Exploring the Ancient Hillforts of Britain

Hillforts are among the most iconic features of Britain’s prehistoric landscape, dotting the countryside with their imposing earthworks and evocative ruins.

These fortifications, primarily constructed during the Iron Age, from around 800 BC until the Roman conquest in AD 43, provide a fascinating insight into the lives, warfare, and social structures of ancient communities across the British Isles.



Hillforts in Britain refer to the various hillforts across the island of Great Britain. While the earliest constructions of this kind in the British Isles date back to the Neolithic period, with a few also from the later Bronze Age, the majority of British hillforts were built during the Iron Age.

Maiden castle iron age hillfort
The origins of hillforts can be traced back to the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, around the beginning of the first millennium BC. Maiden Castle, Dorchester, Dorset

In southern areas that became part of Roman Britain, many of these hillforts were abandoned, whereas in the northern areas, which remained free from Roman control, there was an increase in their construction.

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Some hillforts saw reuse in the Early Middle Ages, and in rarer cases, they continued to be used into the Later Medieval period as well. By the early modern period, these had largely been abandoned, with archaeological excavations beginning in the nineteenth century.

Approximately 3,300 structures in Britain can be classified as hillforts or similar “defended enclosures.” Most are concentrated in specific regions: south and south-west England, the west coast of Wales and Scotland, the Welsh Marches, and the Scottish border hills.

British hillforts varied in size, with the majority covering an area of less than 1 hectare (2.5 acres), although most others ranged up to about 12 hectares (30 acres). In rare cases, some were even larger, exceeding 80 hectares (200 acres).

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Great illustration of a hillfort: The Great British countryside is littered with pre-historic hillforts which often blend seamlessly into the natural landscape and can tell of rich hidden histories involving Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and prehistoric communities.
Great illustration of a hillfort: The Great British countryside is littered with pre-historic hillforts which often blend seamlessly into the natural landscape and can tell of rich hidden histories involving Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and prehistoric communities.

Various archaeologists working in Britain have criticised the term “hillfort” due to its implications of fortification and warfare, as well as the fact that not all such sites were situated on hills. Leslie Alcock suggested that “enclosed places” might be a more accurate term, while J. Forde-Johnston expressed a preference for “defensive enclosures.”

Construction and Features

The construction and features of British hillforts reveal a remarkable ingenuity tailored to the landscapes in which they were situated. These structures varied not only in size but in their complexity and strategic design, tailored to maximize natural defences and control local resources.

One of the most formidable examples, Maiden Castle in Dorset, sprawls over 47 acres and is a prime example of a complex hillfort. Its intricate network of ramparts and deep ditches were engineered to disorient and slow potential attackers, creating a formidable obstacle course leading up to the fort itself.

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In contrast, smaller hillforts, while less extensive, were no less sophisticated in their design. These forts often occupied strategic positions such as hilltops or river bends, which provided natural visibility over large swathes of the surrounding territory.

Northern Extension to British Camp The original Iron Agehillfort encircled Herefordshire Beacon. It later expanded, north and south, requiring huge defensive ditches to be dug. After two thousand years these are still impressive especially when caught in the early morning sunlight.
Northern Extension to British Camp The original Iron Agehillfort encircled Herefordshire Beacon. It later expanded, north and south, requiring huge defensive ditches to be dug. After two thousand years these are still impressive especially when caught in the early morning sunlight.

The natural topography was enhanced with man-made defences. Steep slopes were integrated into the defensive scheme, making direct assaults difficult and risky.

The construction process of these hillforts involved significant communal effort, indicative of a well-organized society with the resources to mobilize large groups for building projects. Communities excavated deep ditches, using the earth extracted to form substantial ramparts.


These earthworks were often bolstered with wooden palisades, which could be replaced or enhanced with stone in regions where it was readily available.

Entrances to hillforts were particularly elaborate, designed to maximise defensive advantages. Gateways were often recessed and flanked by high, protective earthen banks, and constructed so as to force approaching attackers into narrow, winding paths.

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Cadbury Camp Ramparts Cadbury Camp is an Iron Age Hillfort near Tickenham in Somerset.
Cadbury Camp Ramparts Cadbury Camp is an Iron Age Hill fort near Tickenham in Somerset.

This design allowed defenders stationed on the ramparts to easily target enemies below, who would find it difficult to use their shields effectively while navigating the confined and curving entry passages. Such choke points not only slowed the advance of attackers but also increased their vulnerability to missiles launched from above.

Furthermore, some hillforts included additional internal divisions, possibly for managing livestock and storing resources, or as extra barriers against invaders who breached the outer defences. These features underscore the multifunctional role of hillforts as centres of administration and communal life, not merely military strongholds.

Bronze Age Hillforts

British hillforts, as we now understand, first emerged in the Late Bronze Age. Archaeologists Sue Hamilton and John Manley have posited that these structures were part of “substantial landscape and social reconfigurations at the start of the first millennium [BC],” coinciding with three significant changes in British Bronze Age society: the “disappearance of an archaeologically visible burial rite, increased deposition of prestige metalwork in rivers, and the demise of a middle Bronze Age settlement format of groups of round houses set within enclosures.”

It’s not often I have a pint in the middle of an Iron Age hillfort, but when I do, I like to do it here! Ham Hill, Somerset, has ramparts that are three miles long

They further suggested that “Accrued place-value may have been important in the establishment of the earliest hillforts. These are often in locations with conspicuous traces of previous ritual monuments. This may have been a means of validating new social practices through making links with the past.”

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This concept was further explored by ethnologist J. Forde-Johnston, who noted that many Iron Age hillforts were constructed close to earlier Bronze Age barrows. He observed that since both types of monuments are typically found in elevated locations, “It is not surprising that the two features should coincide in several dozen cases.”

He suggested that the siting of hillforts near barrows might have been strategic, not only for the defensive advantages offered by the high ground but also for the “sacred associations of the burial place,” which could confer additional protective benefits.

Iron Age hillforts

Iron Age hillforts have long stood as prominent features in the British landscape. As ethnologist J. Forde-Johnston observed, “Of all the earthworks that are such a notable feature of the landscape in England and Wales, few are more prominent or more striking than the hillforts built during the centuries before the Roman conquest.”

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He further described them as “eloquent testimony of the technical ability and social organization of the Iron Age peoples.” Similarly, the English archaeologist J. C. D. Clark noted that “[Iron Age] Hillforts are at once among the most impressive and informative of our prehistoric antiquities.

Eggardon Iron Age hillfort, Dorset. The early Bronze Age Disc Barrow bottom right, is significant, and the Roman road runs in between them. So much history.
Eggardon Iron Age hillfort, Dorset. The early Bronze Age Disc Barrow bottom right, is significant, and the Roman road runs in between them. So much history.

They impress by their mere size, by the height of their ramparts, by the depth of their ditches, by the extent of the areas they enclose, and frequently by their commanding position.”

The category of monuments known as hillforts encompasses a remarkable variety of forms, with those from the British Iron Age typically falling into four distinct types. The two primary types are contour forts and promontory forts, and the lesser two are hill-slope and plateau forts.

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Contour forts are defined by their strategic construction, “in which the defences cut off the upper portion of a hill from the ground below by following, more or less, the line of the contours encircling it.”

Promontory forts, by contrast, are usually defined by “an area to which the approach is limited, to a greater or lesser extent, by natural features such as cliffs, very steep slopes, rivers etc. Where such features exist, little or nothing in the way of man-made fortification is required.”

Hill Slope Hillforts

Hill-slope hillforts do not enclose the hilltop as contour forts do, but are situated on the sloping ground on one side of it, overlooked by the crest. Plateau forts “face level ground on all sides, regardless of their elevation above sea-level”; these are often, although not always, located on plateaus, hence their name.

Barbury Castle Iron Age hillfort, Wiltshire, England
Barbury Castle Iron Age hillfort, Wiltshire, England

Iron Age hillforts utilised both natural and man-made defences. Natural geographical features such as cliffs, steep slopes, rivers, lakes, and the sea provided formidable barriers, while man-made defences were largely made up of banks and ditches.

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Two forms of banks were constructed at these sites: revetted and glacis. Revetted banks have “a vertical or near-vertical outer face to the enemy. This outer face or revetment is normally of timber or dry stone walling, or a combination of the two, and retains the core of earth, chalk, clay etc., derived in most cases from the outer ditch.”

Glacis banks, in contrast, “are usually triangular in cross-section and at their simplest consist of a single dump of the material excavated from the ditch.”

The number of these ramparts varies among Iron Age British hillforts; some, known as univallate, feature only a single rampart, while others, known as multivallate, feature multiple ramparts. Forde-Johnston remarked that “roughly one-third of the Iron Age forts in England and Wales have multivallate defences, the remaining two-thirds being univallate.”

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It has been suggested that only the innermost rampart would be manned, with the others serving more to create space and break up charges.


The reasons why British Iron Age peoples constructed hillforts remain a subject of debate. Historically, the dominant view among archaeologists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that these were primarily defensive structures, erected during a period of intertribal warfare.

Woodbury Hill, late Bronze Age/early Iron Age univallate hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset.
Woodbury Hill, late Bronze Age/early Iron Age univallate hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset.

However, towards the late 20th century, this perspective began to be challenged by various archaeologists who argued that there was insufficient evidence to support this claim.

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As Mark Bowden and Dave McOmish pointed out, “there is a tendency to assume that they were all built for similar purposes and are all performing similar functions,” a notion they suggest might not hold true.

In a similar vein, archaeologist Niall Sharples observed, “It is clear from [my] analysis of the sequence [of construction] at Maiden Castle, and by comparison with other sites, such as Danebury, that hillforts do not have a single function. A variety of different activities can be associated with these sites and with time the importance or perhaps the emphasis of certain activities changed dramatically.”

Defensive usage

It has traditionally been assumed that hillforts were constructed for defensive purposes during the Iron Age. Discussing the nature of warfare in this period, archaeologist Niall Sharples stated that war was such an integral part of all agricultural human societies that it was conceivable “to believe a priori that after the introduction of agriculture [in the Neolithic,] warfare was a constant feature of the prehistoric societies of the British Isles.” It was against this backdrop, he argued, that hillforts were erected as defensive strongholds.

British Camp hillfort
British Camp hillfort

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Writing in 1948, J.G.D. Clark emphasized that the defensive nature of hillforts “cannot be stressed too often.” Similarly, Barry Cunliffe, a specialist in the Iron Age, also held the view that hillforts from this era functioned as defensive settlements.

However, the defensive capabilities of many hillforts have been questioned by various archaeologists. Taking the Scratchbury hillfort in Wiltshire as a case study, Bowden and McOmish observed that “The positioning of [the fort] suggests that it was not built for defence” because “a potential assailant is enabled to observe all the dispositions of the defence”, thereby making it particularly vulnerable to attack.

Symbolically Defensive

In a similar vein, archaeologists Sue Hamilton and John Manley, after studying the forts in south-east England, remarked that in this region, “It is noteworthy that most of the hillforts are univallate, and lack the in-depth perimeter elaboration which elsewhere has been ascribed a defensive role.”

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Upon recognising that many British hillforts were not particularly defensible, Niall Sharples theorised that Iron Age warfare in Britain, like much warfare worldwide, did not solely consist of physical violence but might have primarily “…involved ritualised display and threatening behaviour. I believe that the bulk of the evidence for warfare in the archaeological record [which included hillforts] is created as a deterrent, or to symbolise the nature of the conflict rather than actually the physical act.”

In this way, hillforts may have often been symbolically defensive rather than practically so, in a period when warfare was more about posturing and intimidation than engaging in open conflict.

Old Oswestry hillfort
Old Oswestry hillfort, the earthworks, which remain one of the best preserved hillforts in the UK, have been described as “The Stonehenge of the Iron Age Period”.

Burial Practices at Hillforts

Unlike the lavish tomb constructions of earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, Iron Age burials tend to be less ostentatious, but no less significant. In certain hillforts, archaeologists have discovered graves that suggest a variety of burial practices.

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These range from inhumation (burial of the body) to cremation, with grave goods that imply a belief in an afterlife where personal items were useful or held value.

For example, at Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire, excavations have unearthed burials within the fort’s boundaries, including both inhumation and cremation sites, some containing offerings such as pottery and animal bones, which could suggest ritualistic elements or offerings to deities or ancestral spirits.

Ritual Significance

The ritual significance of hillforts is often highlighted by their location and construction features. Many are situated in places with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, suggesting a symbolic as well as strategic purpose, possibly to “connect” with the divine or the spiritual realm.

Cadbury Castle, Somerset
Cadbury Castle, Somerset. Like many Iron Age hillforts. evidence of occupation from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

The entrances to these hillforts, complex and carefully constructed, may also have served a ceremonial function, acting as liminal spaces between the outside world and the sacred interior.

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Archaeological findings have also pointed to the practice of depositing valuable items or ‘votive’ offerings in the vicinity of hillforts. At sites like Maiden Castle, objects such as jewellery, weapons, and human skulls have been found, which may have been offerings to appease gods or ancestors, or to mark significant events such as victories in battle, seasonal changes, or community gatherings.

Hillforts as Ceremonial Centres

Some scholars suggest that hillforts might have functioned primarily as ceremonial or tribal gathering places rather than everyday settlements. This theory is supported by the presence of large communal areas within some forts, which could accommodate significant numbers of people for gatherings, festivals, or rituals.

These communal areas might have hosted activities like feasting, which played a crucial role in social cohesion and the reinforcement of community hierarchies.

Continuity and Change

The ritual use of hillforts did not necessarily cease with the arrival of the Romans in Britain; in some cases, it evolved. New forms of material culture and possibly even religious practices were introduced, which were then integrated into the existing ritual landscape of the hillforts.

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Hiring Fairs: Farm labourers on to their way to Woodbury Hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset. In the medieval period it was the biggest hiring fair in southern England.
Farm labourers on to their way to Woodbury Hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset. In the medieval period it was the biggest hiring fair in southern England.

This continuity yet change is evident in sites like South Cadbury Castle, which, according to legend, was associated with King Arthur and continued to be used during the Roman and post-Roman periods, possibly retaining its status as a significant ceremonial site.

Early Medieval hillforts

In the Early Medieval period, which commenced in the fifth century AD, much of southern Britain—later forming the core of what became the nation-state of England—adopted a variant of Germanic culture from continental Europe, likely influenced by migration from that region.

The Anglo-Saxons, these Germanic peoples, typically did not construct or reuse hillforts. However, in Northern and Western Britain, areas that retained cultural connections to the earlier Iron Age, the use of hillforts continued.

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Upon examining the distinctions between Iron Age and Early Medieval hillforts, archaeologist Leslie Alcock considered it reasonable to infer that the political and social conditions which necessitated the massive pre-Roman Iron Age hillforts—and had the labour resources to construct them—no longer existed in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. This suggests a significant transformation in social organisation during the period.

The Decline

The decline of hillforts in Britain commenced with the Roman conquest around AD 43. The Romans introduced advanced military technology and new governance structures, which rendered the large, community-operated hillforts largely obsolete.

As the Romans established their more structured and fortified settlements, many hillforts were abandoned. However, some were repurposed by the Romans themselves or gradually evolved into different types of settlements, reflecting a shift in their function from primarily military and communal hubs to roles more integrated into the Roman administrative and social frameworks.

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Despite their decline during the Roman era, the legacy of hillforts in the British landscape is enduring and profound. These ancient structures have remained sites of significant archaeological interest and cultural heritage, offering deep insights into Iron Age society.

Their historical value is recognised officially, with many hillforts now protected as historical monuments under various heritage laws. This protection helps preserve their structural integrity and the rich history they encapsulate.

The impressive earthworks of these hillforts continue to attract a wide audience, from academic researchers seeking to understand more about pre-Roman Britain to history enthusiasts fascinated by the remnants of ancient life.

The locations of these hillforts, often in scenic, elevated positions, also make them popular destinations for walkers and educational groups. For instance, sites like Maiden Castle in Dorset and Cadbury Castle in Somerset not only offer a glimpse into the Iron Age but also provide panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, enhancing their appeal.

Archaeological Insights and Modern Interpretations

Ongoing archaeological research continues to reveal more about how these sites were built, lived in, and used. Excavations have uncovered artefacts that shed light on the daily lives of the inhabitants, including pottery, weapons, and tools.

Advances in archaeological methods, such as aerial photography and geophysical surveys, have also enhanced our understanding of the extent and layout of these sites, revealing some to be larger and more complex than previously thought.