Hillforts: Prehistoric Strongholds of Northumberland National
Park, by Al Oswald, Stewart Ainsworth and Trevor Pearson
Part of the recent Discovering Our Hillfort Heritage project, this book discusses the prehistoric hilltop enclosures of the Northumberland National Park. Following the full and excellent survey of the monuments by the authors, for English Heritage, the book aims to present the results to an interested public. Beautifully illustrated, the book encourages the reader to get out into the hills and experience the landscapes and monuments for themselves. A well thought through structure, uses a long-term perspective to cover the history of archaeology, the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman Iron Age periods, and provides a brief discussion of later landscape features, before coming full-circle to issues of management and presentation.
The book is very well produced, with a good index and very few typographic errors. It is beautifully illustrated: from Tim Gates’ colour air photographs, to clear and informative maps, and some astoundingly good shots taken during survey, in perfect late afternoon light. There are excellent schematic, phased site plans, revealing features such as quarry hollows, linears, and arable agriculture. Particularly valuable is the separating out of Roman Iron Age and later features. My personal favourite is fig. 7.9 which is a super example of the survey, interpretation and presentation of a landscape. The pedant in me found it slightly annoying that Greaves Ash is misspelled throughout, that the Lordenshaws cairns are attributed to the post-Medieval period when this is very far from resolved, and that what is presumably a burnt mound at West Hill is labelled a Bronze Age sauna. Even more worrying for a roundhouse specialist, is the apparent appearance of walled circular architecture in the 6th millennium BC. One can only assume that this refers to Howick, yet even a quick look at the Howick groundplan shows that the structure is not circular and is certainly not walled. Currently, our earliest walled architecture in Northumberland is Middle Bronze Age, four thousand years later that fig. 1.1 suggests.
The watercolour reconstructions of the very talented Victor Ambrose bring a real sense of colour to the Iron Age. Unfortunately for the reviewer, as a prehistorian pre-disposed to notice gender politics, these illustrations are for me coloured in a very different way. The book’s illustrations tell us that Iron Age men were warriors, protectors, that it was they who built the hillforts and the houses, they were the head of the household, they managed the animals, drove the plough, and in the post-Jamie Oliver world, they even did a bit of cooking. Iron Age women, on the other hand, are to be generally found inside the house, or nervously hovering very close to the house, they mind the children and carry the babies, occasionally they carry a bucket of water or lead an ox. These illustrations are quite opposed to our current understanding of pre-Classical gender roles and attitudes, and instead perpetuate a fictitious assumption of male status, one that tells us more about Victorian political agendas than Iron Age gender. The reviewer is so tired of having this presented to her students as prehistory that she is prepared to make the reader an offer: a pint of the finest beer to any author or illustrator who, from this day on, can demonstrate that their work has helped to correct this appallingly androcentric tendency in later prehistoric studies.
In writing for the public, different chapters in the book achieve more than others. A method used throughout is to set up traditional beliefs about the Iron Age as straw men. Much of the time this works, but occasionally – when the technique is less skilfully employed, as in the introduction – serves to confuse and even to reinforce outdated narratives. The book opens with the Romans and the topic of Romanisation north and south of the wall, presenting a picture that actually reverses that known from the archaeology. For the Iron Age, we are shown Celtic warriors and the idea of hillforts as towns which, as an Iron Age specialist, sent shivers down my spine. In addition, the opening chapter does little to help the north/south divide, first with Northumbrian hillforts as ‘backward’ by southern standards, then those in southern England as ‘freaks’. Slightly overplaying what is admittedly excellent survival in the Cheviot uplands, the reader might be forgiven for believing that all hillforts south of the Tyne had been ploughed flat.
A further worry in the introduction is the emphasis on archaeologists as indecisive characters with a propensity to disagree; this is a favourite technique of Time Team, aiming to portray the process of interpretation. Whilst the reviewer understands that this is one way of giving ownership to the public, she worries that too much post-modernism – ‘make-up-your-own-minds-because-you-can’t-do-any-worse-than-the professionals’ – has wider repercussions regarding the public image of archaeology in general. Presenting archaeology to the public must be done skilfully, responsibly and with authority, or we may eventually find that we have managed to argue ourselves out of a discipline. These worries aside, what the introduction does do is to invite the reader out into the landscape and luckily, the rest of the book does compel them to do just that.
The quality of the introduction is not representative of the book as a whole, and the second chapter provides an excellent discussion of the historiography of the subject. Explaining the process and history of archaeology, the reader is given a solid grounding both in hillfort studies and the history of surveying, with interesting vignettes on the role of local characters such as the Duke of Northumberland, Henry MacLauchlan, George Tate, and George Jobey. Unfortunately there is no mention of Thomas Wake’s work at Witchy Neuk in the 1930s, and the 1940s achievements of Peggy Piggott, instead of being given the credit they deserve, are unjustifiably and inaccurately critiqued. The chapter sets a good trend, one continued throughout, for giving short lessons on topics such as geophysics, air photography, and environmental evidence.
In understanding hillforts as monuments, the book is extremely valuable, largely because of the high quality of the surveys on which it is based. It usefully synthesises the slim evidence for the date of their construction: 4th/3rd centuries BC, somewhat late, but in line with other changes, and draws attention to non-hilltop settlement forms. Unfortunately, Chapter 4 does little to advance our understanding of the role of hillforts. The book’s title itself reveals a general reluctance to move on from the Wheeler narrative of the 1930s. We find ‘danger’ beyond the gate: ‘attackers’ gaining toeholds in the drystone walling, ‘strangers’ approaching the ‘imposing entranceways’. The earthworks are reconstructed as defensive structures with parapets, complete with man and spear, the latter even considered for single-feature palisaded enclosures. Having discussed the defensive nature of hillforts for more than twenty pages, there is a brief and vastly over-simplified discussion of the critique, which is essentially set up as yet another straw man.
Chapter 4 rehearses the historical narrative of hillforts as defended villages, the strong refuges of chieftains plagued by tribal warfare. For the sake of clarity: hilltop enclosures were agricultural, landscape architectures built by and for the community; they were projects aimed at achieving social cohesion in the face of changing agricultural practice and social organisation, following a long-term downturn in climate; they were not chiefly military installations. We do get to the idea that the monuments were as much an architectural display of dominance as evidence for outright combat, stating that Iron Age weaponry is ‘not commonplace’. The chapter ends by replacing the idea of ‘tribal warfare’ with a sketch of one-to-one combat: an achievement in some senses, but one which continues the dominant twentieth century need in Britain to create an archaeology of violence, despite much archaeological evidence to the contrary. Perhaps beginning with the current critique – which is now almost twenty years old – might have achieved more here.
Chapter 5 is particularly problematic. Here it is assumed that all houses in hillforts are contemporary, portraying the sites as ‘densely packed’ defended villages. Hillforts were occupied for a number of generations and whilst most houses were certainly occupied for much less than 50 years, if only used seasonally this figure drops dramatically. It is the lack of discussion regarding the temporality of settlement and the seasonal use of these sites that worries me most.
I must also quickly bust some of the myths that it rehearses about prehistoric houses: these have only rarely been referred to as ‘huts’ since the 1970s; the central post as a support mechanism was an idea current in the 1960s, it actually stabilises the apex during construction and only 3% of houses use it; a 15 m diameter house is very rare, the average is 8 m, less in the uplands; eaves do not extend for 2 m; wattle-and-daub walling and plank walls are by no means common in northern Britain; vertical oak posts do not resist rot for centuries; this is only achieved with the invention of the sill-beam, so the lifespan of prehistoric houses cannot be compared to those of the Medieval period. These matters aside, there is a good assessment of everyday life, particularly regarding diet, and it also provides a good discussion of thatching materials.
Despite the authors beginning by telling us that they would present archaeology’s ‘latest conclusions’, the book is often found rehearsing arguments straight out of Cunliffe’s Iron Age Communities. A particularly weak discussion of Iron Age ritual and burial in Chapter 5 makes anachronistic allusions to gods, religion, and an afterlife, in which artefact deposition is linked to the spirit world. More up-to-date is the 1990s discussion of roundhouse orientation and domestic space, but even this has now been thoroughly critiqued and discarded (Pope 2007; Webley 2007). Particularly difficult to stomach was the discussion of Yeavering Bell at the end of Chapter 6. The site was given an estimated population of 1000 people, the two largest houses were those of the elite (king and queen or warriors/druids); also this hierarchical community of craft/religious specialists was reliant on the labour of those in the undefended settlements below for food.
The book’s real strength is in its discussion of landscapes. Chapter 3 provides a good explanation of Bronze Age burial and agriculture, the origins of hilltop enclosures and upland abandonment, with good examples of associations between hilltop enclosures and earlier features. There is an outdated understanding of Bronze Age climate, but this merely reflects a problem in the field more generally. Chapter 6 considers the role of hilltop enclosures in farming, thinking both about transhumance and associated arable. It successfully turns the idea of hillfort territories into a discussion of prehistoric boundary features such as cross-ridge dykes. I was particularly pleased to see a discussion on the role of woodland management practices regarding timber resources and their timing within the agricultural cycle. Perhaps slightly more could have been made of the idea of the social landscape; however having already endured Chapters 4-5, I was much taken with the statement that “cooperation would be more productive than competition”. Chapter 7 provides an excellent discussion of the busy Roman Iron Age reoccupation of hilltop enclosures, and associated agricultural practice. It provides original work on the topic, muses on the reasons behind the abandonment of hillforts, noting that social change is pre-Roman and involved in private ownership. This chapter, in particular, is a strong contribution to the field.
This book was somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for me but, on the whole, I did enjoy it. As a Northumbrian and as an excavator of these landscapes, it really did manage to capture the essence of the Cheviots that I know and love, from the awe-inspiring landscapes to the mysterious qualities of the turf. The authors successfully characterise what is a rich archaeological heritage, the book is visually engaging and brings a long-term, landscape perspective to the region. I did cringe at a number of places on more general Iron Age sections and worry that, instead of quashing many of the more widely-held myths about the period, in many cases the book actually serves to perpetuate them. Nevertheless, this work is preferable to other recent publications on the prehistory of Northumberland and, whilst there are still some problems, I leave this book with a feeling that the gap between regional and national-level archaeology is beginning to narrow.
Review Submitted: May 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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