Where is everybody? Relationships between hillforts and enclosures in the upper Severn valley

The relatively large-scale excavations undertaken at the Breiddin hillfort and the Collfryn lowland enclosure provided their excavators with the rare opportunity of making a detailed comparison of the histories of these two different forms of settlement, lying almost within sight of each other across the River Severn (Musson 1991, 187–90). As we shall see below, however, reconsideration of the environmental evidence from the Breiddin, in an article tantalisingly entitled 'Is there anybody out there?', has reopened the debate about the relationship of hillforts and enclosures in the region (Buckland et al. 2001).

The Breiddin hillfort began as a large settlement enclosed by a timber-framed rampart in the Late Bronze Age, between about the 11th and 9th centuries BC, with evidence of roundhouses and metalworking and other activities within the interior. The hillfort had been abandoned by about the end of the 7th century, but was reoccupied in about the 4th to 3rd centuries BC when a new stone rampart of dump construction was built. Timber roundhouses and four-posters in the interior show evidence of activity continuing into the 2nd century BC. The Collfryn settlement, established in about the 3rd century BC, was enclosed by widely spaced ditches and banks, the spacing of the banks and ditches possibly best suited to the coralling of livestock. Both the Breiddin and Collfryn were occupied alongside each other in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, a period during which the interior of the Collfryn enclosure included a similar range of roundhouses and four-posters to those at the Breiddin. In about the 1st century BC the defences at Collfryn were reorganised, with a close-spaced double ditch around the inner enclosure, while at the Breiddin there is no secure evidence of occupation at this period. Collfryn continued as a farm, possibly without interruption, into at least the 3rd or 4th centuries AD, the absence of coinage suggesting that it remained outside the monetary economy (Davies 1983). The interior of the enclosure had been reorganised again, with slighter defences, and with new kinds of building structures, possibly of rectilinear form. Despite the obvious differences in scale and location there are some interesting points of similarity between the Breiddin and Collfryn during a critical period of overlap in the Iron Age phases of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. They evidently shared the same basic agricultural economy, exchange networks and industries, the high soil acidity at both sites leading to poor survival of animal bone remains, which tends to play down the potential role of livestock farming. There are some differences, however, that may or may not be of significance. The proportion of sherds of salt containers from the Cheshire plain is much higher at Collfryn, perhaps suggesting a greater emphasis on tanning and the preservation of animal products. The proportion of Malvernian fine-ware sherds is higher at the Breiddin, suggesting that it had greater access to the native potteries of the southern borderland. The proportion of quernstones and four-posters is higher at the Breiddin, suggesting a greater emphasis upon food preparation and storage. The roundhouses at the Breiddin were consistently smaller than at Collfryn.

Perhaps the greatest point of contrast, however, is that implied by the reconsideration of the environmental evidence from the Breiddin, which radically alters our interpretation of the settlement geography of the region (Buckland et al. 2001). This suggests that despite the structural and artefactual evidence the Breiddin was neither densely nor permanently occupied during the Iron Age. This clearly undermines the case for envisaging the hillfort as a proto-urban centre and suggests instead an association with seasonal activities such as the exploitation of upland pastures. Possibly the most significant conclusions to be drawn about Collfryn on the other hand is that it was continuously occupied and that it and sites like it at certain times — whether seasonally or in more peaceful times — housed the highest echelons of contemporary society. Above all else the defended enclosures denote strong and stable social and economic institutions, deeply embedded in the landscape, which were capable of transcending the reorientation to a market-based economy following the Roman conquest. In many respects, however, both Collfryn and the Breiddin are atypical of other enclosed settlements in the region. Collfryn, for example, is relatively large and morphologically similar to only a handful of other sites. The Breiddin is again unusually large and quite unlike the elaborately fortified hillfort at Old Oswestry, which occupies a more practical but less visually dominant position in the landscape and looks very much more like a potential candidate for the 'developed hillforts' of Wessex type that emerged as regional centres in the later Iron Age in southern England (Cunliffe 1991, 352–6). Again, perhaps unlike the Wrekin, the Breiddin shows no evidence of having been a thriving tribal centre at the time of the Roman conquest. Given these striking differences it seems clear that a fuller understanding of later prehistoric settlement in the region will only emerge from painstaking research into the detailed biographies of a greater number of individual settlements.


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