As our 14 day excavation of Wooston Hillfort is now underway we thought it would be a good opportunity to provide some background on the history of hillforts, summarise what we already know about Wooston Castle and highlight the significance of our dig.
Like many prehistoric monuments, Wooston Castle hillfort is a bit of an enigma. The term ‘hillfort’ as an archaeological terminology has become a generalisation. Oxford University who are currently running a nation-wide project, entitled ‘Atlas’ to record and categorise hillforts, comment that the categorisation of hillforts is a ‘disparate subject’ and it’s very true. There are at least 4,147 hillforts in Britain and Ireland and there is a huge range of forms and functions.
To confuse matters further they are not always on hills, examples such as Oldbury Camp (Wessex) and Lower Exbury (New Forest) are on low lying ground. In the case of Exbury, half of the fort is now submerged in the mouth of the Beaulieu River. In contrast, Flower’s Barrow hillfort sits on a cliffside overlooking the sea, while Buckland Rings in the New Forest overlooks the Lymington river and the now obliterated, low-lying, Ampress Camp hillfort. In each case, the location appears to have a possible relationship to the function of the hillfort.
There is no ‘standard’ function for a Hillfort. Danebury Rings in Hampshire, for example, is an inland hillfort and perhaps the most famous and well researched hillfort in Britain. It was occupied from the 6th century BC and shows evidence of use up until the 1st Century BC with occasional use or occupation through the Roman period. The fort contained extensive numbers of roundhouses and grain storage pits. Finds buried in the pits included: javelins; spears; swords; and other military equipment but also a vast range of domestic and agricultural goods and equipment including: iron sickles; iron ard tips and bar share; ovens and other domestic wares; seed grains and querns; and weaving gear.
In contrast, Bury Hill in Upper Clatford had two main phases. The first dating from the early Iron Age shows no evidence of permanent settlement. The second phase, which dates between the first and second centuries BC, shows evidence of a specialised function, as the finds largely consisted of horse trapping and horse skeletons but no carbonised grain or human remains (https://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/wessex-hillforts-project/wessexhillfortschap02p39to130.pdf/).
The traditional interpretations of hillforts have focused on their potential role as military complexes or the imagined seats of local chieftains but since the 1960’s they have been reimagined. They are now understood as: distribution centres; storage spaces for grain and other goods; meeting spaces and prestige sites that are highly visible in the landscape; ceremonial or ritual centres; and some hillforts are located in vulnerable positions or lack defenses all together! (www.arch.ox.ac.uk/reader/items/Online_hillforts_atlas.html).
There are no records of a previous excavation of Wooston Castle. The castle has a form which is unique and differs greatly from the nearby Cranbrook and Prestonbury Castles. It is located on the slope of the hill as opposed to the top, giving it a clear view up and down the valley. The images below are part of a LIDAR survey of the Teign Valley undertaken by Archaeogeomancy and Bluesky on behalf of the Fingle Woods Project.
The three hillforts are situated close together in the landscape, with Prestonbury Castle visible from Wooston Castle. Hillforts are present from the late 2nd millienium BC with the majority being built in the 1st century BC. With slight univallate hillforts like Wooston believed to date between the eighth and fifth centuries BC.
So what is the relationship between the three forts?
The honest answer is that nobody knows! Cranbrook Castle is the only fort of the three that has been excavated, in 1901 by Baring Gold. Finds included 2 hut circles, a rotary quern and pottery and cairns that probably date from later clearance. There have been no excavations on the forts since 1901. We don’t know the chronological order the forts were built in, or if they were contemporary with each other. We don’t know the function of the forts, if all were occupied or for how long. We don’t know who built them. The Iron Age is a time of increasing contact with continental Europe and movement of people and cultural traditions, so we should not assume this is a purely ‘British’ population or influence. This is why the dig at Wooston Castle really matters. From soil trapped beneath the original rampart we will hopefully be able to extract seeds, pollen and other biological material which will inform us of environmental conditions at the time of its construction (more details about this in a later blog). We also hope to obtain samples of wood for carbon dating which might tell us when the fort was in use.
For more information on the dimensions and features of Wooston Castle please go to the Historic England website. Wooston Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (a severe form of legal protection for monuments), so it is very rare that permission is given to excavate monuments of this type.
Subscribe to the blog for updates on how the dig is progressing and come along to our open day on Saturday the 21st of April (11am – 3pm) to learn more about what we’ve discovered and see the excavation first hand.
By Steve Guy-Gibbens, Fingle Woods Archaeology Intern.