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

A hillfort 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 Age or Iron Age. Some were used in the post-Roman period. The fortification usually follows the contours of a hill and consists of one or more lines of earthworks, with stockades or defensive walls, and external ditches. Hillforts developed in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age, roughly the start of the first millennium BC, and were used in many Celtic areas of central and western Europe until the Roman conquest.

Nomenclature

The spellings "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 hillforts were abandoned, with the larger ones being redeveloped at a later date. Some hillforts 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.

Chronology

They are most common during later periods:

Prehistoric Europe saw a growing population. It has been estimated that in about 5000 BC during the Neolithic between 2 million and 5 million lived in Europe; in the Late Iron Age it had an estimated population of around 15 to 30 million. Outside Greece and Italy, which were more densely populated, the vast majority of settlements in the Iron Age were small, with perhaps no more than 50 inhabitants. Hillforts were the exception, and were the home of up to 1,000 people. With the emergence of oppida in the Late Iron Age, settlements could reach as large as 10,000 inhabitants.[4] As the population increased so did the complexity of prehistoric societies. Around 1100 BC hillforts emerged and in the following centuries spread through Europe. They served a range of purposes and were variously tribal centres, defended places, foci of ritual activity, and places of production.[5]

During the Hallstatt C period, hillforts became the dominant settlement type in the west of Hungary.[6] Julius Caesar described the large late Iron Age hillforts 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.

Hillforts 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.

Historiography

Excavations at hillforts in the first half of the 20th century focussed on the defenses, based on the assumption that hillforts were primarily developed for military purposes. The exception to this trend began in the 1930s with a series of excavations undertaken by Mortimer Wheeler a

A hillfort 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 Age or Iron Age. Some were used in the post-Roman period. The fortification usually follows the contours of a hill and consists of one or more lines of earthworks, with stockades or defensive walls, and external ditches. Hillforts developed in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age, roughly the start of the first millennium BC, and were used in many Celtic areas of central and western Europe until the Roman conquest.

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