Hill fort

Hill fort
Maiden Castle in England is one of the largest hill forts in Europe.[1][2] Photograph taken in 1935 by Major George Allen (1891–1940).

A hill fort is a type of earthworks used as a fortified refuge or defended settlement, located to exploit a rise in elevation for defensive advantage. They are typically European and of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some were used in the post-Roman period. The fortification usually follows the contours of a hill, consisting of one or more lines of earthworks, with stockades or defensive walls, and external ditches.

The nomenclature used for the sites is given, together with their typology, chronology and locations.



The terms "hill fort", "hill-fort" and "hillfort" are all used in the archaeological literature. They all refer to an elevated site with one or more ramparts made of earth, stone and/or wood, with an external ditch. Many small early hill forts were abandoned, with the larger ones being redeveloped at a later date. Some hill forts contain houses.

Similar but smaller and less defendable earthworks are found on the sides of hills. These are known as hill-slope enclosures and may have been animal pens.


Some European hill forts originate in the late Neolithic period, but they are most common during later periods:

Hill forts were in use in many Celtic areas of central and western Europe until the Roman conquest. Julius Caesar described the large late Iron Age hill forts he encountered during his campaigns in Gaul as oppida. By this time the larger ones had become more like cities than fortresses and many were assimilated as Roman towns.

Some hill forts in England were re-used in the post-Roman period and again in the Anglo-Saxon period as mint locations.

Types of hill fort

Beyond the simple definition of hill fort, there is a wide variation in types and periods from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages. Here are some considerations of general appearance and topology, which can be assessed without archaeological excavation:

  • Location
    • Hilltop Contour: the classic hill fort; an inland location with a hilltop defensive position surrounded by artificial ramparts or steep natural slopes. Examples: Brent Knoll, Mount Ipf.
    • Inland Promontory: an inland defensive position on a ridge or spur with steep slopes on 2 or 3 sides, and artificial ramparts on the level approaches. Example: Lambert's Castle.
    • Interfluvial: a promontory above the confluence of two rivers, or in the bend of a meander. Example: Kelheim.
    • Lowland: an inland location without special defensive advantages (except perhaps marshes), but surrounded by artificial ramparts; typical of later settled oppida. Examples: Maiden Castle, Stonea Camp.
    • Sea Cliff: a semi-circular crescent of ramparts backing on to a straight sea cliff; common on rocky Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland. Examples: Daw's Castle, Dinas Dinlle, Dún Aengus.
    • Sea Promontory: a linear earthwork across a narrow neck of land leading to a peninsula with steep cliffs to the sea on three sides; common on indented Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and west Wales. Examples: The Rumps, Huelgoat.
    • Sloping Enclosure: smaller earthwork on gently sloping hillsides; not significant defensive position. Examples: Goosehill Camp, Plainsfield Camp, Trendle Ring.
  • Area
    • > 20 ha: very large enclosures, too diffuse to defend, probably used for domesticated animals. Examples: Miholjanec.
    • 1 - 20 ha: defended areas large enough to support permanent tribal settlement.
    • < 1 ha: small enclosures, more likely to be individual farmsteads or animal pens.
  • Ramparts, walls and ditches
    • Univallate: a single circuit of ramparts for enclosure and defence. Example: Solsbury Hill.
    • Multivallate: more than one layer of defensive earthworks, outer works might not be complete circuits, but defend the weakest approaches; typically the inner circuit is original, with outer circuits added later. Example: Cadbury Castle.
  • Entrances
    • Simple opening: might indicate an enclosure, rather than a defended position; sometimes the main ramparts may turn inward or outward, and be widened and heightened to control the entrance. Example: Dowsborough.
    • Linear holloway: straight parallel pair of ramparts dominating the entrance; projecting either inward, outward, or occasionally overlapped along the main rampart. Example: Norton Camp.
    • Complex: multiple overlapping outer works; staggered or interleaved multivallate ramparts; zig-zag entrance way, sling platforms and well planned lines of fire. Examples: Maiden Castle.

Some forts were also settlements, while others were only occupied seasonally, or in times of strife. Archaeological excavation reveals more about the dates of occupation and modes of use. Typical features for excavation include:

  • Ramparts and ditches
  • Settlement and occupation
  • Temples and peacetime burials
    • Platforms and temple foundations.
    • Graves and offerings
  • Warfare
    • Weapons: sling-shot, shields, armour, swords, axes, spears, arrows.
    • Sieges and conquest: ballista bolts, ash layers, vitrified stones, burnt post holes.
    • Wartime burials: typically outside the ramparts:
      • Contemporary individual burials by local inhabitants.
      • Massed grave pits dug by a conquering army.

Hill forts were frequently occupied by conquering armies, but on other occasions the forts were destroyed, the local people forcibly evicted, and the forts left derelict. For example, Solsbury Hill was sacked and deserted during the Belgic invasions of southern Britain in the 1st century BC. Abandoned forts were sometimes reoccupied and refortified under renewed threat of foreign invasion, such as the Dukes' Wars in Lithuania, and the successive invasions of Britain by Romans, Saxons and Vikings.

Hill forts by country


Dunadd hill fort near Kilmartin in Argyll, similar to ring-forts in Ireland and Iberian castros

Hill forts in Britain are known from the Bronze Age, but the great period of hill fort construction was during the Iron Age, between 200 BC and the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. The Romans occupied some forts, such as the military garrison at Hod Hill, and the temple at Brean Down, but others were destroyed and abandoned. Partially articulated remains of between 28 and 40 men, women and children at Cadbury Castle were thought by the excavator[4] to implicate the Cadbury population in a revolt in the 70s AD (roughly contemporary with that of Boudicca in the East of England), although this has been questioned by subsequent researchers.[5][6] However, the presence of barracks on the hilltop in the decades following the conquest suggest an ongoing struggle to suppress local dissent.

Many of the place names of these sites bear the suffix "-bury", meaning fort. Some are called Cytiau (cytiau'r Gwyddelod, the huts of the Irish).[7][8] Maiden Castle in Dorset is the largest hill fort in England. Where Roman influence was less strong, such as uninvaded Ireland and unsubdued northern Scotland, hill forts were still built and used for several more centuries.

There are over 2000 Iron Age hillforts known in Britain of which nearly 600 are in Wales.[9] Danebury in Hampshire, is the most thoroughly investigated Iron Age hillfort in Britain, as well as the most extensively published.[10]

Cadbury Castle, Somerset is the largest amongst forts reoccupied following the end of Roman rule, to defend against pirate raids, and the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The cemetery outside Poundbury Hill contains east-facing Christian burials of the 4th century. The Wansdyke was a new linear earthwork connected to the existing hill fort at Maes Knoll, which defined the Celtic-Saxon border in south-west England during the period 577-652 AD.

Some hill forts were re-occupied by the Anglo-Saxons during the period of Viking raids. King Alfred established a network of coastal hill forts and lookout posts in Wessex, linked by a Herepath, or military road, which enabled his armies to cover Viking movements at sea. For example, see Daw's Castle and Battle of Cynwit.

It has been suggested on reasonable evidence that many so-called hill forts were just used to pen in cattle, horses, or other domesticated animals. The large sprawling examples at Bindon Hill and Bathampton Down are more than 50 acres (20 ha). Even those that were defensive settlements in the Iron Age were sometimes used for coralling animals in later periods. For example, see Coney's Castle, Dolebury Warren and Pilsdon Pen. However, it is difficult to prove that people definitely did not dwell there, as lack of evidence is not proof of absence.

Examples include:

Central Europe

An 11th-century hill fort in Bielsko-Biała

The Hallstatt and La Tene cultures originated in what is now southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. However, hill forts were built also in Poland and further east, till the Middle Ages.

The predominant form of rampart construction is pfostenschlitzmauer, or Kelheim-style. The murus gallicus defenses at Manching were later rebuilt and extended in the pfostenschlitzmauer style.

Examples include:


Varbola ruins

The Estonian word for hill fort is linnamägi (plural linnamäed), meaning hillfort or hillburgh. There are several hundred hill forts or presumed ancient hill fort sites all over Estonia. Some of them, like Toompea in Tallinn or Toomemägi in Tartu, are governance centres used since ancient times up until today. Some others, like Varbola are historical sites nowadays.

Most likely the Estonian hill forts were in pre-Christian times administrative, economic and military centres of Estonian tribes. Although some of them were probably used only during times of crisis and stood empty in peacetime (for example Soontagana in Koonga parish, Pärnu county.

Examples include:


The Gaulish hero Vercingetorix was famously besieged by Julius Caesar in the hill fort of Alesia. The predominant form of rampart construction was murus gallicus.

Examples include:


Exterior view of Grianan of Aileach situated in County Donegal

A Bronze-age and Iron-age type of defended settlement from prehistoric Ireland is the hill-fort: a large circular type between 1 and 40 acres (more usually 5-10acres) enclosed by a stone wall or earthen rampart or both. These hill-forts are strategically located on top of large stand alone hills if possible to ensure maximum defence against raids from neighbouring enemies. These would have been tribally important centres where the Chief or King of the area would live with his extended family and support themselves by farming and renting cattle to their underlings.

There are around 40 known hill-forts known in Ireland:[12] about 12 are multivallate forts, as distinguished by multiple ramparts, or a large counterscarp (outer bank). The imposing example at Mooghaun is defended by multiple stone walls. One must be careful to not confuse a hill-fort with a 'ringfort' a medieval settlement a common archaeological feature across the whole island of Ireland, over 40,000 examples are known.

Some hill-forts have cairns inside their boundaries and there are many speculations about this phenomenon, the theories range from being a strange cult religion to just co-incidence the same kind of area as they both like (hill tops with commanding views of the local vicinity), the excavation at Freestone Hill in Co. Kilkenny has shown that there was indeed a ditch cut out around the cairn, evidence that they had respect for the feature no matter what they believed about it.

Examples include:

  • Lyles Hill, Co. Antrim
  • Maghera Temple, Co. Cavan
  • Mooghaun, Co. Clare (multivallate)
  • Grianán of Aileach, Co. Donegal (multivallate)
  • Dunbeg, Co. Down
  • Downpatrick, Co. Down
  • Caherconree, Co. Kerry
  • Dún Ailinne, Co. Kildare
  • Dunmurray Hill, Co. Kildare
  • Freestone Hill, Co. Kilkenny
  • Spa Hill, Co. Kilkenny
  • Rath Meave at Tara, Co. Meath
  • Clogher, Co. Tyrone
  • Emain Macha, Co. Armagh
  • Brusselstown Ring, Co. Wicklow
  • Rathgall, Co. Wicklow (multivallate)


Piliakalnis complex in Kernavė, a World Heritage Site
Daubariai piliakalnis in Mažeikiai district municipality

The Lithuanian word for hill fort is piliakalnis (plural piliakalniai), from pilis (=castle) and kalnas (=mountain, hill).

Lithuania has hill forts dating from the Bronze Age in the 1st millennium BC. The earliest examples in present day Lithuania are found in the east of the country. Most of these forts were built or expanded between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, when they were used in the Dukes' Wars, and against the invasion of Teutonic Knights from the west. Most forts were located on the banks of a river, or a confluence where two rivers met. These fortifications were typically wooden, although some had additional stone or brick walls. The hill was usually sculpted for defensive purposes, with the top flattened and the natural slopes made steeper for defense.

During the early years of Grand Duchy of Lithuania piliakalniai played a major role in conflicts with the Livonian Order and the Teutonic Knights. During this period the number of piliakalniai decreased, but those that remained had stronger fortifications. Two main defense lines developed: one along the Neman River (against the Teutonic Order) and another along the border with Livonia. Two other lines started to form, but did not fully develop. One was to protect Vilnius, the capital, and the other line in Samogitia, was a major target for both orders. This territory separated the two Orders and prevented joint action between them and Pagan Lithuania.

Most of the forts were constructed of wood and were quite easy to burn. As firearms and artillery developed, piliakalnis and their castles became ineffective. Also, the Livonian Order was defeated in 1236 in the Battle of Saule. The Teutonic Knights suffered a major defeat in 1410 in the Battle of Grunwald and did not pose any further major threat.

According to the Lietuvos piliakalnių atlasas (English: Atlas of Piliakalniai in Lithuania), there were 826 piliakalniai in Lithuania. Some researchers present a total number of 840 known piliakalnis in 2007; the number is likely to increase as even more of them are discovered every year. Most piliakalniai are located near rivers and are endangered by erosion: many have partly collapsed as the flooded river has washed out the base of the hill. Now around 80 percent of piliakalniai are covered by forests and are hardly accessible to visitors.

Examples include:

  • Kernavė, (Lithuania, a World Heritage Site)

Portugal and Spain

Rebuilt house in the oppidum of St. Tegra, A Guarda, Galicia
Hill fort of Coaña, Asturias, Spain
Hill fort of Baroña, Galicia
Oppidum of Lanobri, San Cibrao de Lás, Galicia

In Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, province of Ávila and Northern Portugal a castro is a fortified pre-Roman Iron Age village, usually located on a hill or some naturally easy defendable place.[13] The larger hill forts are also called citanias, cividades or cidás (English: cities). These castros were located on hilltops, which allowed tactical control over the surrounding countryside and provided natural defenses. They usually had available a spring or small creek to provide water; some even had large reservoirs to use during sieges. Typically, a castro had one to five stone and earth walls, which complements the natural defenses of the hill. The buildings inside, most of them circular in shape, some rectangular, were about 3.5–15 m (11–49 ft) long; they were made out of stone with thatch roofs resting on a wood column in the centre of the building. In the major oppida there were regular streets, suggesting some form of central organization. Castros vary in surface from less than an hectare to some 50 ones, and most were abandoned after the Roman conquest of the territory.

Many castros were already established during the Atlantic Bronze Age period, predating Hallstatt culture.

Many of the megaliths from the Bronze Age such as menhirs and dolmens, which are frequently located near the castros, also predate the Celts in Portugal, Asturias and Galicia as well as in Atlantic France, Britain and Ireland. These megaliths were probably reused in syncretic rituals by the Celtic Druids.

The Celtiberian people occupied an inland region in central northern Spain, straddling the upper valleys of the Ebro, Douro and Tajo. They built hillforts, fortified hilltop towns and oppida, including Numantia.

Archaeological sites:

By region:

  • List of castros in Asturias
  • List of castros in Galicia
  • List of castros in Cantabria
  • List of castros in Basque Country
  • List of castros in Ávila

Scandinavia and Russia

Hill fort in Halikko, Finland

In Scandinavia and northern Russia, hill forts are fortifications from the Iron Age which may have had several functions. They are usually located on the crests of hills and mountains making use of precipices and marshes which worked as natural defenses. The crests' more accessible parts were defended with walls of stone and outer walls in the slopes beneath are common. Round and closed, so called, ring forts are common even on flat ground. The walls often have remaining parts of stone, which were probably the support of pales. They often have well delineated gateways, the gates of which were probably of wood. Hill forts with strong walls are often located beside old trading routes and have an offensive character, whereas others are reclusive and were weakly fortified, probably only for hiding during raids.

Many forts, located centrally in densely populated areas, were permanently settled strongholds and can show traces of settlements both inside and outside. Older place names containing the element sten/stein were usually hill forts.

In Sweden, there are 1100 known hill forts with a strong concentration on the northern west coast and in eastern Svealand. Only in Södermanland, there are 300, in Uppland 150, Östergötland 130 and Bohuslän and Gotland 90-100 each.

On the island of Gotland, located in southeastern Sweden, ring forts can be from the Pre-Roman Iron Age, but findings from the period 200 AD- 600 AD dominate. Many were still in use during the Middle Ages.

The Finnish word for hill fort is linnavuori (plural linnavuoret), from linna (English: fort, castle) and vuori (English: mountain). Finnish forts were constructed mostly of wood.

Examples include:

See also


  1. ^ Maiden Castle, English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.15733, retrieved 2009-05-31 
  2. ^ Maiden Castle, Pastscape.org.uk, http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=451864, retrieved 2009-05-27 
  3. ^ Ayán Vila 2008: 913.
  4. ^ Alcock, Leslie (1972). By South Cadbury, is that Camelot? Excavations at Cadbury Castle 1966-70. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 161–163. ISBN 0-8128-1505-X. 
  5. ^ Barrett, John (2000). Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The later prehistoric and early historic archaeology. London: English Heritage. ISBN 1850747164. 
  6. ^ Tabor, Richard (2008). Cadbury Castle: The hillfort and landscapes. Stroud: The History Press. pp. 156–164. ISBN 9780752447155. 
  7. ^ Notes and Queries: a Medium of Inter-communication for Literary Men, Artists. Oxford University Press. Page 299
  8. ^ "Harris, Roy. Foundations of Indo-European comparative philology 1800-1850". Google.com. http://www.google.com/books?id=5gldvIRA4-0C&pg=PA530&dq=Cytian&lr=&sig=uzAXJ4P-P6F46gD-t9dKGjWLSzU. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  9. ^ The Iron Age, smr.herefordshire.gov.uk
  10. ^ Cunliffe, Barry (2000). The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape. Oxford: English Heritage and Oxford University Committee for Archaeology. ISBN 0947816488. 
  11. ^ http://muop.bratislava.sk/VismoOnline_ActionScripts/File.aspx?id_org=600176&id_dokumenty=1008
  12. ^ Raftery 1972, p. 39
  13. ^ "Castrenor". Castrenor. http://www.castrenor.com/?mod=mapacastros&event=listaCastros&lang=en. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 


Further reading

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