Hill Fort Rock Avalanches

Very hot day. I’ve spent much of it dozing. I didn’t even manage to go and grab a drink outside some pub.

And I got thinking about hill forts again. There’s a very big one not far from where I live, in the Malvern Hills, called British Camp. By some accounts, it’s where Caractacus made his last stand against the Romans in 51 AD.


british_campThe series of ramparts would clearly seem to be defensive in nature, with defenders retreating uphill from one line to the next as the lowest ones were overrun. But I also thought today that they might also have served to collect rainwater, if there was no natural spring.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that the defenders wouldn’t have just waited for attackers to climb the slopes to the ramparts, but would have rolled rocks down the lower slopes (just above the road in the photo) onto them as they advanced up the slopes.

They would have only been able to do this on hills that were steep enough to ensure that stones rolled down them gathered speed, rather than came to a stop.

They would have had to make sure that the lower slopes were free from obstructions to such rocks. They would have had to clear away all boulders, hillocks, trees, bushes, etc, to ensure that stones rolled down the slopes weren’t stopped or deflected.

It would also have meant that they would have wanted to ensure that the rocks stayed near the ground, and didn’t bounce off the ground over the heads of the advancing attackers, by ensuring that they were as round as possible.

And probably these rounded stones – pebbles of a kind that can be found on many beaches – could be quite small. With lots of small stones, they could be much more certain of hitting attackers than with a few large stones. And assuming that the stones rolled down the slopes gathered speed, and their kinetic energy, ½.m.v², was what determined their impact, they’d have used small stones when the attackers were at the bottom of the slopes, and larger ones as the attackers advanced up the slope, keeping the very largest for when they were near the top.

This would have meant that they would have had to keep huge piles of stones up on the ramparts, and lots of baskets to carry them to the ramparts and empty them down the slopes. Both women and children could have assisted in emptying baskets of stones down the slopes.

The defenders would have probably had plenty of practice trying to hit targets at the bottom of the hill. They probably held regular competitions in peacetime.

They might also have had circular millstones with wooden axles through their centres, which they would spin up on cradles before releasing them. These ‘secret weapons’ would have much greater kinetic energy, and greater range. They might also have been able to be more accurately aimed.

All in all, it was probably next to impossible to capture these hill forts by advancing up their slopes. You’d be facing something like a continuous avalanche of stones rolling and bouncing down the slope at every step, with the stones getting bigger the further up them you got.

ballistaThe Romans probably stayed out of range of these avalanches of stones, and used their ballista to fire stones and flaming arrows up at the thatched cottages at the top of the ramparts. A Roman ballista had a range of about 500 m, and since the top of British Camp is 100 m above the lake at its foot, the Roman engineers could probably usually manage to find a spot where the entire fort was in range of their ballista, but out of range of the defender’s rocks. And once they’d reduced one hill fort, they’d collect up the stones and arrows they’d used, and re-use them on the next hill fort.


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22 Responses to Hill Fort Rock Avalanches

  1. Harleyrider1978 says:

    Best defense was archers from hilltops and the English longbow was the best in the world for distance and accuracy!

    Although sir William Wallace made a mess out of that hill fort he hit it alone and snuck in.

    Probably the best example of hill fort history just from that one movie braveheart!

    • Frank Davis says:

      I don’t know whether they had longbows in 50 AD. They were made famous circa 1400 in the wars in France.

    • I learned something a week or two ago. I’d assumed for quite a while that those “funny looking” bows, aka “composite bows” with all the doodads and pulleys etc, were just a creation of the Dungeons ‘n Dragons type folks, and outside of perhaps some obscure genre of archery, really had no advantage at all over regular bows.

      What I learned was that all those doodads and pulleys evidently combine to make for a VERY powerful bow — one comparable to or, perhaps, even better than, the English longbow. Anyone else here ever looked into it?


      • Frank Davis says:

        Yes, the composite bows were made of a combination of wood and animal bone/sinew which could resist higher tension/compression than any wood.

      • garyk30 says:

        All of those pulleys and such make it a ‘compound’ bow.
        Just as pulleys increase the amount of work that can be done by a given force, that principle applies to making a bow easier to draw back.

        • garyk30 says:

          In fact, most modern archers use a compound(compounding) bow for hunting or target work.
          The traditional bow is rarely used.

          In the Olympics this Summer you will see bows with pulleys, counter weights, and other assorted gadgetry.

          These days, archers seldom pull the string back with their fingers, they use fancy release mechanisms.
          Sort of like a spring clothes pin.

  2. harleyrider1978 says:
  3. Rose says:

    And the ancient memory of all those boulders cascading down the sides of hill forts lives on in the otherwise senseless practice of cheeserolling.

  4. mikef317 says:

    Off topic. An interesting piece on the pseudo-scientific war on sugar. There’s also a link to a previous article about salt. Nothing, however, on the equally bogus “science” on tobacco.


    • Rose says:

      A very good article and nice to read some common sense for a change.
      Overdoing the sun scare a few years ago, using advice suited to Australia combined with poor dietary advice on fats, gave British kids rickets for which the Healthists are entirely responsible.

  5. garyk30 says:

    How fascinating it must be to live close to a historical site that is 2,000 years old.

    We European Americans have no such pleasures.

    Perhaps that is why most of us have such a lousy sense of history.

    • Rose says:

      Gary, if you drink the water and grew from the produce that grows on the land where you were born you are part of the land whether you know it or not and that land is ancient. People lived there long before you, perhaps you might find traces of them if you look in the right places.

      I don’t know where you live, but even I know of historical places in America.

      “Stone pipes have been in use on the North American continent since around 1,500 B.C. and archaeological evidence suggests that the pipestone quarries of Pipestone National Monument have been in use for 3,000 years.”

      • garyk30 says:

        Very true Rose!
        As a matter of fact, with each breath we probably take in a molecule or more of air that was once breathed by a dinosaur.

        But, that is all rather obscure.

        I now live just West of Chicago; but, oddly enough I was born and raised a few miles South of the Pipestone Nat’l Monument in Minnesota.
        But, the people of Pipestone were not my ancestors.

        I was thinking more of common ancestral history.

        By the time Lief Erickson stepped foot on North America, Stonehenge was thousands of years old.

        It is possible that one of your ancestors helped build that magnificent edifice.

        I have no possibility of such a tie to Pipestone and it’s history.

        • Rose says:

          I do take your point, but we do the best we can. Anyway, it’s very possible that one of your ancestors helped build Stonehenge, come and visit it while it’s cheap. : )

        • harleyrider1978 says:

          My great great great uncle was JOHN BULL BRIGHT who supposedly got the Corn Laws repealed in the 1830s. Then supposedly my other great uncle john bright discovered brights disease aka kidney disease. At least that’s what came down thru my great grandfather on moms side of the family thru her dad.

  6. ” great uncle john bright discovered *brights disease aka kidney disease*. At least that’s what came down thru my great grandfather on moms side ”

    a somewhat unfortunate choice of phrase there I feel :P

  7. garyk30 says:

    A random thought.
    “Among the common phrases of the past that we seldom hear today is “None of your business.” Apparently everything is other people’s business these days, including the media’s business and the government’s business.”
    Thomas Sowell

  8. smokingscot says:


    I note that Mr. Erdogan has academics in his sights:

    “Turkey’s higher education council has also banned academics from work trips abroad and urged those overseas to quickly return home, the state-run Anadolu news agency has reported.

    Yesterday, the government suspended 15,200 state education employees and demanded the resignation of almost 1,600 deans from private and state universities over alleged links to Mr Gulen.”


    On this one he’s done good!

    Hopefully those next on his list will be fake charities and NGO’s.

  9. prog says:

    Bit late to the show and slightly off topic but this is good book.


    It’s estimated that a half decent wooden fort with ramparts etc needed millions of man hours to build. They even had a place in Wales where the engineers trained.

    I live about a mile from the site of one. Nothing visible on the surface but cropmarks suggest that there is a modern 13 acre field inside its boundary.

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