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Hillforts — Seasonal Refuges or Year-Round Villages?

A winter visit to a hillfort today can make it seem an inhospitable — even impossible - place to have lived, farmed and raised a family, especially when the hill summit is in the grip of high winds or a particularly violent storm. Some cite the difficulty of living on hill summits as an argument against the year-round occupation of hillforts. Indeed, the suitability — or otherwise - of hillforts for permanent occupation is one of the oldest arguments in the history of Iron Age studies, and one that still grips the popular imagination.

While some hillforts and defended enclosures may today command quiet, picturesque valleys and would seem to be comfortable places to set up residence, many of the forts in more remote, mountainous regions appear to be extreme places to live. Tre'r Ceiri hillfort on the Llŷn Peninsula is renowned for its unpredictable and adverse weather. During a ten-year conservation project on this rocky summit, archaeologists of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust often endured severe storms, thick fog and hazardous working conditions. The environment here prompted archaeologists early in the 20th century to disregard it as anything other than a temporary refuge:

'Tre'r Ceiri was a strong refuge, into which the inhabitants of the surrounding neighbourhood could retire with their flocks and herds and household belongings, and there remain until the temporary danger had passed… The exposed position of Tre'r Ceiri and excessive dampness of the site would render it impossible of occupation, unless under dire necessity, during the winter' (Baring-Gould and Burnard 1904, 5, 14).

However, one of the greatest dangers for modern archaeologists is to visit ancient sites laden with modern preconceptions of comfort, of 'hard work', of endurance and fatigue. It is impossible to judge the living conditions of these Iron Age settlements in comparison to our modern ways of life, or even those of rural Wales in recent centuries. In this respect the archaeologist Willoughby Gardner, FSA, former president of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, was forward-looking in his 1926 review of the 'Native hill-forts in North Wales…', when considering whether such forts were permanent settlements or temporary refuges:

'The ancient Britons were a hardy race and did not shirk life upon a bleak hill-top… That the natives dwelt permanently in these elevated strongholds is certain. That they were merely extensive 'hafods,' to which they resorted with their flocks and their herds in the summer season, is a fallacy; there was no pasturage or even room for pasturage upon the summits of most of these rocky hills; the slopes and the valleys below would have afforded much better feeding ground' (Gardner 1926, 232).

Figure B
Figure B: Impressive Iron Age roundhouse reconstructions at Castell Henllys have taught us much about the robust and durable nature of these prehistoric homes, which would have provided comfortable year-round accommodation for many years. (Image: Crown Copyright RCAHMW, DS2005_017_025)

It was once thought that Iron Age houses, with their mud walls and grass roofs, must have been rather 'primitive', flimsy structures affording little comfort or standard of living for their inhabitants. Yet, successful reconstructions of Iron Age roundhouses at Castell Henllys, Pembrokeshire, have demonstrated how warm and solid these prehistoric homes once were (Figure B). They have even weathered winter hurricane-force winds while modern properties nearby have sustained damage. We can expect livestock to have been bought into these communal homes during harsh winters to increase the warmth still further. Water supply on these hilltops is also said to have been insufficient to have supported a farming community year-round, yet while forts like Penycloddiau in the Clwydian Range are large enough to enclose actual ponds within their defences, the majority of hillforts enclose springs and wet areas. Tre'r Ceiri incorporated a minor gateway ('postern') in its northern perimeter defences to allow access out to a spring on the hillslope. There is so much water on some hilltops, like that enclosed by Cefncarnedd hillfort in Montgomeryshire, that stretches of the defences can become waterlogged and boggy in winter.

As surveys of hillforts increase, so our understanding of their internal organisation — and the number of houses present — can only improve. Prior to recent archaeological surveys of the Clwydian Range hillforts for the Heather and Hillforts project, many large sites like Penycloddiau appeared to be massive enclosures devoid of permanent house sites. The recent survey by the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust, which capitalised on a partial bracken burn-off and used modern techniques to examine the hilltop carefully, identified 33 certain or probable roundhouse platforms, and a further 49 circular hollows in the lee of the main ramparts that could have contained houses. Very steadily, our appreciation of the original levels of occupation in these hillforts is changing.


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