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The Iron Age

Overview: c. 800 BC - AD 43

Memorials to the dead had dominated the landscape of Neolithic and Bronze Age Herefordshire, and very little effort appears to have been put into permanent house building. During the Iron Age this began to change and huge settlements were constructed to mark out territories and function as a sign of power.

The hillforts of Iron Age Herefordshire are numerous. They are usually an irregular oval enclosure on a hilltop, covering an area of up to 50 acres in extent. They were enclosed camps with an inner rampart above a steep outer ditch designed to trap the enemy, allowing the defenders to deal with them with no easy escape.

The enclosure was often only surrounded by one rampart (univallate), which formed a ring around the contour of the hill about 100ft below the summit. Examples of this type of hillfort in Herefordshire include Aconbury (HER 910), Credenhill (HER 906),Wall Hills Camp (HER 913) and Sutton Walls (HER 912).
Later in the Iron Age the defensive structure changed from enclosures with one rampart to ones with a series of concentric ramparts (multivallate). This made the enclosures more defensively secure and attack by enemies more difficult. Often the multivallate camps would consist of an interior enclosure surrounded by one rampart with an outer annexe surrounded by another. Ivington Camp (HER 905), Little Doward (HER 901) and Midsummer Hill (HER 931) are all examples of this type of defence in Herefordshire.

The most accessible building materials in Herefordshire in the Iron Age were timber, soil and stone. Stone was used less for hillforts as it was difficult to transport up the hillside; it would only have been used extensively if it could have been cut from the surrounding hillside. Timber would have been used for strengthening the ramparts and for interior buildings.

There are over 2,000 Iron Age hillforts in Britain, with more than 30 in Herefordshire. However, not all of the hillforts in this county were built at great heights: in fact only Croft Ambrey (HER 177) and the Herefordshire Beacon (also known as British Camp; HER 932) were built over 1,000ft above sea level. The majority of hillforts in Herefordshire are on gently sloping land with an average overall rise of 350 feet.

Each of the enclosures in Herefordshire appears to have been built independently for the optimum local command, and not as part of a wider communication system.

Croft Ambrey, Credenhill and Midsummer Hill appear to have been carefully planned inside with closely packed lines of back to back housing in a rectangular plan. Settlements of the size of Croft Ambrey and Credenhill would have had a large population and would have needed a high level of organisation to function properly.

If it is considered that these hillforts were of a domestic rather than defensive nature then archaeologists have estimated figures of 75 to 100 people for every acre covered by an Iron Age hillfort. If this is correct then the population of Iron Age Herefordshire may have been as much as 30,000 people: this is a great deal larger than the 1086 Domesday Survey estimates for the county. (See John and Margaret West, A History of Herefordshire, 1985, p. 20.)

These "domestic" hillforts would have needed to farm large areas outside their defences to feed the inhabitants, perhaps even several thousand acres.

Finds from Iron Age Herefordshire are rare and most theories of Iron Age life are developed based on post-holes and fragments of pottery. Metal objects are rare and most organic finds (wood, bone, fabric, etc.) are dissolved in the acidic soil of the hilltops.

A discovery at Sutton Walls hillfort has provided the best insight into what the Iron Age Herefordian man looked like. Many skeletons, of both men and boys, were found dumped in one of the fort's defensive ditches. They may have been massacred as prisoners of war. From these bones the physical appearance of the victims was recreated. It was discovered that these Iron Age men were an average 5ft 8in tall, with some being over 6ft tall. Their faces had prominent jaws and heavy features. One of the skeletons was of a man in his forties, while another may have been in his fifties. Many of the men appeared to have been strong, and though their teeth had been worn the signs of decay were minimal.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]