The defence of a hillfort

The Celtic fortifications of Britain were certainly not designed to withstand an attack by a professional standing army such as the one fielded by Rome in the 1st century AD. The Greek historian Strabo said of the Celts that they 'were war mad, high spirited, and quick to battle, but otherwise straightforward, and not of evil character'. By necessity the way they designed their fortifications was influenced by the manner in which they waged war. In particular, their ability to defend brochs, hill-forts or other fortified sites depended on their tactical ability, their available weapons, and their skill in using them.

It is important to consider the weapons at their disposal in order to understand what part these played in the defence of a fortified position. We know from the writings of Roman historians such as Caesar, Tacitus, Dio and Suetonius among others how the Celts fought, and what weapons they used. The principal missile weapon in use in Britain was the sling, which fired a small round stone a distance of up to 60m. Although primarily a hunting weapon, it could also be used in time of war. The large caches of slingshot stones recovered from several hill-forts are clear indications that these weapons were considered crucial in the defence of a fortified position. An opponent would rarely be killed by a slingshot, but the stone it fired could break bones or crack skulls. A harassing fire could be aimed at an approaching force, and as the attackers clambered over the outer lines of banks and ditches they would be slowed, thus remaining in optimum range for longer than if their approach went unhampered.

A section of the Broch of Mousa shows how the walls were double-skinned above ground level, allowing space for the stairway between the two walls. As at Gurness, the ground floor contained wells and storage pits. (Stratford Archive)


Hill Fort Gate

LEFT Hill-fort gates: Dinorben, c.500-100 BC

The hill-fort of Dinorben, Wales made the best possible use of the natural defences of the site on which it was built, protected on three sides by a steep escarpment, as shown in the plan view at top right.The remaining side was protected by a thick stone rampart and three outlying ditches.The site was excavated on three occasions, and this information allows us to reconstruct the three phases of development of the fort's gateway. In the first phase (I) a simple stone-fronted wall was built around a timber-laced frame, although there is evidence that this structure replaced an earlier wooden palisade, bank and ditch. A bulwark on one side of the gate provided a convenient platform for the defenders. During the next phase (2) the original walls were extensively widened to around 10m, protected by a stone-filled earthen glacis. The gateway itself was flanked by two guard chambers, while a deep ditch encircled the landward side of the fort. In the final phase (3) the stone ramparts of the fort were heightened to create a breastwork, while additional ditches were cut in front of the gateway.The approach to the gateway was revetted using stone, and angled so that any attacker would have to expose his unshielded side to the defenders' fire as he approached.

There was a town of the Remi, by name Bibrax, eight miles distant from this camp. This the Belgae on their march began to attack with great vigour. [The assault| was with difficulty sustained for that day. The Gauls' mode of besieging is the same as that of the Belgae: when after having drawn a large number of men around the whole of the fortifications, stones

Once the enemy reached the last ditch they would be within javelin range. Although they were slow in flight, if enough light throwing spears were thrown at a target the barrage would almost certainly cause casualties, being difficult to avoid. Given that they were usually thrown overarm from a rampart against troops approaching the firer from below, they were difficult weapons to aim with any effect. Instead they should be considered more of an indirect fire weapon - a last form of defensive fire before the attackers reached the rampart or gateway. Finally, the defenders would throw whatever they had to hand, such as piles of rocks. Once the attackers had scaled the bank and had reached the rampart, the fighting would be hand-to-hand, using spear, sword and shield. Bows were almost certainly used as hunting weapons by the Celts in Britain, although they appear to have been fairly rare. Strangely there is no account of them being used as a military weapon.

The practical limitations of these weapons influenced the way the Celts built fortifications. After all, the people who built the brochs and hill-forts of Celtic Britain almost certainly had no experience of the Roman way of war, and had no inkling of the vast technological gap between their defensive methods and the Roman form of siege warfare, with its secure fortified camps, siege engines and concentrated bombardments. They built to defend themselves against what they knew - raids by fellow Celts, or even large-scale assaults a determined tribal enemy. This meant maintaining a well-defended perimeter, and encircling this with man-made or natural terrain designed to hinder an attacker, either by forcing them to endure a rain of missiles as they approached the inner ramparts, or by tiring them as they struggled to climb up towards the waiting defenders. Given these parameters, hill-forts appear to have been successful in doing what they were designed for. Although we know less about how brochs were defended, their similarity to later Norman keeps or even Border Reiver strongholds speaks volumes about the practicality of their design.

We know a little about the type of warfare for which the great hill-forts were built from Julius Caesar, who described Celtic siege tactics as they existed in the mid-lst century BC. His comments are brief but revealing:

Archaeological evidence suggests that the interior of the Broch of Mousa was once divided by wooden floors. Access to each level was through a narrow stone stairway built between the outer and inner skins of the wall.The stair ended in a wall walk, although it appears the whole structure was once covered by a conical timber and thatched roof. (Historic Scotland)

have begun to be cast against the wall on all sides, and the wall has been stripped of its defenders, [then], forming a testudo, they advance to the gates and undermine the wall: which was easily effected on this occasion; for while so large a number were casting stones and darts, no one was able to maintain his position upon the wall. When night had put an end to the assault, Iccius, who was then in command of the town, one of the Remi, a man of the highest rank and influence among his people, and one of those who had come to Caesar as ambassador [to sue] for peace, sends messengers to him, [to report] 'That, unless assistance were sent to him he could not hold out any longer.' (The Gallic Wars)

Caesar duly marched to the aid of the Remi and destroyed the Belgae in battle. The account might well have been written a century before the hill-forts of Britain faced an attack by the Romans, but the tribal warfare for which the forts were designed would hardly have changed much. The mention that the attackers assaulted the gate is particularly revealing, as the evidence from Danebury and several other forts suggests that the gateway was the weak point of the defences. Once the defenders could reach it they would be able to set it on fire, which might well have been what happened at Danebury. Of course Caesar's comment that the Celts formed a testudo (or 'tortoise', an attacking formation used by the Roman army) is misleading. It was simply the best means he had of describing a dense assault column of Celtic warriors.

A problem with descriptions of the Celtic forts of Britain and the way they were attacked or defended is that we must rely on a mixture of non-Celtic observers, and often fragmentary or misleading archaeological evidence. The combination of the two can sometimes have dramatically misleading results. During his excavations of Maiden Castle Sir Mortimer Wheeler became convinced that the hill-fort had been attacked by the Romans, who stormed their way into the fort's eastern gateway. He had good reason to be convinced, as the hill-fort stood directly in the path of the Roman invasion, and his team uncovered the remains of what he thought were war graves.

In AD 43 the Roman II (Augusta) Legion advanced rapidly through southern England, led by its commander, the future Roman emperor Vespasian. According to his biographer, Vespasian subdued 'two very formidable tribes and over 20 towns' (or rather hill-forts), one of which was probably Maiden Castle; the tribes were probably the Belgae and the Durotrigii. By the time the Romans reached Maiden Castle the defenders had prepared themselves as best they could;

Dun Carloway (Dun Charlabhaigh) is another small but well-preserved Late Iron Age broch, whose remains perch spectacularly above Loch Roag on Lewis.The broch was damaged during a 16th-century Highland feud when it was used as a hideout, but the double-skinned nature of its wall construction is all the more clearly shown by the ruinous condition. (Historic Scotland)

Charlabhaigh Scotland

archaeologists have found the remains of substantial caches of stone shot for slings, the majority of which appear to have been gathered from nearby Chesil Beach. Sir Mortimer Wheeler argued that Vespasian would have crossed the River Frome where Dorchester now stands, and having seen how formidable the western defences were, ordered his legion to concentrate in front of the eastern gate. The hill-fort, described by the historian Leonard Cottrell in 1958 as the work of a 'Vauban of the Iron Age', would indeed have looked formidable. In his report on the excavations published in 1943, Wheeler described what he thought occurred next:

First the regiment of artillery which usually accompanied a legion was ordered into action and put down a barrage of ballista arrows. The arrows have been found about the site, and buried amongst the outworks, as was a man with an arrowhead still embedded in one of his vertebrae (to be seen in the Dorchester Museum). Following the barrage, the Roman infantry advanced up the slope, cutting its way from rampart to rampart until it reached the innermost bay, where some circular huts had recently been built. These were set alight, and under the rising clouds of smoke the gates were stormed and the position carried. But resistance had been obstinate and the fury of the legionaries was aroused. For a space, confusion, and massacre dominated the scene. Men and women, young and old, were savagely cut down before the troops were called to heel. A systematic slighting of the defences followed, whereafter the legion was withdrawn, doubtless taking hostages with it, and the dazed inhabitants were left to bury their dead amongst the ashes of the huts beside the gates. The task was carried out anxiously and without order, but, even so, from few graves were omitted those tributes of food and drink which were the proper requisites of the dead. With their cups and food-vessels and trinkets, the bones, often two or more skeletons huddled into a single grave and many of the skulls deeply scored with sword cuts, made a sad and dramatic showing - the earliest British war-cemetery known to us.

While today one might applaud the flair with which archaeologists wrote reports in those days, subsequent excavations have revealed that several assumptions Sir Mortimer Wheeler made to develop his 'Battle of the East Gate' theory cannot now be sustained. His assault theory rests on the presence of his 'war-cemetery', but he failed to show that of the 52 bodies discovered there, only 14 had died by violent means. Today archaeologists consider it more likely that the site was indeed a cemetery, but one which developed over time, and to which bodies were brought for burial. They were therefore not buried where they had fallen in defence of the eastern gateway. Modern forensic studies have even shown that some of those that sustained wounds did not die from them, but instead lived on for some time after receiving them.

Wheeler based his account of the burning of the fort's guard huts on his discovery of a charcoal layer just outside the eastern gateway. However, archaeologists now believe this was produced by iron-working, the evidence of which in the form of Celtic arrowheads now supports this theory rather than provides us with evidence of an assault. After all, bows were used in insignificant numbers by the Celts at this time, and their presence does not necessarily suggest that a unit of Celtic archers made a last stand on the spot. The only piece of evidence that has successfully stood the test of time is the slighting of the gateway - as revealed by the collapsed sides of the stone-clad gateway. The remains were overlaid by early Roman pottery, suggesting the collapse occurred prior to Roman settlement in the area - a date consistent with the Roman invasion. This is consistent with the idea of Vespasian's progress through southern England, and may represent a deliberate policy of destroying the gateways of Celtic fortifications as a means of guaranteeing the subjugation of the inhabitants.

Maiden Castle was not the only hill-fort attacked by the Romans, or even by the Celts. Around 100 BC the hill-fort of Danebury was destroyed, or at least its gateway was burned down. Tools and horse trappings were abandoned, suggesting a hurried departure of the inhabitants, or a violent end. The remains of 21 mutilated bodies were found in two grave pits close to the gate, of both sexes, and ranging in age from four to 45. The pits were never properly covered, suggesting open graves into which the bodies were thrown. All this points towards a violent end to the occupation of Danebury, but once again archaeology stops short of explaining what exactly happened. Professor Barry Cunliffe, the director of the Danebury excavation, suggested that the end of the fort was a result of tension created by a population expansion in southern England, but the full story may never be known.

At Hod Hill, Dorset there is evidence of the hurried repair and improvement of the defensive works, possibly undertaken as a response to news of the Roman invasion. The last-minute improvements did little to help the defenders, as there is evidence that Hod Hill was attacked by the Roman army in AD 43, almost certainly the work of Vespasian and his 11 (Augusta) Legion as it marched west through modern-day Dorset. The site was excavated during the 1950s by Sir Ian Richmond, who was particularly keen to find evidence of a Roman assault. What he did discover was even more intriguing. One of the roundhouses within the enclosure was larger than those around it, which might suggest it was the home of a chieftain or an important administrative building. Archaeologists uncovered 11 Roman ballista bolts amid its ruins, buried nose-first as if fired from the same location somewhere outside the south-east corner of the fort. The accuracy of the fire was particularly impressive, as the bolts were concentrated around that one target. It has been suggested that when the defenders of Hod Hill refused to surrender, the Romans demonstrated the efficiency of their siege train by destroying this one hut - thus prompting the garrison to open their gates. As there is no other evidence of battle this remains a plausible explanation of what happened, but as usual the evidence is open to interpretation. Certainly Vespasian considered the site to be important: he ordered the building of a Roman auxiliary camp in the north-east corner of the Iron Age defences.

Another site worth noting is that of Burnswark in Dumfries, a hill-fort flanked by the remains of two Roman siege camps. When the site was first excavated in 1898 it was assumed that Burnswark had been besieged by the Romans, whose camps were built within siege-engine range of the ramparts. However, more recent excavations conducted in the 1970s have proved that the Roman siegeworks were

Clickhimin in Shetland is another broch settlement, built in various stages between 200 and 50 BC. The entrance to the broch itself was protected by this 'blockhouse', and an outlying circular stone rampart enclosed the surrounding 50 settlement. (Historic Scotland)

Iron Age Hillfort Studies ScotlandSword Training Border Reivers

Dun Telve is one of two Iron Age brochs built in Glen Elg, Rossshire, close to the Isle of Skye (its partner being Dun Troddan). It is the largest surviving broch structure to be found on the Scottish mainland, with its remaining section of wall extending to a height of just over I Om. (Stratford Archive)

Dun Telve is one of two Iron Age brochs built in Glen Elg, Rossshire, close to the Isle of Skye (its partner being Dun Troddan). It is the largest surviving broch structure to be found on the Scottish mainland, with its remaining section of wall extending to a height of just over I Om. (Stratford Archive)

built after the fort fell into disuse, almost certainly providing a training ground for the Roman troops stationed in southern Scotland during the late 1st century and early 2nd century AD. In effect the hill-fort had become a Roman firing range. This suggests that the Romans took the reduction of hill-forts seriously, possibly as a means of preparing for campaigns against the un-pacified Celtic tribes to the north. These works are in stark contrast to the lack of Roman siegeworks in the rest of Britain, which suggests that if the Romans ever encountered a fortress that defied them, they would lay siege to it in accordance with their military doctrine, establishing secure camps from which to bombard the defences. Once the defenders were driven from the ramparts the Romans would probably send in auxiliary troops to secure the fort, holding their veteran legionaries back as a reserve.

This is how the Romans fought at Mons Graupius (AD 84) against the Caledonii, or when they pacified Gaul, Judaea and Dacia. The lack of fortified camps in the British Isles suggests that instances of resistance against the Romans were rare. It is more likely that the methods suggested at Hod Hill - a demonstration of Roman military might - were sufficient to force the surrender of most of Britain's Celtic fortresses. While it is appealing to imagine the defence of sites such as Maiden Castle as romantic last stands by the Celtic inhabitants in Britain, the truth was probably much more mundane. Faced with the futility of resistance, the defenders made peace with the invaders, so bringing the era of their political and military independence to a close.

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  • selam
    What problems occurred in the excavation of maiden castle dorset?
    8 years ago
  • ren
    What is name for a fortified hill built by maori to defend themselves?
    8 years ago
  • saundra
    What weapons did they use in hillfort?
    3 years ago
  • Kelsie
    What happened to the celts defending the fort on the Wrekin?
    8 months ago

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