November 27th, 2018
Ancient hillforts are scattered across beautiful Wales, evoking a strong sense of history, culture, and mystery too.
If you had a time machine, when would you travel to? Victorian Chester perhaps? Maybe Elizabethan Shrewsbury? Or what about the depths of mid Wales during the bloody 11th century when Edward army rampaged across the country?
Or how about speeding back through the centuries and arriving at the marcher lands almost two and a half thousand years ago at around 800BC, when Celtic tribes ruled the lands and the population was small and scattered? The landscape would have been much the same – with the exception of course of the large towns, built up cities and wide, busy roads – but the rolling hills, dotted with forests and covered in a prickly carpet of purple heather, would be familiar. As would the wide valleys, the fast rivers and the flat-topped hills watching quietly over the far-reaching lowlands.
During this time, the Iron Age, a chain of stunningly located hillforts were constructed in Wales and lots of them remain today, amazingly well preserved considering that they are over two thousand years old. A hillfort is a settlement built on high ground, probably to take advantage of the elevated position where villagers could spot signs of danger early. Each fort was a kind of enclosed village where people lived in wooden roundhouses that were protected from the elements, and any attackers, by ditches, stone walls and earthen banks.
Although these fascinating structures are scattered across the region (there are over 2,000 hillforts in Great Britain and 600 of them are in Wales!), surprisingly little is known about them. Whether they were built for defence, for habitation or for recreation is a subject that is often debated. Some experts believe that hillforts were used for pagan rituals and festivals like the summer and winter solstices.
A mysterious age
It is presumed that most of these hillforts date from the Iron Age, which is approximately 800BC to when the Romans arrived permanently in Britain at around 70AD. However, it’s difficult to date them exactly – there’s an 800 year period that we’re working with, which is a great stretch of time. If we go back 800 years from now we reach the time of Edward I and an enormously different world. Excavations on Moel y Gaer, Llanbedr, can date that hillfort from around about 800BC to 350BC. But evidence from nearby forts show that the earliest phase was about 1,000 BC. However, we don’t know if they were all used at the same time, or if people were living in them at the same time. And even if that was the case, did they all have different purposes – was one for living, was one for ceremonies? It’s almost impossible to know.
Maybe the legendary hillforts will always be shrouded in a little mystery and some questions will always remain unanswered, but perhaps this is what makes them so special……