Prehistoric Hillforts of North Wales and the Borders
The subject of our first meeting of 2017 held on 19th January was ‘Prehistoric Hill Forts of North Wales and the Borders’ and our guest speaker was Erin Lloyd Jones, the renowned archaeologist from Wales. Erin has a passion for digging deeper into British heritage, bringing history alive and introducing people from the past and she shared her PhD research on hillforts with a well-attended gathering of some 70 members and friends. Erin is Cadw’s Heritage Interpretation Manager and her infectious enthusiasm made her warnings that we should ‘nudge our neighbour’ to keep them awake completely unnecessary!
There are over 100 Iron Age hillforts in north east Wales, and Erin focussed on 6 within a small area of the Clwydian Range – Penycloddiau, Moel Arthur, Moel Hiraddug, Moel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr) and Moel y Gaer (Bodfari). They were all impressive structures, with big banks and ditches of up to 30 feet still visible today, but it is not known whether they were purely defensive, inhabited, beacons attracting trade, or a combination.
Iron Age hillforts were in use from c.800 BC to c.AD 50, and about half show different phases of building activity, possibly indicating renewed defences or change of use, either for a continuous or returning population. Some excavation was undertaken in the 19th century, but not in a systematic way. No bones, coins or pottery (apart from VCP – ‘very coarse pottery’) have been found, making dating of the sites difficult. However, some well-preserved artefacts, including part of a shield boss and a decorated rectangular piece showing good craftsmanship, were found during the building of a quarry road in 1872 at Moel Hiraddug (about a third of this site has been quarried away). Later excavations here also uncovered what seems to be part of a game, with a board and pieces, indicating settled domestic life. Moel Hiraddug is on limestone, whereas the other sites are on very acidic soil – good for heather, but bad for the preservation of artefacts.
The Heather and Hillforts Project, which Erin worked for between 2008-2012, carried out research including topographical surveys showing that at Penycloddiau, huts and structures were dotted around the edges of its mile-long circumference, nestled into the ditch on deliberately flattened land. Ramparts were made up variously of stone and wood, with some in layers. Some entrances, e.g. at Moel Hiraddug, began as simple portal entrances, and were later blocked, forming more elaborate in-turned entrances, with small chambers known as ‘guard chambers’ within. Erin pointed out that early excavations were often carried out by military men, influencing the vocabulary used (forts, ramparts, guard chambers etc.), though this may also have been because structures they found were familiar, and so their experience gives us a clue to their function. It is possible that these chambers, some of which have hearths, were used for tax collection or some other sort of control – the in-turned entrances were designed to funnel people or livestock into the hillfort. They are a feature of North Wales’ hillforts, and it is interesting to speculate why they were developed – was there something threatening on the horizon?
Most hillforts overlook passes; whilst they are all high up, some – including Moel Fenlli and Penycloddiau – are not on the absolute summit, but on a slope against the contour of the hill. This gives them less overall visibility, but an increased view of a particular vista, especially the approach to the hillfort – a case of quality over quantity perhaps. Only 2 of the 6 hillforts Erin focussed on have water sources, showing that having water immediately at hand was not essential, unless the area was besieged. Also, only 2 of them have signs of earlier activity, though many other hills in the Clwydian range show evidence of Bronze Age burials. So, they were not always built on the highest hill, nor where there was a water source, nor previous activity. There are many apparently suitable hills without hillforts, and the question of why they were built where they were remains unanswered.
During her entertaining talk, Erin shared the sound of black grouse (grugiar ddu i.e. ‘black heather chicken’ in Welsh), which she had surveyed as part of the Heather and Hillforts Project. She told the story of an American soldier, Carlyle D. Chamberlain, who inscribed his name on a stone in a cairn, sparking a transatlantic mystery, solved when a descendant got in touch. She also described the ‘Hillfort Glow’, an amazing experiment with worldwide publicity which she devised in 2010. 200 volunteers tested the intervisibility of 10 hillforts by letting off flares and signalling with torches at dusk, and by chance experienced the awesome spectacle of a massive pink ‘supermoon’. Erin concluded by saying that although we don’t know exactly what hillforts are or what they were used for, the best thing is to get out there and enjoy the archaeology and the sunset.
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