Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 25: Hilltop settlements in their landscape-topographical context

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Hilltop settlements in their landscape-topographical context.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Friday 12 April 2024

25.  Hilltop settlements in their landscape-topographical context: Diachronic development of the settlement landscape of the Long Late Antiquity (3rd – 9th century AD)

Annina Wyss Schildknecht – Universität Bern
Andy Seaman – Cardiff University
Marcus Zagermann – Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften

The Long Late Antiquity, i.e. the end of the imperium romanum and the emergence of new forms of rule in the Middle Ages (ca. 300–800 AD), is characterised by profound transformation processes. An important aspect are the numerous hilltop settlements, which were regularly (re)settled in the 3rd/4th century and subsequently became the most important feature of the settlement landscape and dominated it in the following centuries. These sites are encountered across much of Europe, and investigating not only the hilltop settlements themselves but also their surrounding landscape and its diachronic development is key to understanding processes of transformation. Therefore vision, visibility, accessibility, control of the surrounding territory, position/dominance in the landscape and the interdependence with other settlements over time are important aspects for understanding this settlement type and the landscape as a whole. This session seeks to bring together new research on hilltop sites including diachronic landscape analyses in the Long Late Antiquity.

Session schedule 

Friday 12 April (AM)              Room 7 - C3.15 (Level 3)
09:35Frontier Interactions; Hilltop Communities and Ethnogenesis in northern Britain c.300-600 AD (Gordon Noble & James O’Driscoll)
10:00Les Refuges Romains: Visibility and positioning of Late Antique Höhensiedlungen in Wallonia (James Dodd)
10:25Defences in transition? Fortified hilltop settlements in the Dioecesis Daciae (Samira Fischer)
10:50                                               BREAK
11:20Strange places to settle: Late Antique settlements in unusual locations (Vesna Tratnik & Nejc Dolinar)
11:45Hilltop settlements on the border of Pannonia and Dalmatia (Ivana Ožanić Roguljić & Hrvoje Kalafatić)
12:10A Sense of Place (and Space)? A spatio-sociological analysis of the Alpine Rhine Valley in the Long Late Antiquity (3rd – 8th century) (Annina Wyss Schildknecht)
12:35Hill-Top Settlements and their Landscape Contexts in Late Antique Western Britain (Andy Seaman)


 Frontier Interactions; Hilltop Communities and Ethnogenesis in northern Britain c.300-600 AD 
Gordon Noble – University of Aberdeen        
James O’Driscoll – University of Aberdeen

Across Europe an important aspect of the social and political changes of Late Antiquity was transformations of the settlement pattern with hilltop settlements becoming a major feature of the settlement hierarchy in many regions. In northern Britain Late Antiquity has been seen as a period of social and settlement collapse mirroring collapse models that have been an important (if debated) interpretation of social change of the Roman to early medieval period in southern Britain. Settlement in northern Britain from around the 3 rd century onwards becomes much harder to identify and hilltop settlement was largely unknown from the Roman Iron Age with a second generation of hillforts thought to be largely a phenomenon of the 6 th-7th century or later. Work over the last ten years has begun to revolutionise our knowledge of late Antique settlement in northern Britain identifying ephemeral architectural traces in previously undocumented contexts, and begun to reveal hitherto unknown hilltop settlements of both the late Roman period and examples from the 5th century onwards. These developments can cast new light on the collapse/centralisation models of this time period and region. Moreover, considering the timings, tempos and landscape context of these newly identified sites can begin to contextualise Roman:Iron Age relations and post-Roman trajectories in new ways. 

 Les Refuges Romains: Visibility and positioning of Late Antique Höhensiedlungen in Wallonia 
James Dodd – Université Catholique de Louvain 

The hilltop sites of Southern Belgium form an important belt of defended installations between the late 3rd and c.mid 5th centuries. These sites were not occupied simultaneously and there is significant morphological variation between different installations: some, such as Château-Renaud, demonstrate well-constructed stone walls and ‘militarising’ architecture whilst others appear to be short-term constructions. Despite decades of work into these Höhensiedlungen, there has been little appreciation of the siting and visibility in the landscape. Building on the initial syntheses of Raymond Brulet (1990; 2008), this paper addresses the visibility profiles and siting decisions of these hilltop sites, beginning with a total visibility model. It will demonstrate a height methodology for assessing binary visibility within the landscape over time. Finally, it will examine intervisibility between these installations and make an assessment on the integration of these sites with each other, and the larger Late Roman defensive milieu. 

 Defences in transition? Fortified hilltop settlements in the Dioecesis Daciae 
Samira Fischer – Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

In the 6th century, a change in the settlement pattern can be observed in the late Roman administrative unit Dioecesis Daciae (Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Northern Macedonia). Newly founded settlements are now located in the mountains (up to 1800 m). These new fortified hilltop settlements are attributed to the building activity of Emperor Justinian I. The complexes are characterised by enclosing walls, defence towers and ramparts, and at least one church in the most prominent place within the defensive area. The change in the settlement pattern and the “retreat” to the mountains is generally attributed to the so-called barbarian invasions - Avars and Slavs - in the 6th century. A closer look reveals that some fortifications existed as early as the 4th century and were expanded in the 6th century, while other fortifications appear to have existed only in the 6th century. Who initiated the construction of the complexes? Were they part of a supra-regional defence line or fortified villages of the local population? This paper deals with the transformation of the settlement landscape in the hinterland of the Danube Limes from the 4th to the early 7th century. 

 Strange places to settle: Late Antique settlements in unusual locations 
Vesna Tratnik – Narodni Muzej Slovenije        
Nejc Dolinar – Zavod za varstvo kulturne dediščine

Slovenia is a land of passage between Pannonian Plain and Italy that witnessed radical changes in the settlement pattern from the late 4th to the early 6th century AD. Life in the lowland cities and villages gradually came to an end and the inhabitants retreated either westwards toward Italy or to fortified settlements in remote and elevated locations, primarily on hilltops. The study of hilltop settlements often emphasises their location on naturally protected hilltops and mountains that enabled control over the communications in the lowland. The location of some Late Antique settlements, however, deviates from this interpretation. Two such examples are the settlements on Zidani Gaber and Gradec pri Strmici, from which it is not possible to monitor the surrounding area and communications. They are small fortified settlements with visible remains of stone-built architecture that include houses, a water cistern and an Early Christian church, which were inhabited only in the Late Antiquity. By comparing the layout and location of the settlements, and implementing the visibility and accessibility studies, we aim to verify the relationship between the different function of the settlement and its location in the landscape and thereby to complement our understanding of the settlement patterns in Late Antiquity. 

 Hilltop settlements on the border of Pannonia and Dalmatia
Ivana Ožanić Roguljić – Institut za arheologiju        
Hrvoje Kalafatić – Institut za arheologiju
The development of any Roman city is conditioned, among other things, by a good connection with natural sources of raw materials. Siscia, which is located in Pannonia (today Croatia), obtained its raw materials (iron) from the area of the inner Roman province of Dalmatia (today Bosnia and Herzegovina). The border line between the Dalmatia and Pannonia in this region is approximately parallel to the river Sava, across the estuary of the river Sana into the river Una. But drawing the exact line between the two provinces on a microscale is always the cause of much debate. On this occasion, we present a case study along the mountain Zrinska Gora, which is flanked by hilltop settlements. The excavations of one of those sites (Osječenica) yielded a large amount of pottery material, some bronze and iron objects dating from the 1st to the 4th century (with the accent on 4th CE). The stone ara found in the 19th CE on the site indicates that the site was a border. In this paper, we will examine the region using diachronic landscape analyses. 

 A Sense of Place (and Space)? A spatio-sociological analysis of the Alpine Rhine Valley in the Long Late Antiquity (3rd – 8th century)  
Annina Wyss Schildknecht – Universität Bern

The Alpine Rhine Valley, with its numerous archaeological sites from the 3rd to 8th centuries, offers a comprehensive source base for an analysis of the diachronic development of an archaeological landscape. The archaeological landscape reveals far-reaching changes that allow conclusions to be drawn about the actions, reactions and organisation of the people. From the 4th century onwards, estate complexes/villae were abandoned and urban centres were considerably reduced. The hilltop settlements, which were now used more intensively, can be identified as a local form of settlement anchored in the communal memory of the population due to their continuous use. The shift to inhumation burials and away from the designated burial grounds of the 3rd/4th century to very diverse burial sites in the following centuries as well as the emergence of the first stonebuilt churches in the (5th)6th century are evidence of a changing society towards smaller organisational units. Subsequently, new "centres of power" and prosperous social units developed. These may or may not have an archaeologically verifiable connection to the now growing Christianity.

 Hill-Top Settlements and their Landscape Contexts in Late Antique Western Britain
Andy Seaman, Cardiff University

In this presentation I will explore the landscape (and seascape) context of several Late Antique hill-top settlements in western Britain. Whilst several Late Antique hill-top settlements have been excavated and are comparatively well dated, there have been comparatively few studies of their landscape contexts. Through a series of micro case studies, including Tintagel, Dinas Powys, Glastonbury Tor, and Chun Castle, I will explore themes of core and periphery, liminality, visibility, and control. In western Britain these sites are generally interpreted as ‘elite residences’, but I aim to demonstrate that exploration of landscape context allows us to develop more nuanced interpretations.