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Hillforts

Hillforts are defended, enclosed sites on hills. A few were built in the Bronze Age, but most date to the Iron Age (800BC – 43AD). Although settlements were spread out at this time, there were ties, trading, and conflicts between tribal groups. As a result, hillforts were multi-purpose structures. They probably served as administrative centres, as industrial sites, and as forts. Defences included ditches, wooden walls, and ramparts (banks made from earth, wood, or stone). Their high locations also provided long-distance views for monitoring the area.

In Northamptonshire, over twenty defended hilltop enclosures have been found. Although most have been damaged or completely destroyed, artefacts found give us further clues to their use. Some hillforts were inhabited, others probably functioned as tribal power bases. By the Roman period, however, most of the hillforts had been deserted and the population was increasingly based in village-like communities.

Click on the photos below to learn more about each hillfort.

  • Arbury Banks Arbury Banks

    Arbury Banks is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort built on the flat summit of a low hill near Chipping Warden. It originally covered seven and a half acres. The low-lying location and lack of natural defences suggest that it was mainly a trading site. It probably used nearby Warden Hill and Jobs Hill as lookout points for further protection.

    The ramparts (defensive banks) later became part of the medieval field system.

    There is no public access to Arbury Banks.

    Image reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence

  • Borough Hill Borough Hill

    ​Borough Hill is the remains of a massive Iron Age hillfort near Daventry, which may have started in the Bronze Age. Covering over a hundred acres, the site is one of the largest hillforts in the country. Its scale suggests that it may have had ritual importance and farming uses as well as being a fort. A smaller defended site within the northern part of the hillfort probably dates from the late Iron Age.

    The site had many later uses and includes a Roman villa and Anglo-Saxon burials. More recently, it was home to a transmitting station for the BBC’s World Service.

    Visitors can see the remaining hillfort defences on Borough Hill, a public park.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Castle Yard Castle Yard

    ​Castle Yard is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort built on the top of a narrow ridge near Farthingstone. It was originally rectangular and covered around six acres. Evidence of iron smelting, dating to the 5th or 6th century BC, suggests that the site was probably an important manufacturing centre and trading point.

    The remains of a medieval castle 150m away also shows the importance of the site’s long-distance views.

    Some remaining defences are visible, but there is no public access to Castle Yard.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Crow Hill Crow Hill

    ​Crow Hill is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort on a hill slope near Irthlingborough. It was originally rectangular and covered six acres. The hillfort offered an excellent lookout along the River Nene and one of its key functions was probably monitoring river traffic. Between the Crow Hill, Hunsbury Hill, and Thrapston hillforts, local tribes could have controlled traffic along 40km of the River Nene.

    The large amount of Iron Age pottery found at Crow Hill suggests that it was heavily occupied.

    There is no public access to Crow Hill.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Guilsborough Guilsborough

    ​Guilsborough is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort in the village of the same name. The site was originally rectangular and covered over six acres. Little is known about this site, but it is likely that iron extraction and smelting were undertaken at the hillfort.

    There is no public access to the remains of the hillfort.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Hunsbury Hill Hunsbury Hill

    Hunsbury Hill is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort on the summit of a large hill in Northampton. It was previously known as Danes Camp. The hillfort offered an excellent all-round lookout. Between the Hunsbury Hill, Crow Hill, and Thrapston hillforts, local tribes could have controlled traffic along 40km of the River Nene.

    Hunsbury Hill covered four acres and was the best defended of the three sites. It was originally formed of box ramparts (wooden defences shaped like boxes, filled with earth) and a deep surrounding ditch. Like Castle Yard, Hunsbury Hill was an important iron-smelting site, which may explain its heavy defences. Later, the wooden ramparts were destroyed by fire and replaced with simpler earth banks.

    Hunsbury Hill was abandoned not long before the Roman Invasion.

    Visitors can see the remaining hillfort defences in Hunsbury Hill Park, a public park. Iron Age finds from the site are also on display at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

    Image © Northamptonshire Archives Service

  • Old Tun Copse Old Tun Copse

    ​Old Tun Copse is the remains of a probable Iron Age hilltop site near Paulerspury. Pottery found at the site and its location suggest that it was important for long-distance communications. It probably functioned as a secondary observation point for the nearby Whittlebury hillfort.

    There are no visible remains and there is no public access to Old Tun Copse.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Rainsborough Camp Rainsborough Camp

    Rainsborough Camp is the remains of a hillfort near Aynho. It was probably built in the Bronze Age and was occupied through the Iron Age. The site’s main defences date from the 6th century BC. It was fortified further 100 years later, with two sets of ditches and stone ramparts (defensive banks) covering six and a half acres. However, in the 4th century BC, the hillfort was attacked and the defences were destroyed. The people fled and the hillfort lay deserted for 200 years.

    Visitors can see the remaining hillfort defences from Charlton Road.

    Image © Julian Dowse, licensed under a Creative Commons licence

  • Salcey Egg Rings Salcey Egg Rings

    ​Salcey Egg Rings is the remains of a probable hillfort enclosure in Salcey Forest near Hartwell. Little is known about the site, but it is likely that it was occupied in the mid/late Iron Age or the early Roman period.

    Visitors can see the remaining hillfort defences, covered in trees, in Salcey Forest.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Thenford Thenford

    ​Thenford Camp is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort, with possible Bronze Age origins, on a high plateau near Thenford. Its location makes it an excellent lookout with long-distance views in all directions. Originally, archaeologists believed it was a defended farm, but more recent research (and its size – covering four acres) suggests it was a hillfort.

    There is no public access to Thenford Camp.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Thrapston Thrapston

    ​Thrapston is the remains of a hillfort in the town of the same name. It was a Bronze Age enclosure that was fortified in the late Iron Age. The hillfort offered an excellent lookout over both sides of the river. Between the Thrapston, Hunsbury Hill, and Crow Hill hillforts, local tribes could have controlled traffic along 40km of the River Nene.

    There is no public access to the remains of the hillfort.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

  • Whittlebury Whittlebury

    ​Whittlebury is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort on a level plateau in the south of the county. Roundhouses and burnt grain found on the site indicate that people permanently lived in the hillfort and farmed nearby. It was also occupied during the Anglo-Saxon period, suggesting that it continued to be an important site.

    There are few visible remains of the hillfort defences. However, the best-preserved section can be seen in the raised earth bank around the east side of the churchyard.

    Image © Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project

​In addition to the hillforts listed above, there is a distinct group of Iron Age settlements in the northeast of the county. The ten hilltop sites form a rough line north of the River Nene. They are known as Wootton Hill-type enclosures, a style that is mainly defensive. Each site typically features a deep V-shaped ditch and covers less than one and a quarter acres. The defences all date from 25 BC to 50 AD, although most were built on earlier sites. These sudden defensive measures may have been a reaction to a new threat. Archaeologists believe that a tribal group called the Corieltauvi may have built the Wootton Hill-type enclosures to stop the advance of another tribe. Led by their high king Cassivellaunus, the invading Catuvellauni were probably attracted by the iron deposits of the area.

Hillforts---Wooton-Hill-typ.png 

 Graphic showing Catuvellauni advance © Gren Hatton
 

You can learn more about hillforts inthe leaflet published by the Community Landscape Archaeology Survey Project (CLASP).

 

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If your question is research-related, please contact the Northamptonshire Archives.