What was a hill fort?

Maiden Castle, Dorset

Hill forts were raised defended settlements, often built on cliff tops or large knolls and spurs, that provided trading centres and secure enclosed habitats for humans during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Their construction came to a peak in Britain during the last 500 years BC, where numerous improvements were made to their defensive structures – such as extra lines of earthworks, stockades and defensive walls – due to the multiple invasions the country was subjected to that culminated in the Roman occupation from AD 43 onwards.

Many hill forts have their origin in the Neolithic period and were originally not used as centres of trade and dwelling but instead to pen and protect agricultural animals, which were an invaluable source of food and drink. During the Bronze Age hill forts evolved to include roundhouses, longhouses and granary huts, as well as underground souterrains and fogous (underground cave structures used for food storage and preservation), before becoming more military focused through the Iron Age with guarded entrances, guard houses and ramparts integrated into them.

Indeed, the main structure that characterises most hill forts is its ramparts. These large man-made mounds of rock, wood, earth and dead animals, served as valuable fortifications against attacking forces and created a series of ridged circular ditched rings that proved difficult to circumvent. These fortifications were hardly impregnable however, and a number of invading forces – such as the Belgic invasions of Britain in the 1st Century BC – took many of them under sustained pressure and either inhabited them themselves, or burnt and sacked them. Instead, the native Britains and Europeans relied on the natural positioning of the fort to repel invaders.

The largest and most complex of all Iron Age hill forts in Britain is Maiden Castle in Dorchester (pictured above). This large raised hill fort was first laid out in 600 BC over the remains of an earlier Neolithic settlement. Its multiple rampart enclosure is larger than the area of 50 football pitches and at its peak this colossal fort housed over 700 people.