Hillfort Heaven

My absolute archaeological passion is hillforts. One of the reasons for this is because they are still a huge mystery in the history of Britain- what are they? What were they used for? Why were they built? So many questions and much of the evidence to answer these questions being lost since they were first built, around 2,500 years ago.

Another reason I love them so much is because there are just so flippin’ many of them in my part of the world! So that’s what I research- a group of around 100 hillforts in north Wales and the borderland and how they may be connected.

But it’s not as simple as just looking up excavation records and comparing them, mostly because many of them haven’t been excavated (which is ok! They are well protected!) but also because those which have been excavated, on a relatively small scale, have yet to reveal many of their secrets.

The people in Iron Age north Wales didn’t have a written language, don’t appear to have had coins in circulation, nor do they seem to have really used pottery- usually a failsafe way to date a site. They did, however, use a material called “VCP”, a very technical archaeological term (it stands for Very Course Pottery…), which made up containers to transport salt from the Chester salt marshes, such as Nantwich. In addition, the soil in this area is very acidic, so bones and metals corrode in the soil, so artefacts are generally scarce.

So what can we use as evidence to piece together the story of this group of sites? My research looks at the architecture of the sites (how they were built), any dates which have been extracted through radiocarbon dating, if charcoal has been found, and how the sites sit in the landscape, using visibility analysis.

First though- back to basics.

What are hillforts? Generally, these are huge monuments, made of large banks and ditches enclosing an area around a hilltop. Some of these banks and ditches (ramparts), from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank can reach up to 30 feet- and that’s after a couple of thousand years of erosion! Many enclose a huge area too- one of my favourite hillforts, Penycloddiau on a range of hills between Denbigh and Mold in north east Wales, is around a mile in circumference- it’s half a mile to walk from the entrance to the other side!

This particular hillfort is being excavated as I type by Liverpool University and two open days will be held for visitors to tour and explore the site and the dig this Saturday 25th July and on Saturday August 8th. This additional archaeological research into the site, which sits prominently on the Clwydian Range of hills, is already adding a number of stories (and revealing yet more questions) about the elusive ancient monument. Visitors are invited to meet at Coed Llangwyfan car park at 10am for a guided walk up to the excavations as part of the Clwydian Range & Dee Valley AONB’s (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 30th anniversary. You can also follow them on Twitter by using hashtag #PyC15 and @UoLAFS

On a neighbouring hillfort (you can wave at each other from each site), Oxford University return to excavate Moel y Gaer Bodfari, a smaller but intriguing privately owned hillfort, just to the north. Sadly, I haven’t been able to join them to dig this year due to work commitments, but last year we excavated a section of rampart which revealed a number of phases of the site previously lying unknown under the soil. Additionally, a magnificent roundhouse overlooking the entranceway was explored and a gorgeous spindle-whorl found. Oxford have also done some really spectacular research using archaeological survey and geophysics, such as Lidar, Magnetronomy and ground penetrating radar. If you want to find out more about Moel y Gaer, Bodfari, Oxford University are holding an open day on Sunday 26th July, providing exclusive access to the privately owned site. Visitors are invited to drop in between 11am and 3pm and can also follow activity digitally on twitter by using hashtag #BOD15

And as for me? Right now I am pulling in information from these two sites and tens of others to try to piece together some of the elusive hillfort jigsaw. A jigsaw where many of the pieces are missing and lost for eternity. You can follow my plight and other archaeological antics (twinned with crazy cat lady photos a-plenty) on twitter @ErinHillforts and on my website IDigArchaeology.co.uk. I hope that by strategic research and emerging archaeological techniques, alongside a thirst for knowledge, a passion for the sites and a stubbornness to match, I will be able to tell you a lot more this time next year, at Day of Archaeology 2016. Watch this space.

And visit a hillfort.