Northumberland is home to the greatest concentration of hillforts in Britain. A great many are spectacular in their preservation rivalling anything Europe can offer. They have been spared attack by stone robbing, the plough and Antiquarian damage. In fact, the hilltops of Northumberland remain almost undisturbed since their last occupation over 1500 years ago.
We also have clear signs of arable agriculture, such as cultivation terraces, clearly visible which could even pre-date the Iron Age hillforts they surround. Without lifting a trowel we can see for ourselves evidence for the evolution of the form and construction of the hillfort.
Most of the hillforts in Northumberland, or indeed Britain, were not really forts at all. They are, with perhaps a couple of notable exceptions in the area, better described as ‘defended settlements’. So why do we call these settlements ‘forts’..?
Antiquarians could be considered to be the eighteenth and nineteenth-century forerunners of modern archaeologists. These gentleman scholars were, at times, little better than treasure hunters whose aim was simply to unearth new finds for their collections. They were engrossed in the classical histories of ancient Rome and Greece and thought that, before the Romans arrived in Britain, the native tribes were uneducated savages incapable of creating anything as sophisticated as the hilltop settlements.
In the minds of the Antiquarians, therefore, these structures had to have been constructed by the Romans. In that case, they had to have been military in purpose and so they called them ‘hill forts’. This was reflected in early maps where they were marked as ‘camps’, another term reflecting their supposed Roman origin.
The Bronze Age in Britain lasted roughly from 2500 to 700BC. In the early Bronze Age farming became established as an alternative to the nomadic Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle. This change meant that people began to settle which allowed increasing sophistication of bronze technology. There is evidence to suggest that, in the Bronze Age, the first phases of settlement began on the hilltops of Northumberland. Clusters of huts, the first roundhouses, perhaps surrounded by wooden palisade fences were established. The Bronze Age had a little more variety than today in terms of wildlife. There were wolves and bears in Britain at this point and that palisade seems a sensible idea!
By the Iron Age, which lasted from around 700BC to 100AD, the population had increased and most of Britain had been cleared of its native forests opening up new land for agriculture. The use of iron tools had accelerated the advance in farming techniques and efficiency. Hillforts reach their peak in the middle part of the Iron Age, around 200BC. Around this time we see the massive earthworks and stone ramparts appearing, replacing earlier timber structures.