1. Remit

As one of the most numerous and prominent forms of monument surviving from prehistory, many of them obvious in the landscape, hillforts have been targets for antiquarian and archaeological inquiry for well over a century. Throughout that period, excavation and surface survey have come to be regarded as standard means of investigation in the field — by now, it might be said they are the conventional, even the traditional, means, making them pivotal to much that we claim to know and understand about hillforts. Of course, the more penetrating, and potentially the more informative, agency should be excavation, but it can also be detrimental, not only in the obvious physical sense of removing portions of a monument, and irreparably so for archaeological purposes, but also through inappropriate methodology and technique, which can generate misleading results. In reality, the term 'excavation' has come to cover a multitude of strategies and procedures, not all variations having equal scope for deciphering, nor even revealing, the archaeological evidence stored in the ground. Excavations on hillforts have ranged from brief and desultory delving into some specific and superficially evident feature, which will generally achieve little of lasting worth, to systematic and sensitive dissection of extensive areas. The latter can take months, even years, to accomplish and, where survival of relevant deposits is sufficiently good, it is capable of furnishing a detailed structural sequence which, with luck (indeed, a lot of luck in many parts of Wales), may be linked into a tolerably accurate chronology. Topographic survey is not only an essential complement to competent excavation but can also be a meaningful research tool in its own right, underpinning any understanding of the skills in castrametation displayed by hillfort-builders, fundamental to any appreciation of the great variety in form seen among these impressive and often complex monuments, and facilitating wide-ranging comparisons. Again, not all such surveys can be regarded as equal in standing or value, those that seem thoughtfully sympathetic to their subject being outnumbered by those which, when their output is viewed in the field, appear insensitive to nuances of topography, either of the earthworks forming the hillfort or, especially, of the shape of the underlying land.

Everything said here so far will, or should, be commonplace to those who have applied sufficient scepticism to the study of hillforts, whether it be through assessing the writings and drawings of others or through site visits, there witnessing excavations in progress or comparing published surveys with the actuality on the ground. However, truisms for some can be pitfalls for others, and this makes it fitting that, from time to time, various aspects of the results arising from these two different approaches should be appraised critically, for only thus can the benefit of hindsight be brought to bear, sometimes disclosing what seem to have become obvious deficiencies. By elucidating general points with instances taken from hillforts in Wales (accompanied by a selection of illustrations, and many others would have been equally apposite), it is possible to draw attention to a range of issues of wider relevance, and, by extrapolation, these examples should be enough to make any of us question at least some of what we think we know of hillforts. If parts of the following commentary seem too strident to some readers, then it ought to be explained that it is this sceptic's hope, through a blunt airing of some apparent shortcomings, to highlight the need for a more realistic attitude to handling the results of old fieldwork. The main aspiration is to ensure that such frailties as may be identified here, and more particularly their repercussions, should not remain unchallenged, absorbed in the literature and accepted merely because written down, constituting received doctrine that will serve solely to delude the unwary.

It deserves emphasis that my choice of cases is certainly not the only one that might be used to deliver much the same set of messages, whether sought among hillforts within Wales, in the continuum of their distribution throughout the Marches, or in some quite separate region of Britain. It should be stressed too that this essay carries no pretence of presenting a full and balanced review even of issues stemming from historical excavation and survey of hillforts and related settlements in Wales. In no small measure, this is due to my self-imposed remit of dealing largely with elementary structural and stratigraphical matters, if only because this gives voice to personal interests and views, whereas it is freely acknowledged that other historical facets, barely touched here, are also of crucial significance and may well be in equal need of critical assessment. What is more, other ways of investigating individual hillforts have lately been deployed with increasing frequency both in the field (especially various kinds of remote, so non-destructive, survey) and in the laboratory (particularly analysis of samples collected during excavation for stratified environmental data and/or for the application of scientifically based methods of dating), routine use of each of which has mostly post-dated my effective cut-off at about 1970, so that they too will receive relatively little mention in what follows.


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