Hillforts of the Ridgeway

A large audience was attracted to this talk by Emeritus Professor Gary Lock of Oxford University on 25th October (see photo’ below).

AIM G Lock 2a

The speaker  co-directed the Hillforts of the Ridgeway Project which ran between 1994 and 2000. Two of the three hillforts covered in his talk, Uffington and Segsbury Camp, have already been published with the report on the third, Alfred’s Castle, to follow.  The Ridgeway links these three sites which are part of a series of hillforts on the northern edge of the chalk uplands. By the time of the Iron Age the uplands would probably have undergone extensive tree clearance – wood being an important commodity – while the boggy lowland would have retained large wooded areas.

Reference was made to English Heritage’s National Mapping Programme (NMP) which aims to enhance the understanding of past human settlement by providing information on all archaeological sites and landscapes visible on aerial photographs. The Ridgeway area, a much researched region, has had a continuity of use between 1000BC and the 5th century AD with its occupants continually reusing its resources.  Professor Lock explained the concept of ‘landscape locales as historical mnemonics’, i.e. even before the invention of writing, generations of peoples recognised that there were particular areas associated withhistorical continuity.  Groups gathered at these places at particular times of the year as their forefathers had done.

Hillforts stretched right across Europe but they are not necessarily defensive structures.
People would employ them in different ways for their own particular purposes.  Hillforts in this area fit into this social template. While the three sites may at first appear similar, excavation has revealed that each is one is distinctive, as the speaker explained.

The White Horse Hill complex encompasses round barrows, a linear ditch and the chalk
figure White Horse as well as the hillfort.

The evidence suggests that Uffington Castle hillfort was constructed at the end of an earlier linear ditch in the 7th century BC with a single circuit of box rampart and opposing eastern and western entrances. In the 4th century BC the rampart was remodeled and the eastern entrance was blocked. There was very little evidence for activity within the enclosure and it was concluded that the hillfort was used for periodic ceremonial gatherings associated with the White Horse.  The hillfort was re-used and remodelled in Romano- British times, including for burial. By these times the White Horse could have been nearly 1,000 years old and it might have been its mythological attractions that drew people there, as is still the case today.

The Uffington White Horse is a highly stylised prehistoric hill figure formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk which has been shown to date back some 3,000 years by means of OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) carried out following archaeological investigations in 1994.

Segsbury Camp or Segsbury Castle, about 8 miles away, has an extensive ditch and ramparts with four gateways. It had round houses with pits in the middle dating from the 6th to 2nd centuries BC which had fallen into disuse by the Roman period. Excavation carried out in 1996 and 1997 suggests that it was a communal centre for various activities, including sheep management and exchange, which might also suggest religious offerings.

Alfred’s Castle is a small enclosure that lies a mile south of the Ridgeway. It has a large enclosure attached started around 6th century BC. The hillfort was established within a series of late Bronze Age linear ditches and revealed much evidence for occupation within it.  In the late first century AD a Romano-British farmhouse was built within the abandoned prehistoric enclosure.

The speaker also described Banjo enclosures, a number of which are found in this area. They are so named because they consist of a small round area with a long entrance track leading inwards from one direction, giving them the appearance in plan of frying pans or banjos. The enclosure is defined by a low bank and ditch with the earthworks at the end of the track sometimes turned outwards, creating a funnel effect. Once believed to be small farming settlements occupied between around 400 and 100 BC, the lack of finds relating to settlement associated with them means that they are currently thought to be seasonal ritual centres where feasting occurred.

For information on the Hillforts of the Ridgeway see http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/HOR1.html

by Jeff Griffiths




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