Sep. 12th, 2012

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Right.  Hot on the heels of Wayland's Smithy....

I was going to go completely off on a tangent and post about Boulton & Watt steam engines, but I thought instead that I'd continue the prehistoric Wessex theme and venture further along the Ridgeway to take in some more of the monuments near Wantage.


First on the list is Uffington Castle, which is of course a stone's throw from the Uffington White Horse (tomorrow!) and virtually impossible to photograph...

Yeah.  How on earth do you photograph a hillfort?  Unless you're in a hot air balloon or a light aircraft...

You can see it on the horizon here. The hilltop is surrounded by not one but two ramparts, and you can get some idea of the scale from here:-


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These massive hillforts tend to be of Iron Age date, though they often have their origins in the Late Bronze Age.  Hillforts may be univallate (which means they have one ditch and rampart) or multivallate (they have two or three ditches and ramparts) - in Scotland, our forts tend to have stone ramparts, or timber-laced stone ramparts (we're not even getting onto the subject of vitrified forts yet..), but in this part of England, the ramparts are invariably earthen.  Please note that when it was first excavated, the rampart and ditch (dug in chalk) would have been brilliant, shining white against the landscape.

The ramparts are now much weathered, but they're still impressive:-



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They're accessed at various points along their length by gaps in ditch and bank to allow entry:-


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But how good were these monuments as defensive sites?  Well, against a gang of marauding young men from the neighbouring tribe, they probably performed quite adequately.  But against an organised military force, they weren't much good, as the evidence from Maiden Castle in Dorset can testify. Here, the Romans managed to annihilate those who took refuge there -  the native spears and slingshots being no match for the ballistas, onagers and other nasty things carried by the Roman army 

Perhaps their main function was as much to impress as to defend. The amount of labour required to build the things was incredible, and they certainly would have made A Grand Statement within the landscape.  You knew who was in charge, and he (or she...) lived here... 

Though in Britain they can't really be called towns as such, hillforts often contain large numbers of circular huts (roundhouses is the correct term, for the best of these circular structures were certainly NOT hovels!).  These monuments have also produced large numbers of 'four-posters' which have been interpreted as granaries.  Excavations have taken place at Danebury, not far from Uffington, and one of the more intriguing features encountered there was the vast quantity of large pits uncovered on the site.  At the time, these were dismissed as rubbish pits, but as one of the leading figures of Iron Age Studies, J D Hill, first pointed out, the contents of these 'rubbish pits' required rethinking.  I wrote an essay on the subject once, and I remember stumbling across several examples from Danebury which were positively weird. One pit had a complete horse skeleton with its head cut off and placed behind its back, while another contained a dismembered human pelvis, complete with cut marks.

Rubbish?  Or ritual??  That was the question J D Hill originally asked, and thirty years later, professional opinion has now veered towards the latter.  Our comfortable, happy Iron Age, peopled by friendly inoffensive farmers who put up a spirited resistance but ultimately got gubbed by those pesky Romans, was anything but comfortable and happy.  What with bog bodies from Cheshire and slave chains from Anglesey, the Iron Age is definitely a foreign country, and it's certainly one that had a dark, unwholesome aspect that we, in our pleasant modern world find difficult to deal with.

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