The Iron Age (c.750 BC to AD 50) saw a rise in enclosed and strongly defended settlements, which suggests that their inhabitants feared being attacked. Some were begun earlier in the later Bronze Age (c.900 BC), like The Breiddin, Montgomeryshire and others along the Welsh borderlands. The climatic deterioration in the Late Bronze Age, when increased rainfall and cooler climates would have made it harder for the relatively large population to feed itself, would have led to a sense of uneasiness manifested in fortifications. However, most hillforts were probably built in the final three centuries BC, constructed as the productivity of the land increased again and particularly powerful leaders consolidated their territory.
Many of these defended enclosures were built on hilltops. Across Wales it is possible to see and visit a number of the approximately 1000 known hillforts or promontory forts. They are the most distinctive and impressive settlements of the period. They were usually constructed in strong, naturally defensible positions, with the earliest ones tending to be constructed with a single (univallate) line of defence, such as a palisade or stout fence. This was developed in later periods into multiple (multivallate) lines of defences and outworks, consisting of banks and ditches, often revetted and topped with stone walls. Additional protection outside the ramparts was provided by a chevaux de frise, a curtain of upright stones designed to foil a charge by mounted soldiers. Fine examples of these extraordinary defences can be seen at Carn Alw and Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire.
During the Iron Age most people lived in roundhouses built of stone or wood, which had a central fireplace and often a porch. These thatched roundhouses would have been inside the hillforts together with rectangular structures which may have been raised above the ground on posts to store grain and other agricultural produce. It is also likely that there were smithies and special areas devoted to communal ceremonies and festivities. Aerial photographs, ground surveys and excavations by archaeologists have revealed clues, like post holes, which helps us to reconstruct a plan of these hillforts. They help us to imagine how they would have looked over c.2000 years ago.
The reconstructed roundhouses at Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire, built on their original foundations within the Iron Age hillfort, give a clear idea of how these structures would have looked.
Though overshadowed by major hillforts, most people during this period lived in enclosed, but not strongly defended, farmsteads with cattle corrals, linked by field systems and trackways. Because of their predominantly lowland location, most of these settlements have been destroyed by later activity, such as ploughing, but many have been found as crop or soil marks during the Royal Commission’s aerial survey programme.
The Iron Age is famously the time of the ‘Celtic warrior’, an archetypal figure of British prehistory. Much is recorded in writing by the Romans, who described the inhabitants of Wales as ‘war-mad and quick to battle’, usually fighting naked and daubed with blue woad and covered in tattoos. However, the Romans were skilled in political propaganda and may not have wished to describe the natives in a favourable light. Battles and skirmishes were a part of life in the Iron Age, but we should not imagine these people constantly at war. Increasingly impressive entrance defences and the gateways of even smaller hillforts, which included gate towers and entrance passages, served as powerful deterrents to would-be attackers, but also as statements of power and status to rivals.
A notion persists that the Romans brought a ‘civilising influence’ to the wild natives of Iron Age Wales. In fact we know that the Iron Age landscape, and even that of the preceding Neolithic and Bronze Ages, was probably well cleared and farmed, demarcated into territories belonging to particular chiefdoms. The houses too were impressive structures, as the authentic reconstructions at Castell Henllys, Pembrokeshire, demonstrate. Rather than being flimsy and poorly built, these strong and complicated structures have survived hurricane-force winds unscathed while modern houses have been damaged.
You can use Coflein to search for images and information about your local hillfort, promontory fort or cropmark enclosures. Aerial photographs help us to be able to see these sites, and a visit to remains of them, often only banks and ditches, will allow you to appreciate the location and defences of the hillfort.
The book Bryngaer Pendinas Hillfort: A Prehistoric Fortress at Aberystwyth is available from our bookshop
For further information and lesson activities about the Celts visit the websites links given below.