed on impressive and complex entrances. Promontory forts have defences that cut off the neck of a headland and can be found both on coastal cliffs and inland, situated between two converging stream valleys.

Defences varied widely in their construction methods, including massive earthen dump (or glacis) ramparts, stone or timber reveted earthworks, timber-laced earthworks and drystone rubble walls. The former was a relatively late style of defence in which the massive earthen rampart was given a sloping outer face continuous with the slope of the inner face of its deep outer ditch. This produced an impressive and effective barrier that required very little maintenance. Such ramparts often remain steep to this day, over two thousand years later. Entrances varied, sometimes boasting additional defences such as in-turned corridors or complex external approaches. All would usually possess a timber palisade and gateway. Many hillforts show evidence of intensive occupation — the hillfort interiors contained roundhouses, grain storage pits, rubbish pits and other auxiliary structures such as four-post structures. However, the multiple house platforms and ring ditches that are often visible today were usually not all contemporary in construction and use.

Although often still impressive, we must remember that the hillforts that survive in Wales are ruins — the summits and slopes that are cut by ditches and girdled by ramparts no longer display the sophistication of the original timber and stone fortifications. Neither is the effort that must have gone into construction immediately apparent — effort by a large community working with common purpose and direction. More than any other prehistoric monument, the hillfort truly is a symbol of power — and its message is as much about status, possession and control as it is defence.

Hillforts would have had monumental or symbolic functions, roles suggested by the effort often expended upon their entrances. Even quite small hillforts may have boasted gateway passages lined with massive timbers, overlooked by high towers and flanked by guard chambers. Archaeological evidence also indicates that ritual activities and social gatherings such as feasts or seasonal occasions may have been important functions of a hillfort. They are also thought to have been the focus for the storage and redistribution of any agricultural surplus. There is some evidence that they may not have been occupied on a permanent basis — perhaps used as seasonal meeting places similar to medieval fairs. These communal roles must have reinforced both tribal identity and the authority of the dominant warrior aristocracy. However, defence remained a primary function of the hillforts, as archaeological evidence has been recovered indicating both destruction (the burning of timber-laced ramparts) and defence (the caching of sling-stones ready for use).

3.2 Iron Age small defended enclosures

The Atlantic coast of Europe is dominated by a rather different settlement pattern: that of the small defended enclosure. All would appear to be variations on a simple theme and, although very little is known about Iron Age settlement in Ireland, stretch from the northern isles of Scotland down to Galicia and northern Portugal. The impressive brochs (the pinnacle of a building type known as the complex round house), fortified duns and island crannogs of Scotland and the courtyard houses of Cornwall form part of the same settlement tradition as the small defended homesteads of Wales. Excavated examples in Wales include Woodside and Dan Y Coed (both in Pembrokeshire). Such homesteads defended the occupants — but also their resources, as the four-post structures found within them may have been raised-floor granaries which would have provided secure storage. A similar outcome was achieved by building underground stone-lined cellars known as souterrains or fogous and associated with an above-ground settlement. These have been found in Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. However, the simple theme — control over individual units of agricultural land and the protection of its products — may not indicate an Atlantic coast that was linked by much more than common necessity and response.

The smaller defended enclosures that can be found in Wales most likely represent individual farmsteads. They would often have contained circular timber roundhouses, working hollows and two- and four-post settings (indicating anything from drying racks to raised-floor granaries). The roundhouses were roofed with conical thatch and there were various methods of wall construction, including wattle-and-daub, turf and drystone types. Often, however, all that remains (bar buried archaeological deposits) is a circular drainage ditch or circular house platform.

The enclosures differ greatly terms of size and shape, from small single palisaded, embanked or walled enclosures (which can be round, oval or rectangular in plan) to larger multiple embanked enclosures, defined by concentric rings and elongated and embanked funnel-like approaches (which have been interpreted as an aid to the control and movement of cattle). These multiple-banked enclosures often have very slight outer banks and ditches and can usually be found on sloping ground in upland areas. Many of these small defended farmsteads were designed as much to safeguard the valuable stock animals from rustling as to protect the inhabitants.

In parts of Wales, particularly Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd, the density of Iron Age defended farmsteads and hut groups approaches that of present-day farms in the landscape. However, some of the small defended enclosures would seem to have stronger defences than others — and it may be that there is a form of social stratification visible within them, some being the residences of local elites. Woodside, Dan y Coed and Whitton (in Glamorgan) have all been suggested as high-status farmsteads.

3.3 Iron Age hut groups and field systems

Open settlement is characteristic of the lowlands of eastern England — evidence of timber roundhouses, two- and four-post structures and storage pits are visible as cropmarks and soilmarks across the region. Well-preserved examples of unenclosed Iron Age hut circles, hut groups and field systems abound on unimproved heathland and hillslopes in north-west and south-west Wales and on some of the Pembrokeshire islands. These small undefended farmsteads have survived over the millennia as a result of their building material — stone — and as a result of the abandonment of the upland landscape to pastoral agriculture or heath. Many more must have occupied the lowlands of Wales, the evidence of their timber construction largely erased by continuous agriculture and land use. The length of occupation of a roundhouse may not have been great, with those on the fertile lowlands being rebuilt on or near the original site; and those on the upland slopes and terraces perhaps being abandoned and the settlement relocated when the soil had been exhausted.

Associated field systems sometimes survive, comprising small irregular fields defined by low earth and stone banks or tumbled walls and lynchets. Small clearance cairns are often contained within them. These field systems may have their origins in the Bronze Age; certainly, the open village-sized settlements of lowland eastern England do not appear to have associated fixed boundaries and they have been compared to the 'wandering settlements' of the same date in northern Europe.

The geographical position of Wales influenced the nature of its Iron Age settlement. The Marches, dominated by large hillforts, shared a tribal culture with the Cotswolds and the chalk downs of Wessex and Sussex. The coastal regions, isolated from the mainland by the Cambrian mountains, were predominantly occupied by small defended homesteads. However, the picture is not so clear cut as the isolation was not complete. Significant multivallate hillforts are located on the coasts of Wales (such as Pen Dinas in Ceredigion and Moel Trigarn in Pembrokeshire), while small defended enclosures with evidence of four-post structures, often interpreted as granaries, are found inland (such as Collfryn in Montgomeryshire). Alongside the outstanding evidence of Romano-British rural and civic settlement in south eastern Wales and compared to the relatively homogeneous settlement records of other areas of Britain, the well-preserved and varied Iron Age settlement record of Wales is not only rewarding to visit but of enormous archaeological potential.

4. The Defended Enclosures Survey project

The Defended Enclosures Survey Project was set up to investigate the Iron Age settlement record of Wales, part of a series of pan-Wales condition surveys to be carried out by the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts with grant aid from Cadw. Archaeologists visited hundreds of sites, including many settlements known only from documentary references or as cropmarks on aerial photographs. As a direct result of the Defended Enclosures Project, many new sites have been designated as monuments of national importance. The project has also drawn attention to the variety of prehistoric settlement sites in Wales, and associated excavations and geophysical surveys have all helped to enhance our understanding of them.

The investigation and conservation of the historic environment not only protects a valuable and fragile resource but also helps to ensure a more diverse and attractive landscape. Ancient monuments and archaeological features, once damaged or destroyed, can never be replaced nor properly understood — and important elements of our history and inheritance are lost. Large earthworks such as Iron Age hillforts are major features within the wider landscape, and important and powerful aspects of local community identity and pride of place. An understanding and appreciation of both the wider historic environment and distinct themes such as Iron Age settlement are essential if we are to protect the achievements of our ancestors for the benefit of future generations.


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