3. Topographic Survey

3.1 Logic and legacy

If excavations of historical character can be traced through at least to the 1960s and are not unknown even to the present day, then how much more is it true that, as yet, most hillforts are furnished solely with surface surveys rooted in 'historical' mode. Anybody who has spent time inspecting an assortment of Welsh hillforts on the ground, armed with the best of the readily available plans plus a sufficiently critical mindset, cannot fail to be aware of negative as well as positive qualities in many of those plans, and this applies not just to the surface form of the anthropogenic features of the monument but also, perhaps above all, to depiction of the underlying natural topography, which is often woefully deficient. If conventional plans are to continue to figure in the study of hillforts as a matter of routine (though in some cases it is reasonable to suppose that, in course of time, this sort of record will be overtaken by other forms made possible by technological advances), it is arguable that one vital hallmark for the way ahead should be the recording of greater detail, of both earthworks and landform, for this is assuredly the proper partner of excavation in the quest for understanding. As one of the pioneers of modern field-archaeology in Britain, O.G.S. Crawford, put it almost a century ago, 'excavation without plans is like warfare without maps' (1920, 116). The terminology may betray his background, and many might now choose to express it differently, but his point is a good one in essence. Crawford went on to observe that 'plans without excavation are most valuable', declaring that those who cannot attempt both should, for preference, consider 'materially assisting the progress of archaeology … by preparing careful large-scale plans'. And the stakes were raised by A.H.A. Hogg, another aficionado of surveying, especially hillforts, who explained that the work involved in producing an accurate survey 'can often be as great as that required by a small excavation and … is often more valuable' (Hogg 1973, 7), for 'the detailed study necessary to its preparation will often suggest interpretations which would otherwise have been overlooked' (Hogg 1975a, 24). In other words, it is logical for meticulous surveying of hillforts to be recognised as a worthwhile undertaking on its own, not merely as an appendage to excavation.

This much is well established and ought to seem obvious enough. Moreover, it is certainly true that there is a long and strong history of surveying hillforts in Wales, leaving few whose walls and/or earthworks remain to be mapped in some fashion or other. Its beginnings stretch back beyond the 19th century, with some of the more enterprising antiquarians feeling their way towards an archaeological methodology. As in other parts of Britain, prior to Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping, hillfort surveys were sporadic and variable in quality, some being sufficiently accurate to resemble the real thing as well as presenting an attractive portrait (e.g. Figure 2), while, at the other extreme, some are so flawed as to have been less than helpful to anyone seeking to comprehend the site in question. Inconsistency became much less of an obstacle as the systematic production of large-scale OS maps rolled out across Wales in the later decades of the 19th century, and the prolonged endeavours of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales (RCAHMW), in its selective and generally better informed (at least latterly) archaeological surveying, have also contributed much to the accumulated surface record of hillforts. In addition, various individual archaeologists have brought a practised eye to bear on the subject. To name but one, Willoughby Gardner again earns credit, this time for his hillfort surveys, dispersed over Wales and featuring large in the pages of Archaeologia Cambrensis through four decades of the early 20th century, exemplifying the advantages of exacting standardisation. Indeed, he was zealous in that cause (Gardner 1926, 229, 243, 282), and, like many another, it became his habit to use an OS 1:2500 plan as a base for his own rendition. He and some others added contour-lines (or 'form lines' as Gardner preferred to call them) at 25ft intervals, adapting these from smaller-scale OS maps and thereby demonstrating an appreciation of the need to show how man-made and natural 'defences' inter-related (as do the overall profiles with which published plans have sometimes been supplemented).

In principle, all this is admirable, but gratitude for such a legacy is no good reason to overlook the limitations of most of the available plans, even many of the better ones. First, it should be said that a small scale of reproduction, and presumably also of original survey, has frequently hampered the mapping of localised, but noteworthy, surface detail, not only of the earthworks and walls forming the boundaries of hillforts but also of a variety of internal features. Secondly, and equally important, too few hillfort plans show artificial elements in detailed relation to the form of the underlying and surrounding land. Simplified contours like those adopted by Gardner and others may be fine for a generalised impression, but it will often be found in the field that their wide spacing is insensitive to potentially pertinent natural features. Without exception, the complexities and niceties of these sometimes elaborate, sometimes deceptively simple, constructions can be understood only by envisaging the morphology of the land with which their builders had to deal once they had decided to develop a given hill. Similarly, the shape and character of the enclosed ground is sure to have played a significant role in determining its suitability, and hence probably influencing its choice, for various purposes, not least the layout of structures, but also the availability of areas that might better be devoted to other types of activity. If it can reasonably be contended that minor as well as major constituents of topographic background are relevant to record, then it seems best that these should be illustrated through detailed representation as contour-lines (i.e. rather than by more impressionistic, less metrical, means, though sometimes in tandem with them).


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