Hill Fort Islands

Back when I lived in Devon there was a hill fort – Hembury Fort – only a mile or two from where I lived. I used to visit it quite often, and wondered how and why forts like it were built. They’re found all over Britain.

Over the past year that I’ve been thinking about ice ages, I’ve begun to wonder if these hill forts may have started out as islands in a sea of ice. For at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago, as the ice subsided the highest points on the underlying terrain would have emerged to become gradually enlarging islands. So Maiden Castle in Dorset, England, might once have looked like the image at right sometime back then, surrounded by a sea of ice.

My initial thought was that when humans arrived on these islands , they built defensive ramparts around them, because they were valuable property, much like oceanic islands now are. And as the ice subsided around them, they’d build successive layers of defensive ramparts at lower levels.

But there might have been another explanation for these ramparts. And it is that while the ice was for the most part gradually subsiding, it was quite often getting deeper as well.  The ice sheets rose and fell from year to year. After a heavy snowfall, the ice might have risen by several tens of metres, and the ramparts were built to hold back this encroaching ice. The human occupants were not defending themselves from other humans: they were building coffer dams to hold back the surrounding ice. And as the ice overwhelmed the lowest ramparts, the humans would retreat behind the next ramparts higher up. If the ice rose too high, they might even have been driven from the islands. Or else, if the ice continued to subside around the islands, it became unnecessary to keep building ramparts further and further down.

In Britain these hill forts would have first emerged through the ice in Scotland, and then in Wales, and then northern England, and finally in the lowlands in the south of England. Seen this way, the Scottish are a distinct island people, and so are the Welsh. They lived on an archipelago of islands much like those now found off the coast of Scotland.

But when did the ice finally depart from what are now the British Isles? And when did the ice first start melting? If the hill forts were once islands in a sea of ice, that would suggest that they are over 10,000 years old. It would only have been once the ice had completely vanished that these islands in the ice sheets would have become the “hill forts” into which Britons retreated during the Roman conquest of Britain

But carbon dating of most of them seem to suggest that they are Iron Age constructions only about 3,000 years old. Although there seem to be some problems with carbon dating around this time: e.g. the Hallstatt plateau. Is it possible to find dates of earth and stones in which no carbon is present?

Roobeedoo has turned up an interesting video of Alex Jones smoking. But what sort of cigarette is it that you take a few puffs on before handing to someone else?

About Frank Davis

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5 Responses to Hill Fort Islands

  1. Great idea to consider, but, how would they feed themselves, and would earth ramparts be able to hold back ice/ melt water? Perhaps they were a lot bigger on a seasonal basis, and used for a winter refuge? I read your blog as I enjoy your ideas, thank you Sir.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I hadn’t begun to think about how they would feed themselves. All I’d thought was that, at the end of the last ice age, when the ice was melting (at the base of the ice sheets, according to my models), the ice sheets would have gradually subsided, and islands would have begun to appear in it, just like islands in a subsiding sea of water. I would imagine that initially they would not have been habitable, but would have gradually become covered in hardy grasses and bushes. Human visitors would have arrived on dog sleds over the surface of the ice, and the islands may have have just been stopovers en route from one place to another.(e.g. the ice-free ocean teeming with life) And the islands may have been seasonal, vanishing under snow and ice in winter, re-appearing in summer. And the ramparts would have been to hold back ice rather than water, because I think that the ice sheets would have been mostly frozen on their surfaces, with most of the melting taking place far below the surface.

  2. Rose says:

    There are so many huge gaps in our knowledge, anything is possible and we can really only guess. Here’s one that intrigues me though I have never been there.

    The secrets of Paviland Cave

    “At Oxford I also talk to Tom Higham, deputy director of the university’s radiocarbon accelerator unit, which redated the Red Lady to 34,000 years ago. “We found that instead of sitting where he had been before, in a cold period, it was actually in a much warmer interstadial [a relatively warm period within the ice age]. We think that’s why people were there. The pattern is emerging of people not really coming to the British isles unless it was warmer. You can imagine it being a peninsula [Britain was joined to the continent at that point] into which people didn’t go unless conditions were right.”

    “Then, with global temperatures colder and sea levels lower, the estuary was miles back from the cave, and the plain teemed with the animals on which the small hunter-gatherer groups depended. They tracked herds of deer across hundreds of miles, and Paviland is likely to have been a stopping-off point on their annual round.”

    “Excavators who came after Buckland found thousands of flints on the floor of the cave, suggesting it was in regular use, even though a few thousand years after the Red Lady was buried temperatures fell further, the ice advanced and Britain was abandoned by early man, leaving the cave’s occupant to lie alone for thousands of years.”

    Yellow Top, Paviland Camp

    “Promontory fort in West Glamorgan. This defended enclosure sits on the top of the 60m high cliffs covering Paviland Cave of ‘Red Lady’ fame.

    RCAHMW describes the fort as follows:
    “A defended enclosure set upon spectacularly sheer cliffs 60m high, which conceal the Paviland Caves (Nprn’s300251, 300252). A central area,c.40m by 44m, shows traces of settlement, whilst to landward are two lines of banks and ditches, c.32m appart, the inner line having a causewayed entrance.”

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