Before beginning any discussion of 'the forts of Celtic Britain', it is important to try to define just what constituted a Celtic fort, and who the Celts actually were. We also need to know when they built the fortified structures which still dot the landscape of modern Britain - if indeed they were responsible for such structures. Archaeologists and historians are unable to define whether Britain truly was Celtic, who the Celts actually were, or whether many of their 'forts' were really designed as military enclosures. Some archaeologists even categorize the stone-built brochs of northern Scotland as cattle sheds; in truth, they are more like medieval stone keeps.
Identifying who the Celts were is something of a historical minefield, the evidence being drawn from the accounts of classical writers, the surviving archaeological remains, and traces of linguistic links which can still be found on the 'Celtic fringe' of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Scottish Highlands. Unfortunately, these three strands fail to provide all the answers, and sometimes contradict each other. The first classical references to the Celts by Greek historians occur in the 6th century BC, when the people called the 'Keltoi' were identified as occupying the lands to the north of the Greek peninsula. The Keltoi raided into Greece and Italy, and in 390 BC they even sacked Rome. The Romans subsequently paid more attention to their neighbours, particularly after the former expanded into northern Italy and the French Mediterranean coast. They described the people they encountered as the Celts (or Galli in Latin). Some historians, such as Posidonius (whose works were passed on by later copyists), may even have lived among the Celts while learning what he could about their culture.
In the mid-1 st century BC, Julius Caesar provided a more detailed description of the Celts (or Gauls) of what is now France in his De Bellum Gallico (The Gallic War). He began with his now famous account of the land he conquered:
All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, or in our language Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws.
Uffington Castle, Berkshire. This substantial hill-fort was constructed around 700 BC, and encompasses an area of approximately nine acres. A white horse symbol cut into the chalk hillside adjacent to the hill-fort pre-dates the fort itself, and suggests that Uffington may have served as a site of both political and religious significance. (Author's collection)
Unfortunately neither Caesar, Strabo, nor any other classical writer had much to say of the Celts who lived in Britain. Instead we have to rely on linguistic or archaeological evidence. Elements of what was once a pan-European Celtic language still survive on the 'Celtic fringe' of Europe, where Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic all share the same linguistic roots. It was the 18th-century Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd who first identified this Celtic linguistic tradition, and who first established the existence of a finite Celtic culture. Indeed it was Lhuyd who resurrected the word 'Celtic', which coincided with the emerging evidence produced through the new science of archaeology.
From the mid-19th century onwards, archaeologists began to unearth artefacts that were attributed to the Celts - as defined by Lhuyd. Two sites in particular came to be associated with particular phases of Celtic cultural development: the Late Bronze Age site at Hallstatt in Austria, and the Iron Age religious site at La Tene in Switzerland, where Celtic votive offerings were recovered from the waters of Lake Neufchatel. Subsequently both sites gave their name to cultural phases into which all material evidence attributed to the Celts was placed. However, this was not the whole story. As evidence of the earlier Hallstatt phase can be found in some parts of Europe and not in others, archaeologists presumed that the Celtic sphere of influence expanded during the Iron Age to cover all of France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria and parts of Italy and a swathe of Eastern European countries traversed by the River Danube. However, recent archaeological evidence has shown that even during the Late Bronze Age the indigenous (and presumably non-Celtic) peoples of Britain maintained cultural and commercial links with the Celtic peoples on the European mainland. While artefacts help explain links between different regions in the Celtic world, they do little to help us understand how the indigenous population of Britain interacted with the Celtic incomers from the Late Bronze Age onwards. In other words, the division between the Celts and those that came before them is somewhat blurred. The only clear archaeological evidence we can find is the remains of pre-Celtic and post-Celtic settlements, religious centres and defensive works.
While in recent years archaeologists and historians have become more hesitant in defining exactly who or what the Celts were, there is at least some agreement on when they lived in Britain. The Celts were essentially an Iron Age culture, a term first devised by Danish antiquarians to help them catalogue their museum collections. Today the British Iron Age is used as shorthand for the period from around 700 BC (when the production of iron first took place in Britain) until just after the Roman invasion of southern England in AD 43. Even these parameters are far from fixed: for example, it is generally held that in Scotland, where the
While the basic shape of Uffington Castle's defensive line is pentagonal, the ditch and rampart curve in places to take advantage of minor changes in the contours.When first built the rampart would have been topped by a simple wooden palisade. (Author's collection)
Roman penetration was limited, the Iron Age continued until the 5th century AD. For the purposes of this book we will limit the study of Celtic fortifications to an even briefer period - from around 500 BC until a few decades after the first Roman invasion of Britain, c. AD 80, when most of mainland Britain had fallen under Roman control. While the Celtic period continued much later in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the nature of 'Dark Age' Celtic fortifications is a subject worthy of another study, and will therefore remain outside the boundaries of this book. Similarly, the author has avoided coverage of Ireland, a land with its own Celtic tale to tell, which is once again deserving of its own book.
No part of the surviving physical remains of Iron Age Celtic Britain is more spectacular that the fortifications that still dot the British landscape, from the great earthen hill-forts of southern England (such as Maiden Castle) to the imposing stone-built brochs of northern Scotland. While none of these were strong enough to keep out a determined attack by the Roman war machine, they still dominated the landscape, and to the pre-Roman people of Celtic Britain they would have represented the ultimate statement in political, military and social power. This book will provide a brief survey of the types of fortifications used, and will show how they developed over time and how they changed from region to region. It is also hoped that, in some way, it will explain how these great fortifications were defended, in their role as the last bastions of Celtic civilization in Britain.