What is a Hillfort? All About Ancient Fortresses in Iron Age Europe

Some Examples of Hill Forts in Europe

Hill forts (sometimes spelled hillforts) are essentially fortified residences, single households, elite residences, whole villages, or even urban settlements built on the tops of hills and/or with defensive structures such as enclosures, moats, palisades or ramparts--despite the name not all "hill forts" were built on hills. Although the term primarily refers to those in Iron Age Europe, similar structures are found throughout the world and throughout time, as you might imagine, since we humans are at times a fearful, violent race.

The earliest fortified residences in Europe date to the Neolithic period of the 5th and 6th millennium BC, at such sites as Podgoritsa (Bulgaria) and Berry au Bac (France): those are relatively rare. Many hill forts were built at the end of the late Bronze Age, around 1100-1300 BC, when people lived in small separate communities with differing levels of wealth and status. During the early Iron Age (ca 600-450 BC), several hill forts in central Europe represented the residences of a select elite. Trade throughout Europe was established and some of these individuals were buried in graves with lots of fancy, imported goods; differential wealth and status may well have been one of the reasons for the building of defensive structures.

Hill Fort Construction

Hill forts were made by adding ditches and timber palisades, stone- and earth-filled wooden frames or cobble stone structures such as towers, walls and ramparts to existing homes or villages. Without a doubt, they were constructed in response to a rise in violence: but what caused the rise in violence is not as clear, although a widening economic gap between rich and poor people is a good guess. An increase in size and complexity of the Iron Age hillforts in Europe occurred as trade expanded and luxury items from the Mediterranean became available to the growing elite classes. By Roman times, hill forts (called oppida) were spread throughout the Mediterranean region.

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The Reconstructed Fort at Biskupin, Poland
The Reconstructed Fort at Biskupin, Poland. trzy_em

Biskupin, located on an island in the Warta River, is known as the "Polish Pompeii" because of its stunning preservation. Timber roadways, house foundations, roof fall: all of these materials were well-preserved and recreations of the village are open to visitors. Biskupin was huge, compared to most hillforts, with a population estimated at 800-1000 people tucked away inside of its fortifications.

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Broxmouth is a hillfort in Scotland, where evidence for deep sea fishing has been identified in an occupation dated beginning about 500 BC. The site includes numerous roundhouses and cemetery areas within and outside of several separate rings of wall fortifications.

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Crickley Hill (UK)

View of the Cotswolds from Crickley Hill
View of the Cotswolds from Crickley Hill. Doug Woods

Crickley Hill is an Iron Age site in the Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire. Its earliest fortification dates to the Neolithic period, ca 3200-2500 BC. Crickley Hill's Iron Age population within the fort was between 50 and 100: and the fort had a devastating end evidenced by the archaeological recovery of hundreds of arrow points.

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Danebury Hillfort
Danebury Hillfort. benjgibbs

Danebury is an Iron Age hillfort in Nether Wallop, Hampshire, England, first built about 550 BC. It boasts terrific organic preservation for its faunal and floral remains, and studies here have provided lots of information on Iron Age agricultural practices including dairying. Danebury is justifiably famous, and not just because it is located in a place with a very silly name.

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Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village
Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village. Ulf

Heuneburg is more properly a Fürstensitz, or princely residence, overlooking the Danube River in southern Germany. A very old site with a long unbroken occupation, Heuneburg was first fortified in the 16th century BC, and reached its heyday circa 600 BC. Heuneburg is most famous for its princely burial, including a golden chariot, which was made up to look far costly than it actually cost to make: an example of Iron Age political spin, as it were.

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Misericordia is a vitrified hillfort dated to the 5th through 2nd centuries BC. One rampart built of earth, schist and metagraywacke (silceous schist) blocks was set ablaze, making the fortification that much more substantial. Misericordia was the focus of a successful archaeological study of using archaeomagnetic dating to identify when the walls were fired.

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Pekshevo (Russia)

Pekshevo is a Scythian culture hillfort located on the Voronezh River in the Middle Don basin of Russia. First built in the 8th century BC, the site includes at least 31 houses protected by ramparts and a moat.

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Janus Headed Sculpture at the Shrine of Roquepertuse
Janus Headed Sculpture at the Shrine of Roquepertuse, currently on display at the Musée d'archéologie méditerranéenne de la vieille Charité à Marseille. Robert Vallette

Roquepertuse has a fascinating history that includes an Iron Age hillfort and a Celtic community and shrine, where early forms of barley beer were made. The hillfort dates to ca. 300 BC, with a fortification wall enclosing some 1300 square meters; its religious connotations including this two-headed god, a forerunner of the Roman god Janus.

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Oppida

An oppida is, basically, a hillfort built by the Romans during their expansion into various parts of Europe.

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Enclosed Settlement

Sometimes you will see hillforts that were not built during the European Iron Age referred to as "enclosed settlements". During our uneasy occupation of this planet, most cultural groups have at one time or another had to construct walls or ditches or ramparts around their villages to protect themselves from their neighbors. You can find enclosed settlements all over the world.

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A vitrified fort is one that has been subjected to intense heat, whether purposeful or by accident. Firing a wall of some types of stone and earth, as you might imagine, can crystallize the minerals, making the wall that much more protected.