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Prehistory - Defence & Technology

Click to a larger version of Avebury Museum, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Avebury Museum, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Using this basic ‘tool kit’ of antler pick or lever, ox shoulder blade shovel and a shallow wickerwork basket or scoop, Neolithic people were able to sculpt the deep ditches and broad banks of their settlements and ceremonial monuments. With digging sticks, flint and stone headed tools, wooden sheer legs, levers and scaffolding, and cords and ropes of leather and plants such as nettles and honeysuckle, they could build and farm, model their landscapes on a large scale and have a dramatic impact on their environment.

Click to a larger version of Grimes Graves Flint Mines, Norfolk (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Grimes Graves Flint Mines, Norfolk (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Capable of being knapped, flaked and retouched to a razor-sharp edge, good quality flint was vital to Neolithic life for tools from small ‘thumbnail’ scrapers through to large axe-heads. Exploited in places on an industrial scale, flint was transported, traded and gift-exchanged throughout the British Isles and beyond. At Grimes Graves, tight horizontal tunnels following the bands of jet-black flint ‘floorstone’ radiate out from vertical shafts sunk over 9m (30ft) into the chalk. Flint nodules and red-deer antler picks lie where they were left in the 3rd millennium BC.

Click to a larger version of Mynydd Rhiw Axe Factory, Gwynedd (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Mynydd Rhiw Axe Factory, Gwynedd (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Special shales were quarried on Mynydd Rhiw in the 4th and 3rd millenniums BC. Four pits were dug through glacial drift on the north end of the hill to reach a narrow band of fine-grained, baked shale suitable for making tree-felling axes. Dug in succession to a depth of around 9m (30ft), each was back-filled with up-cast from the next. The slight hollows, cut by a track and masked by bell heather, provide handy sun-beds for basking adders. Poorer quality axe-sized lumps were also extracted from churned up glacial deposits elsewhere on the hill. This view looking NE up the Lleyn peninsula shows Garn Fadryn and other peaks topped by Iron Age hillforts.

Click to a larger version of Fyfield Down, Wiltshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Fyfield Down, Wiltshire: photo © Mick Sharp

This sarsen stone with sharpening grooves and polishing hollow served as a Neolithic work bench. By the 4th millennium BC several sources of fine-grained rocks in Britain and Northern Ireland were being worked in an organised way, the best known axe factories being at Great Langdale in the Lake District and Graig Lwyd in North Wales. Their products were distributed widely, and others brought into the British Isles including at least 100 jade and greenstone axes from the Jura and the Alps. Objects of beauty and wonder, some axes and maces were obviously powerful and treasured possessions put to ceremonial, ritual, magical and funerary uses, but others were working tools and had to be kept honed. As well as harvesting mature trees, wood was managed by coppicing which provided the thin straight growth needed for wattle and hurdles, and timber of different ages and shapes for such things as the wooden trackways built across the Somerset Levels where prehistoric timbers, shaped and pointed by stone axes, have been found in the sodden peat.

Click to a larger version of Parys Mountain, Isle of Anglesey: photo © Jean Williamson

Parys Mountain, Isle of Anglesey: photo © Jean Williamson

Briefly, in the 1780s AD, Parys Mountain was the world’s largest supplier of copper. In the second millennium BC, Bronze Age miners were also at work here amongst the mineralised shales containing copper and other useful ores. Their pebble hammers, stone mauls and anvils have been found in the waste tips along with charcoal from the fires they set to help break up the colourful rocks.

Click to a larger version of The Ridgeway and Uffington Castle, Oxfordshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

The Ridgeway and Uffington Castle, Oxfordshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

The designated 85-mile Ridgeway path is part of a longer route from Wiltshire to Norfolk called the Icknield Way. Believed to be of very ancient origin, it was certainly in use by the Iron Age. Objects could have been moved great distances by passing them hand to hand from the borders of small territories, but some people at least were travelling long distances using tracks along ridges and at the base of hills, and navigating rivers, coastal waters and the open sea. The ramparts of Uffington Castle hillfort date to the 6th century BC at the end of the Bronze Age when defence took on a more overt importance. Some like to imagine the Neolithic, and to a lesser extent the Bronze Age, as a peaceful time, but large defensive enclosures were built well before the Iron Age and people were killed by flint arrowheads and bronze swords.

Click to a larger version of Cademuir Hillfort, Borders: photo © Mick Sharp

Cademuir Hillfort, Borders: photo © Mick Sharp

This fort on the SW spur of Cademuir Hill, overlooking the Manor Valley, was in use from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. As well as having stone ramparts, it was defended on the east by lines of jagged boulders in a dip hidden from attackers. Known as a cheval- or chevaux-de-frise after the ‘horse of Friesland’, a long beam with crossed iron-tipped spikes used to break up cavalry charges, it certainly makes an approach at speed impossible, whether mounted or on foot.

Click to a larger version of Tre’r Ceiri Hillfort, Gwynedd: photo © Jean Williamson

Tre’r Ceiri Hillfort, Gwynedd: photo © Jean Williamson

The ‘Town of the Giants’, beautifully sited at the top of the Lleyn peninsula, is one of the most remarkable stone hillforts in Britain. Looking NE from the adjacent summit of Yr Eifl, the view takes in Caernarfon Bay and the peaks of Snowdonia. Drystone ramparts enclose 5 acres (2ha) containing something like 500 stone huts. Of several phases, work started in the late 1st millennium BC, its main, NW entrance (above the near end of the outwork wall) was being modified in the 2nd century AD and huts were still in use into the following century. It is most unusual to find evidence for the refurbishment of a native British hillfort during the Roman occupation.

Click to a larger version of Dun Borranish, Isle of Lewis: photo © Jean Williamson

Dun Borranish, Isle of Lewis: photo © Jean Williamson

As the Lòn Erista river sends its freshwater across Uig Sands to the sea, its winding channel curves around the base of a rocky knoll which provides a wonderful vantage point for salmon watching. On top of the outcrop are the remains of a small Iron Age dun or stone-walled fort. There was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, but the famous Viking-age Lewis chessmen were discovered in the dunes off to the right.

Click to a larger version of Dun Telve Broch, Glenelg, Highland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Dun Telve Broch, Glenelg, Highland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Duns come in a variety of shapes and sizes - circular, oval, D-shaped, pear-shaped or a straight line of walling - often moulded to fit the naturally defensive locations on which they were built: outcrops and raised ground inland, beside rivers, lochs and the sea, on cliff-tops, promontories and islands. Simple duns have a single solid stone wall 3-6m thick and up to 3m (10ft) high. Galleried duns or ‘semibrochs’ have a double-skinned wall with tunnel entrance, and galleries, cells and stairs within the wall. When these features were used to build a free-standing circular tower, like the two magnificent examples in Glen Beag near Glenelg, it is known as a broch.

Click to a larger version of Dun Troddan Broch, Glenelg, Highland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Dun Troddan Broch, Glenelg, Highland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Parts of this broch survive to over 7.6m (25ft) high with the stairs and gallery floor slabs still intact inside its drystone wall. The gallery and step stones serve to hold the inner and outer wall skins together, much as metal ties do in a modern cavity wall. Brochs seem to have been as much about status as defence, and may even have served some ritual functions. They could provide refuge from a sudden raid but were vulnerable to a determined attack or siege.

Click to a larger version of Ingleborough Hillfort, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Ingleborough Hillfort, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

At 723m (2370ft) OD, Ingleborough is England’s highest hillfort. A single wall up to 4m thick, made of millstone grit blocks lined on the inside with upright slabs, combines with outcrops to defend 6 hectares (15 acres) of the summit. It was a major stronghold and sacred mountain of the Setanii, part of the Iron Age tribal grouping known as the Brigantes who worshipped the goddess Brigantia or ‘High One’. There are traces of many round huts on the grassy plateau, but it is not certain whether the fort was occupied continuously or used seasonally for ceremonial or other purposes. Ingleborough Hill may be the Rigodunum or Royal Stronghold recorded by the Romans and one of the last defended places in England to fall to their legions.

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